Unprecedented economic growth, massive population increase and rapid infrastructure expansion, are having some unfortunate environmental consequences for the UAE. Not only are areas where developments occur directly impacted, but so are distant places as well: the country’s mountain habitats for instance
Although many concerns have been expressed about coastal habitats degrading on account of the explosion of sea side properties it is, more often than not, forgotten that building materials for these constructions are being sourced from mountains.
Extensive mining to acquire these is destroying habitats that host some of the rarest species in the world. One of these is the Arabian tahr, a goat look-alike, which is endemic to the UAE’s (and Oman’s) arid highlands. What this means is that the species is found nowhere else on earth. If its habitat goes, so does tahr in the wild.
The urban spread
The UAE’s population has increased 16-fold in the last 30 years and so has the urban spread. Between 1970 and 1985, Dubai city itself expanded from 18 sq km to 110 sq km.
But the really dramatic rise has been since 2000. Today, the entire 60 km coastline of Dubai emirate from Jebel Ali to Sharjah is urbanised. Like all countries of the Arabian Peninsula, with the exception of Yemen, the UAE has a level of urbanisation exceeding 80 per cent. And this has seen the construction juggernaut roll across the land as also the coastal waters.
Spiralling demand for cement
The first cement factory in the UAE opened in Ras Al Khaimah emirate in 1975 with an annual capacity of 550,000 tons. By 2001 numbers had grown to 11 factories with a capacity exceeding eight million tons per year!
But it is coastal development of formidable proportions, initiated in Dubai during the last decade, that has created an ever-increasing demand for cement – local cement being preferred (to imported) on account of its freshness.
Other than gypsum and some additives, all ingredients for cement as well as the bulk of other construction materials such as rocks and aggregates, are sourced locally from the mountain habitats of Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah emirates.
In 2005, there were 64 crushers in Fujairah alone, representing half of the labour force and income of the emirate. The same year, construction of a new cement factory with a planned production capacity of one million tons started in Ras Al Khaimah.
Given the pace of development and demand for building materials, the market for cement is expected to rise by 10 – 15 per cent annually to total about 23 million tons per annum within the next five years.
The Arabian tahr and other mountain fauna
It is classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ by IUCN, the World Conservation Union. Main populations of Arabian tahr have been documented from just a few locations in its range. In the UAE, these locations are Wadi Wurayah (Fujairah emirate) and Jebel Hafeet (Abu Dhabi emirate). The other locations are in Oman – Wadi Sareen, Al Ghamah and Jebel Qahwan / Jebel Sabtah.
In 1978, the world population of Arabian tahr was estimated to be less than 2,000 – a figure that needs revaluation. While the Wadi Sareen in Oman supports a population of some 200-300 individuals restricted to a single protected area, the UAE population is estimated to be very low (less than 100 individuals) and fragile.
Low numbers, fragmented distribution and isolated populations make the tahr particularly vulnerable to threats such as habitat loss and illegal hunting.
Although officially protected, this status is not as effective as the erstwhile, traditional resource conservation method of hamiyaat.
Whereas the establishment of hamiyaat created livestock-free protected areas where fodder was cut by hand, its abandonment has led to grazing pressure and further loss of suitable habitat for Arabian tahr.
A recent survey by EWS-WWF has confirmed a decline in mountain fauna in Wadi Wurayah (Fujairah). Fewer sightings of not only tahr but also Arabian leopard, caracal and mountain gazelle have been recorded by local Bedouins over the last 15 years. The last documented proof of the presence of Arabian leopard, for instance, dates back to 1999.
Development on the Arabian Gulf coast is, therefore (by way of quarries for mineral extraction), inducing a supplementary stress on surviving arid mountain species already weakened by over-hunting of the past, poaching, over-grazing, water extraction for agriculture, habitat fragmentation and drought.
Chances of recovery
Hope still exists for the UAE’s fragile mountains and their wildlife. Last winter, the rainiest in a decade, saw the mountains lush with vegetation, a carpet of green stretching from Wadi Helio (in the south) to Dibba (in the north).
Further, following the recommendation of the late HH Sheikh Zayed in the 1980s for protection of the UAE’s sparse vegetation, mountains are no longer exploited by goat herders. Herds are now kept in fenced farms where they can be supplied with better quality food at lower costs. A law was also recently passed in Abu Dhabi emirate to protect grazing grounds.
Hunting of big mammals is officially banned in the UAE, and even though there is still evidence of poaching, the ban is being increasingly enforced by local and federal governments. Proof of the presence of Arabian leopard surviving in the Musandam was found last February, while tracks and sightings of mountain gazelle and Arabian tahr roaming the area from Wadi Helio to Dibba are regularly reported.
Besides, Wadi Wurayah may soon be officially declared as UAE’s first mountain protected area.
Wildlife, then, has a chance to recover from the errors of the past. But to save the last Arabian tahrs and leopards of the world, there needs to be a mountain habitats and wildlife conservation plan for the entire country through a network of protected areas, restoration and sustainable use. Mountain habitats and wildlife requirements must be included in decision-making processes for developmental projects.