Action needed to prevent oil spills off UAE coast, says government official

Oil tankers sometimes clear their holds in international waters but the oil washes ashore

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UAE government officials have called for increased surveillance of tankers so swift punishment can be delivered to vessels that illegally dump oil off the country’s coast.

Adnan Al Hammadi, a member of the Federal National Council, called for harsher penalties to be placed on those found breaking the rules.

He suggested additional investment could help upgrade the current technology used to monitor the movement of tankers in gulf waters too.

Speaking to The National, the council member, who represents Sharjah, said the UAE's strict laws must be upheld to protect the marine environment and tourism.

“Illegal oil discharge and tank cleaning should be monitored better using more advanced satellites and a tank disposal or discharging reporting system that helps identify the violators,” he said.

“Oil spills can also damage coral reefs and pollute our drinking water that is generated from the desalination plants in the area."

His call for action came about a week after oil washed up along the coast of Khor Fakkan in Sharjah.

Black sludge was seen along a three-kilometre stretch between Luluyah and Zubara public beaches.

Though it is illegal, vessels often clean their tanks by flushing any residue into international waters that inevitably washes ashore.

Oil can be extremely damaging to marine life and aquatic ecosystems. It pollutes the water, kills plants and animals and disturbs salinity.

Mr Al Hammadi shared a video of the spill on Twitter, saying more needed to be done to stop the regular occurrence.

He said he raised the issue during an FNC session four months ago.

“I suggested many solutions during the session after carrying on a long and thorough search about the oil spill issue as this issue has many consequences and should be resolved.”

Around 20,000 oil tankers sail annually through the 70 nautical miles that stretch along the country’s east coast.

“These tankers carry about 40 per cent of the world’s oil,” he said.

“About five oil spills have been recorded annually, according to the reports, and we cannot forget one of the worst spills which took place in 1994 after two tankers collided off the east coast and caused 16,000 tonnes of oil to spill.”

Under the UAE’s Federal Law No 24, all marine means of transportation are prohibited from discharging or disposing of oil or oil mixture into the marine environment.

Penalties include imprisonment and fines of up to Dh1 million, but most of these incidents happen in international waters where it becomes more difficult to police.

Apart from individual states, the Arabian Gulf is monitored by the Marine Emergency Mutual Aid Centre and the Regional Organisation for the Protection of the Marine Environment.

Mr Al Hammadi said the responsibility for monitoring and fining any offenders lies with several government bodies, including the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.

“Tanker violations should be monitored and punished and that requires more advanced monitoring system, strict laws and allocate budget to concerned authorities to prevent oil spills,” he said.

Hamdah Al Aslai, head of Marine Life at the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, agreed that more needed to be done to protect the UAE's coasts and the industries that depend on them, including fishing and tourism.
She said the ministry and the National Emergency, Crisis and Disaster Management Authority had developed the National Emergency Plan to Combat Marine Pollution in response to such incidents.

“The plan identifies the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders in the UAE in the event of a marine oil spill to mitigate its negative impacts on marine navigation, coastal facilities, and fish stocks, as well as ensure the safety of nearby residents and beachgoers,” said Ms Al Aslai.

Ms Al Aslai said offending ships are obliged to pay all costs of damages to the marine environment, coastal areas, and beaches incurred as a result of the spill.

They must also cover the costs of control operations and compensation to the injured parties, according to UAE law.

“The Ministry along with local and regional partners is regularly monitoring marine and coastal areas using AI, remote sensors, and predictive modelling programmes,” she said.

“We also work relentlessly to implement coastal habitat rehabilitation programmes, including the cultivation of coral reefs and installation of artificial caves, to help reverse the damage caused by the incidents.”

Ms Al Aslai said these action plans and laws have helped improve the UAE’s marine and coastal environments.

“This has led to the country securing top ranking for marine protected areas in the Environmental Performance Index, as well as scoring high in ocean health on the regional and global scales.”