Mon, Nov 01, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Environmental problems grip Arab emirates

By liz alderman  /  NY Times News Service, DUBAI

Dubai’s skyline is the most sparkling in the Middle East, but down on the ground, the environmental problems caused by a quickly erected city built on sand look a lot less alluring.

In the last year, tourists have swum amid raw sewage in Dubai’s slice of the Persian Gulf. The purifying of seawater to feed taps and fountains is raising salinity levels and despite sitting on vast oil reserves, the region is running out of energy sources to support its rich lifestyle.

The simple basics of waste treatment and providing fresh water, in addition to running major industrial projects, require so much electricity that the region is turning to a nuclear future, raising questions about the risks, both environmental and political, of relying even in in part on a technology vulnerable to accidents and terrorist attacks.

Dazzled by Dubai’s rapid urbanization, other countries in the Gulf are seeking to emulate it, especially as they prepare for a population boom.

However, Dubai offers a cautionary tale in the pitfalls of building metropolises in the parched desert.

“Growth has been so intense and enormous, but people forgot about the environment,” said Jean-Frangois Seznec, a Middle East expert and professor at Georgetown University. “The attitude was, business comes first. Now, they are seeing increased problems, and they realize they have to be careful.”

Like a Middle Eastern version of Las Vegas, Dubai’s biggest challenge is water, which may be everywhere in the Gulf, but is undrinkable without desalination plants. These produce emissions of carbon dioxide that have helped give Dubai and the other United Arab Emirates (UAE) one of the world’s largest carbon footprints. They also generate enormous amounts of heated sludge, which is pumped back into the sea.

The emirates desalinate the equivalent of 4 billion bottles of water a day. However, their backups are thin: At any given time, the region has, on average, an estimated four-day supply of fresh water.

Today, the Gulf’s salinity levels have risen to 47,000 parts per million, from 32,000 about 30 years ago. That is enough to threaten local fauna and marine life said Christophe Tourenq, a senior researcher at the World Wide Fund for Nature in Dubai. Rapid growth has produced other problems as well, including sewage treatment operations that have struggled to keep up with development.

Until last August, Dubai’s single waste treatment plant dealt with 480,000m3, of sewage daily, nearly twice the 260,000m3 capacity it is able to properly handle, said Mohammed Abdulaziz Najem, the plant’s director.

Some drivers of the 4,000 tankers that carried raw waste daily from Dubai to the treatment plant would simply dump their load down drains that flowed to the fashionable Jumeirah suburb, he said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of skyscrapers were built with water and electricity as afterthoughts; environmental standards were rarely applied.

Authorities acknowledge that the breakneck pace has stressed natural resources throughout the region. Efforts to achieve developed status within the next 20 years have “magnified” the challenges to environmental protection, Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi Secretary-General Majid Al Mansouri said in an e-mail.

“While we have achieved a great deal, we recognize that much more work remains,” he wrote.

Sustainability is now a big theme and Abu Dhabi is trying to learn from the mistakes made by Dubai.

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