Research from the past 10 years has painted a grim picture for the environment. But today the UAE is more poised – and determined – than ever to rise to those challenges at home and internationally, experts say.
The environment has become a primary concern in the UAE, shifting from a back-seat consideration during the country’s growth spurt in the 1990s.
In the early 2000s, the country ranked second-last on key elements in the first Environmental Protection Index, released by Yale University.
This year’s index places the UAE at rank 77 of 180 countries.
“That’s an achievement by itself but still we are looking forward,” says Dr Mohamed Al Madfaei, an executive director at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.
The agency, along with several other organisations, has taken on the responsibility of tackling climate change.
The environment was clearly becoming one of the most pressing challenges faced by humanity but in the UAE it was helped by the responsibility inherited from Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, who attributed immense importance to the subject.
That served as one of the most effective public awareness tools available, equating environmental awareness to fulfilling the legacy of the country’s most beloved figure.
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As the UAE recovered from the 2008-2009 economic crash, guided by the concept of sustainable growth – albeit economically – the country was able to finally begin developing at a rate that also respected the environment.
Government initiatives such as the Environmental Impact Assessment forced businesses to consider habitat destruction, ecosystem vulnerability and other natural factors as more important than any other measurement of development.
Other aspects of the UAE’s environment did not need an international organisation or economic indicators to make clear their dire straits.
“There were maybe only four of five birds left in the UAE,” says Dr Al Madfaei, referring to the Houbara bustard, a bird of prey indigenous to the Mena and Central Asia. “We took action.”
Today, the population rests at a healthy 50,000, and the UAE has breeding and release programmes here and in other countries including Kazakhstan.
The success of rehabilitating the bird also provided skills applicable to other species in desperate need of conservation.
The UAE is the second-largest home to the dugong, an elusive animal that is at risk of becoming endangered. Protecting the animal meant setting aside wildlife reserves and protected ecosystems that would also be of benefit to several other marine species.
In the past 10 years the government, working with animal conservation groups, set up those zones. Almost 13.5 per cent of Abu Dhabi’s coastline is off-limits to any form of fishing or disturbance – one of the highest percentages in the world.
But in 2009, it was hit with another wake-up call. The UAE was ranked highest for its per capita carbon footprint in the Living Planet Report, published by the World Wildlife Fund, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network.
Its response was to work with those organisations and become the third country in the world, after Japan and Switzerland, to conduct in-depth research into the reasons behind it.
The willingness to co-operate with the international community over the past 10 years has shaped the UAE’s commitment to its self-proclaimed “stewardship of the environment”, and informed its decisions on environmental policies.
In 2016, the UAE was the first country in the region to ratify the Paris Agreement, a legally binding commitment to address climate change. It, along with 196 countries, committed at the highest level to reduce their carbon emissions to an amount that would mitigate climate change to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
“The international dialogue has really increased,” says Marina Antonopoulou, marine programme manager at the World Wildlife Fund. “The UAE on so many different levels has made solid commitments in policymaking. And that’s the reason there’s an increasing number of organisations working on marine conservation.”
Since her assignment to the country as a marine biologist in 2007, Ms Antonopoulou has watched the UAE sign dozens of international environment agreements and several changes that will help her organisation to make scientific proposals to the government.
“The number of publications and reports addressing a wide range of topics has been increasing over the past few years and it shows that there is momentum,” she says.
Science attributes values to efforts towards ecosystem conservation, which has a proven role in the development of a healthy economy, in which the country has made giant strides.
One such example, and an accurate metric, is ecotourism, where the global appeal of outdoors activities such as scuba diving have a real economic and environmental benefit.
Another is attributing a carbon value to natural spaces. The mangroves in the UAE serve as a key example of that.
The trees along the UAE’s coastline serve as a natural barrier to waves that could cause damage to the land.
They also extract from the environment 46 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, offsetting the 26.9 million tonnes a year produced by the oil and gas industry.
Groundwater is also a central environmental concern being addressed by the UAE.
Dr Ismahane Elouafi of the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture says water scarcity in the UAE requires a mix of technological developments and public awareness.
“We have a long way to go,” Dr Elouafi says. “The development in agricultural practices has been huge in the past 10 years but we still over-irrigate crops and most of that water still comes from groundwater.”
A recent study published by the centre shows palm tree irrigation uses up to five times the amount of water needed. It is obtained through the energy-intensive desalination process or is drawn from severely depleted underground aquifers
But technological developments in solar energy have allowed for a centre to harness the power of the Sun for desalination.
Another government initiative implemented in 2015 is the use of treated wastewater to replenish depleted underground water reserves.
Even the use of simple technology such as net houses, as opposed to greenhouses, could help to reduce the energy demand by up to 97 per cent and cut water use by 55 per cent.
But all of the experts agree that limiting the amount of harm humans do to the sea is necessary measure to curbing climate change.
The past few years have been witness to unprecedented levels of depletion of marine diversity and species as a result of overfishing and pollution.
And with the UAE hosting the World Summit of the Oceans next year, it seems the country is ready to take leadership in the fight to protect our critically endangered seas.