Swamped by a sea of urban rubbish

Not only is waste harmful to the delicate desert ecosystem, but the sheer volumes now threaten to bring the problem to our doorsteps.

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A graveyard of rubber tyres obscuring the sand, construction waste dumpsites pockmarking the desert and an epidemic of camel deaths caused by ingesting plastic bags. These are the legacy of a waste disposal policy that has simply swept urban waste into the rural areas. Not only has it been harmful to the delicate desert ecosystem, but the sheer volumes now threaten to bring the problem to our doorsteps. An engine of development in recent decades, Dubai by itself is producing more than 10,000 tonnes of rubbish a day.

Municipal and national authorities are trying to shoulder the burden, with plans ranging from licensing lorry drivers carrying waste to eventually banning plastic bags. As The National reported yesterday, the City Waste 2009 conference is considering massive incineration plants, recycling programmes and consumer conservation measures to curb the problem. There has been some debate about what approach is most suitable. Given the scale of the problem, however, the answer is: all of the above.

There are considerations about the environmental byproducts of some of these schemes, in particular the emissions from incineration. Dubai Municipality is opening bidding for one or two incinerators that would combine waste disposal with energy generation, an example of bringing cutting-edge technology into the service of both environmentally friendly and economically viable solutions. The waste is mounting at an alarming rate, but planners still need to proceed carefully to provide for adequate funding and find the right private-sector partners. For the UAE, which is charting its future in terms of renewable energy and reducing pollution, the success of these projects is an issue of national credibility.

The importance of attitudes cannot be overstated. Everyone has seen the careless litterbug, flicking a cigarette butt on the sand, letting a crisp packet flutter from a car window or throwing a soft-drink can to the kerb. The clean-up last month at Dubai Open Beach, which netted 200kg of rubbish in 300 metres, not only showed the scale of the problem, but also a heartening initiative by volunteers. Until people take more pride in their environment, they will fail to take care of it. Rapid development has raised standards of living across the board, but nobody will be in a position to enjoy it if the country is neck-deep in rubbish.