'Superficial' studies harm environment

Rigorous impact reports are required before development should go ahead, says expert.

Environment authority cooperate with Tokyo University to overhaul  coral reef in Abu Dhabi (WAM) *** Local Caption ***  f2c3b875-59c7-47bb-b166-6f68b1acc0ce.jpg
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ABU DHABI // The Environmental Impact Assessments conducted for major developments around the Gulf are insufficient to prevent damage to coastal ecosystems, a scientist said yesterday.

"If you're doing big developments on the ocean, you need a good Environmental Impact Assessment procedure, and we don't have that anywhere in the Gulf," said Peter Sale, an assistant director of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) evaluate the potential effects of planned developments, helping decision-makers determine how to proceed.

One of the major dangers to marine ecosystems in the UAE and other Gulf countries is coastal development, said Suaad Saleh Al Harthi, a scientist with the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi.

"Anywhere that you're going to have land reclamation or dredging, you will have severe impacts," Ms Al Harthi said.

She said that governments can also mitigate damage by creating protected zones and encouraging sustainable coastal planning.

Mr Sale spoke in advance of a lecture he gave yesterday at Coral Reefs of the Gulf, a three-day conference hosted by the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute.

Local developers are more aware of environmental risks now than they were three years ago, he said.

Still, the EIA system must be strengthened, Mr Sale said.

The rapid pace of development, a weak environmental science community and inadequate regulations all contribute to the problem and the way EIAs are applied "is very superficial", he added.

Mr Sale was part of a research team hired in 2003 by Nakheel - the developer famous for man-made islands like Palm Jumeirah and The World - to study how to best manage the marine environment around large projects.

Their research was terminated in 2009 because of the financial crisis. But the team was able to gather information and provide advice that is relevant "to the region as a whole", he said.

United Nations University released a report from the project in November.

The waters of the Gulf are a valuable resource for fishermen, tourists and residents, Mr Sale said.

The area's marine ecosystems are at risk for many reasons, though, partly because of pollution and partly because of "some of the mistakes made by developers".

Building islands can disturb the marine environment during the construction process, churning sediment and sand.

In addition, changing coastlines through land reclamation and dredging - if it is not done carefully - can alter the movement of water, creating areas where pollutants accumulate.

In November, Nakheel announced plans to build 500 artificial reefs off Dubai's coast to help develop marine life.

Scientists say it is better not to damage ecosystems in the first place, though.

"The prevailing view seems to be that there is always a technological 'fix' for any problem that arises," the researchers wrote in their report.

Gulf-area developers expect EIAs to happen very swiftly, the researchers added.

"Development has to proceed at the pace appropriate for the assessment, not the other way around," Mr Sale said.

In addition, public hearings are not typically part of the EIA process in the region.

"Without public scrutiny, it should not be surprising that most EIAs in the Gulf are ineffective - assessments are superficial, based on poor data and required mitigation procedures are often forgotten by both the developer and the regulatory agencies," the report said.

Mr Sale said that the situation presents an opportunity to Gulf governments.

"People are so proud of the rapid development and the very sophisticated modern cities that are being produced," he said.

"They're quite impressive developments. Wouldn't it be wonderful if they also ended up being wonderful cities in a superbly managed marine environment?"