The warm waters of the Middle East are already changing dramatically due to global warming, with sea levels and temperatures rising, and marine biodiversity affected.
Fish stocks are declining, and critical habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves, salt marshes and sea grasses are degrading across the region, three UK reports focusing on the Middle East have said.
The studies show climate change is also making the sea more acidic, and in some areas leading to deoxygenation, which can contribute to fish kill events, when a large number of aquatic animals die over a short period of time within a defined area.
The reports were published by the International Marine Climate Change Centre based at the UK government’s Centre for Environment Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.
Researchers collaborated with experts from universities, research institutions and government bodies across the Regional Organisation for Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME) sea area, which includes the waters around Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The environmental studies looked at the impact and risks of marine climate change to societies, economies and biodiversity of the region, and the potential for blue carbon habitats – such as sea grass beds and mangroves – across the region to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.
The documents show that changes to the waters of the Gulf and Sea of Oman in particular, are already occurring. The key findings from the reports include:
- The effects of climate change, including rising temperatures and sea levels, are already occurring across the ROPME sea area and are projected to accelerate in future.
- Climate change and other conditions caused by human activity are causing degradation and loss of critical habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves, salt marshes and seagrasses across the region.
- Climate change will lead to a decline in numbers of fish, an important source of food across the region.
- Coastal storms and cyclones are predicted to become more intense causing significant risks to coastal communities, industry and infrastructure from storm damage and coastal flooding.
- Increasing water temperatures may lead to an increase in phytoplankton and jellyfish leading to harmful algal blooms that can block desalination plants and coastal industrial cooling systems.
- Blue carbon ecosystems, such as sea grass beds remove CO2 and need protecting to continue absorbing CO2 from the air. These ecosystems also support climate change resilience by providing coastal protection and supporting productive fisheries.
Dr Hassan Mohammadi, co-ordinator of ROPME, which has its headquarters in Kuwait said the reports show immediate action is needed.
“The ROPME sea area is getting warmer, climate change is already impacting our marine environments which will affect local employment and the life our seas, reefs, mangroves and other important habitats support," said Mr Mohammadi.
"These findings form part of our climate action strategy, giving us the knowledge to carry out further research and advice on climate change.”
The main objective of ROPME is to co-ordinate the efforts of the eight member states towards protecting the marine and coastal environment and ecosystems in the ROPME sea area against marine pollution.
The organisation also focuses on stressors that might be induced from developmental activities or / and other drivers of change.
The UK minister for the Middle East and North Africa, James Cleverly said the three reports showed co-ordination was key ahead of a major climate conference in November.
"In the year that the UK will be hosting the COP26, I am proud that UK experts working with ROPME are helping us better understand the damaging effects of climate change," said Mr Cleverly.
"It is imperative that we listen to these reports, and I call on friends and partners in the Gulf to join us in taking action to tackle climate change.”
UAE action against climate change
In recent years the UAE has stepped up its commitment to reduce carbon emissions and protect the environment. The country has invested heavily in innovation and low-carbon energy, especially renewables such as solar power.
The UAE was also the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to set an economy-wide reduction in emissions by 2030, as part of its second Nationally Determined Contributions.
In 2019 the UAE signed up to the target of protecting or conserving at least 30 per cent of the world’s oceans, joining a group of 80 other countries.
Mangroves, an important part of the UAE's ecosystem, have been protected for decades, after large-scale plantation programmes were initiated by the Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed.
The small trees grow in saltwater, protect coastlines from erosion, provide a breeding ground for fish, and absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
There are 13 major mangrove sites in the UAE, but most are in Abu Dhabi's 19-square-kilometre Mangrove National Park, which constitutes 75 per cent of the 4,000 hectares of mangroves in the UAE.
Abu Dhabi's Environment Agency works constantly to rehabilitate and protect the emirate's mangrove forests. In the past decade, the authority has overseen the planting of 3.1 million saplings on the coasts of Al Gharbia, Saadiyat, Jubail and Habitat island.
In Dubai, the Emirates Marine Environmental Group is working with consumer goods giant Procter and Gamble to develop the Dubai Mangrove Forest in the Jebel Ali Wildlife Sanctuary.
More than 1,000 trees have already been planted and organisers plan for at least 500,000 square metres of sand to be blanketed by greenery.
Schools and companies are being encouraged to join the campaign to plant one million mangroves this year.
In the long term, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, plans for more than half of the city to be transformed into nature reserves under the Dubai Urban Master Plan for 2040.