Responsible island development in Abu Dhabi

Responsible island developmentImage Credit: Supplied

From age-old ports to reclaimed land, the UAE has a rich history of developments along its coasts and beyond. It might even come as a surprise to know that some popular destinations are actually built on reclaimed property.

''In Abu Dhabi, for example, most people don't know that the entire Corniche is man made, Lulu Island is man made and where the Marina Mall is located is man made,'' says marine biologist Dr John Burt, an Associate Professor of Biology at New York University Abu Dhabi. ''So coastal developments have been going on for a longtime here.''

An area of particular interest to marine biologists is the coral reef located about l-2km north of Saadiyat island, pictured. This is one of the most diverse reef off the coast of the UAE, so it has a lot of coral and fish species and it also has fairly large reefs,'' says Dr Burt. ''But this area isn't protected and there is ongoing coastal development on the north end of Saadiyat, which if it expands may be a potential threat to this reef.''

Although Saadiyat is a natural island, its developer, Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), must get a permit from the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) for coastal development. Similar to other projects in the country, baseline studies and impact assessments are carried out before a permit is issued. Impact assessments are undertaken by independent registered consultants to avoid biased results.

Before construction begins, the main contractor has to develop a construction environmental management plan for the scope of work, identifying the likely impact on the affected area and providing mitigating measures. This is followed by quarterly audits of all construction projects on the island that are sent independently to the EAD.

The baseline surveys conducted on the Saadiyat project identified a few areas of significant natural resources on the island. Among them was the beach on the north Side.

''This beach is very special because it's got a back dune vegetation. Behind the beach there's a natural area of dunes and associated vegetation, which is something that doesn't occur everywhere and is a natural protection against storms,'' says Dr Nathalie Staelens, Head of Environmental Services at TDIC.

''It also provides a nesting habitat for hawksbill turtles and other animals. We've got gazelles living there, smaller mammals, foxes, so it is a natural habitat that is of importance to local animals.''

TDIC initially fenced off the area, but when hospitality properties started to rise, maintaining the protected area became a challenge. A boardwalk was later built allowing people to cross from the hotel property to the beach without disrupting the 60m dune protection zone.

''Its an elevated boardwalk that allows sand to pass through. Dunes are quite mobile systems and when the wind blows the dunes get reshaped and the sand blows underneath,'' explains Dr Staelens. ''So rather than creating this natural barrier, we made sure that the Sow of sand is maintained and turtles that would come up to the beach still had full access to the dune zone.''

The baseline survey also identified a large area of scattered mangroves in the east of the island interspersed with canals. The area has been preserved and 400,000 additional mangroves were planted in various parts of the island.

The developer has also implemented other measures, including the prohibition of motorized water sports on Saadiyat's beaches to prevent marine life from being harmed, especially by the propeller of water vehicles. Contractors are also required to turn off landscape lights that may disturb the sea turtles. Guests are also told to refrain from using the beach after sunset and are advised to draw their curtains and dim their lights.

While the TDIC is aware of the coral reefs located off the north shore, Dr Staelens says it's beyond the developer's jurisdiction.

''We are trying to work with the environment agency to nominate it as a protected area,'' she says.

Source: Manal Ismail, Special to Property Weekly,


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