Nature can pay a hefty toll when rubbish is left behind

Environmentalists say much more than natural beauty is affected when visitors bring their rubbish and noise outdoors.

FUJAIRAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES- March 6: Visitors left behind their used cold drink bottles at the Wadi Wurayah in Fujairah Mountains.  (Pawan Singh / The Nation)

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As the National Day celebrations merge into the Eid al Adha holiday and thousands of people head outdoors to explore dunes, wadis and beaches, environmentalists have a message for them: behave. Rubbish left by picnickers is their number one grievance because it not only defaces the landscape but also endangers wildlife. Noise and light pollution are also problems. "Please treat the wadis, dunes and beaches as if they are your own personal property and make sure that you clean everything up," said Dr Sandra Knuteson, an assistant professor of environmental sciences at the American University of Sharjah.

"When we leave rubbish behind we not only take away from the great experience the next person will have, but also may leave possibly toxic substances to leach into groundwater and be taken up into the ecosystem. "Of the things I have found in the wadis, the worst were batteries, glass bottles and broken glass, disposable grills and broken equipment." Last year, Dr Knuteson conducted a study to estimate the impact of the National Day weekend on Hatta Pools, a popular recreational area in the Hajar mountains. With a team of students she cleaned up an area 300m long by 100m wide around the wadi.

An initial clean-up, carried out a week before the long weekend, collected 183 kilos of rubbish. After the three-day holiday another 81 kilos of waste was removed. Two thirds of the rubbish consisted of plastic and broken glass. The rest was aluminium cans, sweets and crisps wrappers, toys, nappies, polystyrene, cigarette ends, food and paper. Ibrahim al Zu'ubi, an adviser to the Emirates Diving Association, also urged picnickers and campers to make sure they left nothing behind. In the capital, a clean-up organised by the diving association in co-operation with the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi gave a glimpse of how much beachgoers leave behind them. It was carried out on Nov 29 and covered a kilometre of seafront between Abu Dhabi Corniche Beach and Port Zayed and around eight square kilometres underwater. Although the area is cleaned regularly by a private company, the volunteers removed nearly 5,000 discarded items including cigarettes, plastic bags and bottles, glass, drinks cans, food remains, wrappers and containers, clothing items and toys - including a remote-controlled helicopter toy. The worst type of rubbish thrown away is plastic because it has the biggest negative impact on the environment. Animals that accidentally ingest it usually suffer slow and painful deaths as the material becomes lodged in their digestive systems. Plastic can damage turtles' flippers, limiting their ability to navigate and search for food. Scientists estimate that 100,000 marine mammals and a million birds die each year worldwide because of plastic pollution. The impact on land-based animals is no less significant. Even camels can be injured by discarded plastic or glass. Mr Zu'ubi also urged people to limit the amount of light and noise pollution they generated to avoid disturbing wildlife.

"There are other creatures besides us in the desert, even if we do not see them," he said. Many people brought generators to light their camps at night, he said, but that disturbed the natural rhythms of birds, reptiles and mammals. Less artificial light would be more aesthetically pleasing, he said. "Nature is dark at night, so why not enjoy the clear sky and the stars?" If light is essential, he suggests setting up camp away from places that might be attractive to animals, such as groups of trees. Noise from generators, cars and bikes also disturbs wildlife, he said. The lapped-faced vulture is one example of a creature driven out of the UAE by excessive human disturbance. With a wingspan of more than three metres, the majestic bird used to breed in secluded valleys close to the mountains in Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah and Al Ain. But increased human presence and lack of food mean that the bird, once common in the UAE, has been unable to reproduce here. Mr Zu'ubi said being able to enjoy nature responsibly required a different attitude towards one's surroundings than city dwellers usually adopted. "My advice is for people to try to enjoy nature as it is."