The United Arab Emirate's unique natural habitats are under threat from unfettered development, the local director of global conservation group WWF said.
DUBAI, UAE The United Arab Emirate's unique natural habitats are under threat from unfettered development, the local director of global conservation group WWF said.
Time is fast running out to save the UAE's delicate ecosystems, home to some of the planet's rarest animals and plants, said Frederic Launay.
He said the country's environment had paid a heavy price for its remarkable 30-year transition from an economy based on trade, subsistence fishing, oasis agriculture, and livestock to a highly urban, regional economic powerhouse.
"The overwhelming threat to the UAE's environment comes from the pace of the country's development," Launay said. "It's growing rapidly, but the level of environmental awareness and legislation is not keeping up."
Launay said the first UAE environmental protection law was only issued in 1999.
"The law is there, but the implementation articles are not finalized. Environmental groups and government departments still don't have the legal framework on which to act," he said.
A federal system does not help matters. Launay said environmental policies differ in each of the seven emirates that make up the oil-rich country of around 4 million people.
"Power is tipped in favor of the individual emirate," he said. "This means the federal environment agency is ultimately ineffective."
Save the Sea Cows
Sitting at the mouth of the Gulf, the UAE has habitats that attract a rich variety of wildlife. Endangered green turtles and dugongs, or sea cows, rely on coral reefs and grass beds. Scores of migrating birds stop over in its inter-tidal areas.
"The waters around the UAE are extremely shallow. Any development on the coastal areas requires dredging, which causes a lot of damage," Launay said.
Dubai emirate is consolidating itself as the region's trade and tourism hub through multibillion dollar development plans.
These include a luxury hotel under the sea, human-made islands dotted with resorts, and the world's tallest skyscraper.
Developers say they have carried out stringent environmental impact studies, but conservation groups still have concerns. They say dredging has disturbed turtle nesting sites and destroyed sea grass and coral.
Leopards and other wildcats still wander the rocky areas and deserts further inland. Launay said these habitats have also borne the brunt of the UAE's efforts to attract tourism.
The UAE has the world's largest ecological footprint, according to a 2004 WWF study that measures the environmental sustainability of a country. The UAE scored badly for a number of shortfalls, including relying almost entirely on fossil fuels and importing practically everything it consumes.
"It (UAE) is a highly urbanized society where people have no incentive to reduce their consumption. Things like energy and water supplies are heavily subsidized," Launay said.
The UAE was also criticized for recycling too little waste.
"People are being encouraged to recycle, but there isn't the recycling infrastructure to back it up," he said, adding it was left to nongovernmental groups and conscientious individuals.
But attitudes may be changing. The UAE recently tasked the WWF with a coral conservation program and asked it to help train officers fighting illegal trade in wildlife.
Launay insisted development and environmentalism were not mutually exclusive.
"The need to develop is perfectly justifiable and understood by everyone," he said. "Some decision makers still have a vision of development versus the environment. But this is not true. It is the way in which you develop that is the key."