Rubbish piling up on islands off Abu Dhabi

Visitors to Abu Dhabi's islands are leaving behind piles of litter, but officials seem unsure which authority is responsible for dealing with it.

Trash is left behind by visitors of the man made island next to Bahraini Island.
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ABU DHABI // Weekend barbecues and jet skiing are taking their toll on islands off Abu Dhabi's coast, leaving trails of rubbish on beaches and sandy coves. While Saadiyat and Yas Island attract more headlines, the serenity of some of the lesser known destinations of the emirate's 200-island archipelago has acted as a magnet for beach enthusiasts for decades. They travel by boat to Bahraini, Cut and Horseshoe islands as well as a few man-made atolls of sand, spending sunny afternoons skiing, camping and picnicking.

But when people drift away at the end of each weekend, some of the islands are left in a sorry state. "There's hundreds of plastic bottles, wire, everything, everywhere," said Veronique Reinhardt, 46, a resident of Abu Dhabi. On most weekends, Mrs Reinhardt visits one of the small man-made islands several kilometres off the emirate's coast with her husband, Thierry, and friends. She says unbearable quantities of rubbish are often left behind by other visitors.

"We saw one guy on a jet ski drive out in the water with his trash placed into a bag and just throw it right into the water," she said. "If there wasn't a tide washing this stuff out, the trash would be much, much worse." It is difficult to establish whether the islands are public or privately owned, or managed by government agencies, although a few have signposts warning the public to stay away.

Even government agencies seem unsure who manages a number of the islands. Capt Mohammed Ali of the Abu Dhabi Marine Police said his agency's responsibilities covered waterways, not the islands themselves. "If the islands are private, it would be the Army's responsibility for patrolling," he said, adding that the marine police had not "seen any trash... on the coastline". A woman handling telephone inquiries from the public at the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) said some islands were managed by the agency. However, two officials said later that the authority was not responsible.

Abu Dhabi Municipality said in a statement by e-mail that it provided some forms of waste disposal service to a number of islands, including private ones, but did not recognise those on a list submitted by The National. A further source of confusion is that some of the islands go by various names. "The Public Sanitation Division of the Municipality does not maintain a database of the number of public or private islands," the Municipality statement said.

Nevertheless, in the absence of entry fees and, in some cases, official supervision, hordes of visitors not only frequent the islands but unscrupulously dump rubbish there. On a recent visit to Bahraini Island and a nearby cluster of man-made islands, The National observed beaches and inland groves of trees that had been transformed into impromptu landfills. Gazelles, an estimated 500 of which roam the barren landscape of Bahraini, wandered among discarded plastic water bottles, cans and bottles. When startled, the diminutive creatures retreated to a small grove of trees littered with empty petrol canisters and cigarette ends.

At first glance, it looked as if the island party had not ended. Campsites were fully erect, with tents still pitched and campfire pits dug into the sand. Inside an abandoned canvas tent, decorative rugs were covered by shattered bottles and charcoal. One carpeted khiam, or traditional Arab tent, stood under the shade of a tree, beside a beach lapped by waves laden with floating bottles and styrofoam.

The prevalence of such waste, particularly plastics, styrofoam and glass, has alarmed environmentalists such as Gayatri Raghwa, an official at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi. "Plastic is extremely harmful to marine wildlife," she said. "It gets broken down into minute particles and gets in the food chain of marine organisms, which, again, is very, very harmful." In some instances, Mrs Raghwa said, these materials had proved deadly to wildlife. "We know the ingestion of things like these styrofoam eggs is causing a lot of fatalities in marine birds."

Some island hoteliers are also concerned, warning that the eyesore created by rubbish could damage trade. Jimmy Thomas, the duty manager at Al Maya Private Island & Resort, a newly built resort with luxury villas on the edge of Bahraini, said rubbish left by tourists had been a decades-long problem on the island. "Normally on Friday there are 300 to 400 people there," he said, pointing beyond the resort's luxury swimming pool and pristine beaches to the unkempt areas. "It can be a lot of people. This place has been used like this for 30 to 40 years.

"There's a lot of garbage." Mr Thomas said that although he did his best to keep the area tidy, there was only so much cleaning the resort staff could do. The rubbish had not yet affected his business directly, but difficulties could arise when the resort pursued its planned expansion to other areas of the island. "It would require too much work for us to clean all of it up," he said. In the meantime, Veronique and Thierry Reinhardt are forced to put up with the rubbish every time they go waterskiing with friends.

"I just don't think people come to remove trash here during the week; I mean, you see the same trash piles here every time you come back," Mrs Reinhardt said. "We do our best to clean it up, but there's a lot over here, you know."