“We are at a critical juncture now where governments, businesses and communities need to gear up to combat the growing incidence of lands changing into deserts and near desert-like conditions,” says Habiba Al Marashi, Chairperson, Emirates Environmental Group (EEG).
In a region that is “already exposed to the vulnerabilities of water scarcity, drought and dryness” Habiba urges residents to make lifestyle changes to help prevent desertification — a process whereby fertile and dry lands turn into deserts.
“Technology is just one solution. Other important ones are public understanding and action. The EEG is committed to playing a role in catalysing awareness and behavioural change in support of sustainable consumption of vital natural resources such as water,” says Habiba.
Off-roading, littering and clearing for construction purposes are prime threats. In fact, the simple act of driving into the UAE desert to watch the sunset could damage the environment. Vehicles crush dry shrubs and low-lying plants, which results in a reduction in the soil’s ability to absorb water, making it more susceptible to wind erosion.
“Protecting vegetative cover can be a major instrument to prevent desertification,” says Habiba.
“Camels, sheep, goats, cattle, the protected Arabian oryx, sand gazelles and other wildlife are dying in the UAE’s deserts because of the trash bags that are left behind, which these animals ingest. They either choke on the plastic or it blocks their intestines, leading to death.”
Other litter such as plastic containers, cups, rusty cans and even old shoes release toxic chemicals into the sand and atmosphere surrounding the desert.
Its plant life is vulnerable too. Most have built-in mechanisms to deal with heat such as dormant seeds lying beneath the sand — sometimes for years — until it rains.
With a growing industry and population, the Middle East will have major water shortage by 2030, according to UN-Water. The EEG will join forces with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification to tackle these issues.
Habiba says, “World Environment Day highlights the benefits of mainstreaming sustainable land management policies and practices into our collective response to climate change.”
The Emirates Wildlife Society — World Wildlife Fund (EWS-WWF) also calls on individuals, communities and companies to work together towards conservation. Lisa Perry, Programmes Director, EWS-WWF, says, “There is a growing urgency at a global level to protect our ecosystems from further degradation. We are aware of the importance of protecting our environment by conserving biodiversity and safeguarding fragile ecosystems.”
Habiba advocates that people should avoid driving into uncharted territory for dune-bashing, because of the disturbance to the sand dunes’ water absorption capabilities.
“Protected areas should be assigned by the government and observed by drivers. In Abu Dhabi, seven desert areas have been proposed by the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD) to be designated protected areas,” she says.
The EAD is responsible for managing the habitats and species in protected areas in the emirate.
The EAD maintains several marine-protected areas as well as the Arabian Oryx Protected Area (Um Al Zumoul), Houbara Protected Area (Baynunah) and Jebel Hafeet. These are not open to the public.
There’s also the 225-square-kilometre Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR), managed by a team led by Conservation Manager Greg Simkins. The team conducts scientific research as well. Established by the Dubai Government and Emirates Airline in 2003, it was the first UAE conservation area protected by special laws dedicated to it.
The reserve allows four registered tour operators to work within it — Alpha Tours, Arabian Adventures, Travco and Lama Desert Tours & Cruises. They bring in about 200,000 visitors a year.
Simkins says the strict rules minimise environmental damage. There are set guidelines that tour operators have to adhere to and much of the visitor revenue is ploughed back into conservation.
Last month Dubai Municipality stated in a press release that it had updated its cleaning team and equipment and collected nearly 581 tonnes of waste last winter from about a 17-square-kilometre camping area. It distributed leaflets to desert visitors and camp owners to create awareness as well.
A Gulf News editorial published on March 14 mentioned that keeping deserts clean is a collective responsibility but it’s volunteers who take the trouble of cleaning up after revellers.
“But really, why should they have to do it?” it said.