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Developers aid efforts to protect coral reef

posted on 20/06/2008: 1491 views

Developers and conservationists are working together to preserve one of the country's most valuable coral reefs as a major industrial transformation takes place off Abu Dhabi.

An area of 194 sq km off Ras Ghanada, a salt flats and lagoon complex north-east of Abu Dhabi Island, is home to 17 species of coral, sponges, sea-grass beds and hundreds of fish species, including colourful angelfish, hammour and emperor fish.

But the reef, Abu Dhabi's most vibrant and diverse according to a three-year study, will soon have neighbours that may threaten its existence: the vast Khalifa Port and Industrial Zone development, which will include the world's largest aluminium smelter and plastics and chemicals manufacturing zone.

Coral reef coverage in Abu Dhabi is at a record low and a joint study by the Emirates Wildlife Society – World Wide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF), the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD), Qatar's Supreme Council for the Environment and Natural Resources and the National Coral Reef Institute in Florida has recommended making the area a protected marine reserve.

According to the WWF, 65 per cent of UAE corals have been lost due to natural and man-made causes and 30 per cent are critically threatened.

"The coral reef in Ras Ghanada, in terms of diversity and the percentage of live coral, is better even than the ones in the existing protected areas," said Dr Thabit Zahran al Abdessalaam, director of the marine biodiversity management sector at EAD.

He said the proximity of the planned port meant it was not possible to give the area protected status. A protected area such as the biosphere reserve in Marawah has to be carefully designed with a coral area and a buffer zone. The future port and industrial activities, as well as construction activities along the coast in Dubai, meant there was no space available, he said.

"We would not have had a sufficient area for a core zone and a buffer zone," he added.

The alternative is for the agency to work closely with port developers to reduce the environmental impact of the project, which will include covering the coral with silt during land reclamation work and water pollution from the metal works and chemical manufacturing.

Measures in place include a decision to move the port seven kilometres from its original site. This places the development, which will comprise more than 100 sq km of industrial, logistics, commercial, educational and residential facilities in its first phase, seven nautical miles from the reef. But that is still close.

"I suspect some of it [the reef] could be affected," said Dr Abdessalaam. "One has to be realistic, it is a huge project and it is bound to have an impact."

The main threat to the reef is dredging, which is already under way. Dredging removes sand and other sediment from the sea bed and uses it to form land. It changes the physical and chemical composition of the water, threatening the health of coral reefs. It makes water murkier, which blocks sunlight and makes it hard for coral to grow and can threaten its survival.

Dredging can also stir a lot of nutrients in the water and encourage the growth of algae, which is not beneficial to coral, said Dr Abdessalaam. If the algae multiplies too fast, it can consume a large amount of the oxygen dissolved in sea water, causing hundreds of fish to die.

The EAD and the developer are monitoring water quality in the area. A station has been set up in Ras Ghanada to track parameters such as water temperature, salinity and turbidity. The monitoring station will provide vital data once the smelter and chemicals manufacturing complex are operating.

Chemicals Industrial City will have an annual output of seven million tonnes when its first phase is completed in 2013. It will include facilities to produce propylene and ethylene, a reformer to make gasoline, and sophisticated machinery to make xylene, benzine, cumene, phenol and their derivatives.

Dr Abdessalaam said an environmental impact assessment looked at industrial run-off on the reef.

"We did modelling work on the trajectories of currents and other assessments," he said.

"We are trying to anticipate everything, but the reason why we have a monitoring programme is because we cannot predict everything.

"The developers are very co-operative ... under the circumstances, this is the best we can do."

A report this month said coastal development, dredging and filling, pollution, oil spills, ballast water and anchoring associated with shipping were the main human threats to the UAE's reefs. Other challenges include fishing practices such as wire fish traps and gill nets, overfishing, habitat loss due to development, desalination plants, effluents from oil, gas, waste water treatment and industry as well as the use of fertilizer for golf courses and grass areas near the coast. – The National


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