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Life in Dubai and its not so public Lores
Theres more to it than the eyes can see

How will the 'World' project affect Dubai

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

While there have been numerous articles written recently about the proliferation of artificial island projects, the astounding "The World" venture among them, few have addressed or assessed the environmental impact of such massive undertakings and the transformation of both the sea and landscape. Until recently, Nakheel, the government-controlled corporation developing these ambitious projects, has been able to focus predominantly on promoting rather than defending the islands, but new evidence of environmental detriment is bringing the company and its projects under fire from certain groups.

Inspired by the three artificial palm tree-themed islands projects that are nearing completion, The World is a heady $14 billion endeavor, consisting of 300 individual islands arranged to mimic the shape of the globe's landmasses. Ranging in size from five to 20 acres, and with 50 to 100 meters of water separating each island, the total area encompasses just over 20 square miles. The development is located about two and a half miles off the coast of Dubai city. Islands go for $7 million to $35 million each.

From the air, The World and Palm projects create a highly visible impression on the landscape of Dubai. And back down at sea level, significant changes in the marine environment are leaving a visual scar of another type. As a result of the dredging and redepositing of sand for the construction of the islands, the typically crystalline waters of the gulf of Dubai have become severely clouded with silt. Construction activity is damaging the marine habitat, burying coral reefs, oyster beds and subterranean fields of sea grass, threatening local marine species as well as other species dependent on them for food. Oyster beds have been covered in as much as two inches of sediment, while above water, beaches are eroding with the disruption of natural currents.

The profound underwater changes currently taking place as a result of construction are only matched by the grandiose vision of Nakheel developers. Plans for one palm island project, The Palm, Jumeirah, includes an artificial diving park complete with four themed areas from which enthusiasts can choose One area called Snorkler's Cove will feature traditional marine life as well as an added incentive--a daily deposit of a single solid gold one-kilogram bar, worth $15,629 at current gold prices. Developers also intend to transfer and sink several wrecks for a more dramatic diving experience. Project backers assert that such additions will actually help attract fish and other marine life by providing shelter and leading to reef expansion and community diversification.

This optimistic outlook aside, another archipelago project, the Palm Jebel Ali, is located in a formerly protected marine reserve. The management of Jebel Ali marine reserve, the Persian Gulf's second most biodiverse marine system, was taken away from the Dubai Municipality Protected Areas Unit and passed over to Nakheel developers to build the island. Few can argue that the replacement of these natural formations with artificial structures can be a true substitute for what is being destroyed and result in a net gain in marine biodiversity. Further, ecologists fear that standardizing of the marine environment will alienate native species and encourage the likely introduction of new, foreign and possibly destructive species.


Environmentalists' concerns about the present state of Dubai's waters are not without warrant. Coral reefs and their associated mangrove and sea grass habitats function on varied levels, providing a number of integral services. Among these values are the provision of food and shelter for a wide range of marine species, the protection of coastal regions from storms, the prevention of coastal erosion and the support of commercial fishing and recreational activities--namely scuba diving and sport fishing.

Troubled waters are nothing new for Dubai or any other marine region. The health of the coral reefs has been in a state of continuous decline over the past 50 years. The Arabian Gulf is one of the most grievously affected areas, with recent estimates of habitat loss pegged at 35 percent. Increases in temperature and salinity have previously been attributed as the leading factors in reef habitat degradation, but the new pressure from dredging serves only to exacerbate the declining state of the environment.

Nakheel concedes that its various artificial archipelago projects have indeed buried reefs and changed the environment, but argues that the company will try to alleviate and even reverse some of the detrimental effects by building artificial reefs upon completion of the islands. What is more, the company has employed a marine biologist to monitor and rehabilitate damaged reefs. Imad Haffar, the research and development manager of Nakheel predicts local fauna will flourish in the newly constructed environment, but ecologists fear otherwise.

Environmentalists and scuba divers alike report that so much silt has been stirred up from dredging that organisms and the reef itself are slowly being choked by the sediment particles. The current activity has essentially destroyed Dubai's diving industry even if temporarily, and enthusiasts have left the area for clearer waters. Once dredging and construction are complete, the waters should clear, but will anyone recognize what has been left behind?

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