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A new study published by the “Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for Climate, Biodiversity and People” project illustrates the vital role that coastal lagoons play in strengthening national climate action plans, biodiversity conservation and resilience of local communities. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Coastal lagoons make up 27 per cent of the UAE’s coastline and represent the nation’s greatest and most diverse natural capital, underpinning key economic sectors, sheltering treasured biodiversity and fortifying climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

As the UAE extends the Year of Sustainability into 2024, a new study published by the “Nature-based Solutions (NbS) for Climate, Biodiversity and People” project illustrates the vital role that these lagoons play in strengthening national climate action plans, biodiversity conservation and resilience of local communities.

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As part of the NbS project, two priority seascapes were selected in the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Umm Al Quwain, following a robust science-based process to identify sites suitable for NbS interventions.

The project is a partnership between the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE), the Ministry of Economy (MoE), the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD), the Government of Umm Al Quwain, Emirates Nature-WWF and the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). It has received funding from HSBC Bank Middle East.

Titled “Coastal lagoons: essential ecosystems to scale up Nature-based Solutions in the UAE,” the study reveals the key findings of scientific surveys undertaken at these sites:

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The coastal lagoons are crucial habitats for several endangered species. Image Credit: Supplied

Crucial habitats for endangered and critically endangered species: Drone and underwater surveys conducted as part of the NbS project confirmed the presence of endangered and critically endangered species such as whiprays (Himantura spp.), blacktip reef shark (Carcharinus melanopterus), giant guitarfish (Rhynchobatus djiddensis), as well as green turtle (Chelonia mydas), hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and halavi guitarfish (Glaucostegus halavi) which are endemic to the Arabian Sea region.

The habitats were found to serve as crucial feeding grounds for sea turtles, reproductive areas for rays, and commercial fish aggregations. Results also confirm a strong interconnection between seagrass habitats and biodiversity. The rich and diverse biodiversity in the area also attracts the highly charismatic Indian Ocean Humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea).

Highly productive carbon stock worth $44.4 million: Research shows that soils found in blue carbon ecosystems, namely mangroves, saltmarsh and seagrass meadows, in the MENA region can sequester up to twice as much carbon as boreal, temperate or tropical forests.

Analysis of the two lagoons assessed significant carbon storage capacities per hectare for various habitats and revealed that a 160 km2 area stored approximately 900,763 metric tons of carbon in living biomass and soil (top 50 cm), equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions of over 160,000 people from the UAE.

It is crucial to note that without conservation and protection, the carbon stored in these ecosystems would be released back into the atmosphere, nullifying their potential for future carbon sequestration.

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The study analysed mangroves, saltmarsh and seagrass habitats along the coastline. Image Credit: Supplied

Enhanced natural coastal protection for people: Mangroves, saltmarsh and seagrass habitats that cover 171 km of the lagoons’ shoreline analysed offer natural protection against coastal hazards, such as erosion and inundation, safeguarding 47,400 people who live within 500 metres of this area.

Strong potential for tourism and recreation: On average, 17,800 people visit both lagoons every year, generating $22.75 million in associated revenue. 65 per cent of Emiratis, expat residents and tourists surveyed said it was very important to protect the lagoons and would be willing to pay Dh41 to visit a protected area where natural capital would be sustainably managed but also accessible to visitors.

“The UAE recognises the importance of protecting and restoring natural ecosystems, and especially coastal lagoons which offer positive impact for climate mitigation and adaptation,” said Dr. Amna bint Abdullah Al Dahak, Minister of Climate Change and Environment.

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Coastal lagoons have a strong potential for tourism and recreation. Image Credit: Supplied

“The coastal lagoon study demonstrates that benefits of these integral habitats extend beyond climate and biodiversity, presenting opportunities to safeguard existing industries such as our vital fisheries while catalyzing innovation in growing areas such as ecotourism, local food production and sustainable agriculture.”

Razan Al Mubarak, President of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, commented: “We know that nature is a powerful ally against climate change, and we know that greater funding is required to implement Nature-based Solutions at scale. The coastal lagoon study is a useful tool for non-state actors, including the private sector, to understand the economic benefits of protecting and restoring our coasts and marine habitats. I call upon businesses and financing institutions to carefully consider these opportunities and integrate Nature-based Solutions into their long-term decision-making.”

Sheikh Majid Bin Saoud Bin Rashid Al Mualla, Chairman of the Department of Tourism and Archaeology in Umm Al Quwain and Chairman of the High Committee for the Sustainable Blue Economy Strategy, said: “The emirate of Umm Al Quwain has taken robust steps towards establishing a nature-positive tourism model as part of our larger Sustainable Blue Economy Strategy 2031, which aims to contribute 40 per cent of the emirates GDP by 2031. We are encouraged by the results of the NbS project, which clearly demonstrate the community’s appreciation and support for the protection and restoration of coastal lagoons.”

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There are many economic benefits that can be accrued by protecting the coastal lagoons, says the study. Image Credit: Supplied

“Nature-based Solutions are a crucial step in achieving climate and biodiversity goals. The data unearthed by the project contributes to our growing knowledge of coastal lagoons. The findings suggest that a holistic approach is essential for guiding effective ecosystem management and designing ecologically meaningful Nature-based Solutions. Adopting this broader perspective can ensure more comprehensive conservation and restoration outcomes, which not only protect and enhance blue carbon ecosystems but also contribute to broader ecological and social benefits - paving the path to associated benefits in the region,” said Dr Shaikha Al Dhaheri, Secretary General of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD).

Laila Mostafa Abdullatif, Director General of Emirates Nature-WWF, the key implementation partner of the project, applauded the close collaboration behind its success: “The NbS project is the first of its kind to investigate the natural capital across the UAE’s top priority sites for credible Nature-based Solutions, combining expertise and resources of multiple stakeholders. We were delighted to showcase domestic insights at COP28 to enhance global dialogue, and also to garner greater political and financial support for high-impact NbS projects in the region.”

The next phase of the NbS project includes the development of a pipeline of ‘bankable’ NbS and Sustainable Blue Economy (SBE) projects, including ecotourism and agroecology to support local economic growth and unlock suitable finance mechanisms to drive implementation and scale. Collaboration across the public and private sector will be instrumental in bringing these opportunities to fruition.