If sustainability is at the heart of our lives, we will all benefit

The UAE has made great strides in protecting the environment, writes Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak

An Arabian oryx  at the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Umm Al Zamool. Karim Sahib / AFP
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On February 4, the UAE celebrated the 20th National Environment Day, urging residents to put sustainability at the heart of their lifestyle. This is the opportunity to take stock of where we are and to look forward to where we need to be. The foundations for a more sustainable tomorrow will be built today.

This occasion caused me to reflect upon our own 20th anniversary at the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi. Two decades ago, the landscape of Abu Dhabi was very different. We have changed beyond recognition since our original mandate as the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency. Our humble beginnings were rooted in environmental research. In many ways this has remained the backbone of all that we have achieved. Over the past 20 years, the agency has collected and analysed data to grow our knowledge of our environmental and anthropological impacts.

This understanding informs our efforts to improve marine water and air quality, to protect precious groundwater resources and understand the potential impact of climate change.

In environmental protection and conservation we have achieved a number of things that we can be justifiably proud of. These include, but are most certainly not limited to, policies that serve to protect our natural resources, such as groundwater monitoring and preservation, measuring of our marine water quality and regulations to limit harmful discharges from industrial activities, coastal development and human waste.

As the emirate has grown, the agency has been consulted on many key developments to ensure they meet stringent environmental standards. We are also working with new industries to develop regulations. For example, we are working with Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation to provide a full environmental assessment for the construction of Barakah Nuclear Power Plant Units 1 and 2. The agency has also worked with the judiciary department to establish laws. We have also mapped the habitats of Abu Dhabi to a high degree of granularity.

The agency has conducted studies of fish stocks for the past 16 years in Abu Dhabi waters. During this time we have been regulating both commercial and recreational fishermen. In 2015, in partnership with the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, we launched the UAE Sustainable Fisheries programme.

We are about to publish the Abu Dhabi State of the Environment Report for 2016. It follows an internationally recognised model of reporting and will guide us and other entities to make the right decisions in environmental management.

Over the past 20 years, we have also contributed to species conservation, both locally and internationally. We have helped bring the Arabian oryx back from the brink of extinction. Working with the government of Chad and other partners, we are undertaking an ambitious programme to reintroduce the scimitar-horned oryx back into the wild in Chad.

We have also implemented strategies that contribute to preserving some of Abu Dhabi’s cultural traditions, including protecting wild populations of one of the falconers’ most-prized preys: the houbara bustard. Our participation in the Sheikh Zayed Falcon Release Programme and the development of a global action plan for the saker falcon are also helping to develop sustainable falconry in the UAE.

We have also been working on the conservation of marine species such as the dugong. We currently host the second largest herd of dugongs in the world, after Australia. The hawksbill turtle, numerous species of sharks, rays and coral species also benefit from our conservation efforts.

This brief précis of some of our efforts and achievements is testimony to the growth and capacity-building of our talent. We now have more than 1,050 employees in Abu Dhabi. Now 69 per cent of our employees and 100 per cent of our senior management are Emirati – 41 per cent of these are female.

We will continue to contribute to the realisation of the Abu Dhabi Plan. We will seek to improve water quality. We will adopt rigorous measures to protect our air quality, conserve our groundwater reserves and preserve our species. We will also continue to build our citizens’ and residents’ capacity as environmental protectors through awareness and engagement initiatives.

If residents do place sustainability at the heart of their lifestyle, they will surely be rewarded with a better, healthier environment, now and for future generations.

As we celebrate our 20th anniversary year, we are working with the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival to host the Art in Nature exhibition. We are working with the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Cultural Authority to expand our eco-tourism offering. We are continuing our education efforts in schools and universities throughout the emirate. Last but not least, we are providing researchers, policymakers and influencers with more intelligence on our environment.

There is one closing remark I would like to make to all readers: as you seek to embrace sustainability in your lifestyle, please do not consider this a chore, but as an opportunity to learn more, see more and do more in the wonderful natural environment that is our home.

Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak is secretary general of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi