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UAE: Marine Pollution Threatens Drinking Water Supply

Meena S Janardhan

DUBAI, Aug 3 2004 (IPS) - Located in one of the most arid regions of the world, Gulf countries depend heavily on seawater desalination for their drinking water. But experts warn that unabated pollution of the Gulf waters could soon make it impossible to treat seawater for human consumption.

”Offshore oil extraction, exports, and leaking old ships that pass through these waters, are all causes of marine pollution. Increasing urbanisation has also led to the dumping of sewage, hazardous wastes and toxic chemicals into the sea,” Ram Prasad, a Dubai-based oil and gas expert, told IPS.

”These are serious environmental threats and we need to seek solutions soon,” Prasad warned.

Oil slicks are one of the greatest pollutants.

Around 100 oil tankers sail through the Gulf waters daily, discharging around eight million tonnes of oil sediments, in their path, yearly. Apart from discharging water mixed with oil, a number of these carriers also wash their tankers and dispose the dirty water into the sea or on the beaches.

Every tonne of oil (about seven barrels) spilt costs about 1,400 U.S. dollars to clean up, according to experts.

”Oil spills also result from damaged and sunken vessels,” said Prasad.

The oil and gas expert also blamed the Gulf Wars for wrecking havoc on the marine environment.

”During the Second Gulf War, the Iraqi army set Kuwaiti oil wells on fire as a cover for its retreat. The fires cost Kuwait three per cent of its oil reserves, and caused immense damage to the ecological system,” Prasad said.

”Around eight million barrels of crude were discharged into the waters by the end of the war,” he pointed out.

Other environmental effects of the 1991 war included destruction of sewage treatment plants, resulting in the discharge of over 50,000 cubic meters of raw sewage every day into Kuwait Bay. The total cost of all environmental damages after 1991 war was estimated at 40 billion U.S dollars.

”Oil slicks have deeply damaged marine life, including sea creatures and mangrove forests,” said a Dubai Municipality official, who did not want to be named.

He said the marine pollution has drastically affected the lucrative fishing industry in Saudi Arabia and decimated several species of birds in the kingdom’s Abu Ali Island.

”This is alarming because there is medical evidence to prove that consuming fish from oil-polluted waters can cause cancer and other lethal diseases in human beings,” said the official.

The U.S. National Ocean Service has identified the Arabian Gulf as the fourth ‘hot spot’ where 108 spills from vessels have been recorded since 1960.

Topping the list is the Gulf of Mexico with 267 spills; north- eastern United States with 140 spills and the Mediterranean Sea with 127 spills.

The vulnerability of the Gulf waters stems from the fact that they are part of a semi-closed, highly saline and shallow sea marine ecosystem. In some parts of the Gulf, the water is only 35 meters deep. Also the rate of evaporation of water here is higher than in other seas.

Another complicating factor is that there is very little flow of fresh water into the Gulf seas because of the lack of rain in the region and the absence of surface water bodies like rivers, ponds and lakes. In most cases, the water cycle tends to preserve environmental balance but that too is a very slow process.

It takes almost five years, at least, for an ecological balance to be achieved by the water cycle in these waters.

Essam Al Muhairi, a researcher at a Dubai-based desalination company elaborates.

”Gulf countries depend largely on desalinised water for drinking purposes. Desalinated water is even used in agriculture and various industries. More than 60 per cent of desalinisation equipment in the world is found in this region – Saudi Arabia alone desalinises about three million tonnes of seawater daily,” he said in an interview.

According to Al Muhairi, the lack of fresh water flowing in the Gulf seas to balance the build up saline water and partially offset water pollution levels poses a problem for desalinisation.

”This water (from the Gulf seas) could soon become unsuitable for desalinisation. Since desalinisation stations treat both saline and polluted water, increasing levels of both may render seawater untreatable seven years from now,” he warned.

”And the desalination process also increases the level of salinity,” added Al Muhairi.

Seeing the alarming trends in marine pollution, authorities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have called for stern action.

At a recent session, members of the UAE Federal National Council called attention to the fact that oil discharged by visiting and passing vessels was polluting beaches in the northern emirates.

Stating that environmental protection needed more attention, they urged the Federal Environmental Agency to devise a mechanism to implement the federal environmental law more effectively.

One organisation that is working towards reducing marine pollution in the Gulf waters is the Regional Clean Sea Organisation (Recso), which groups 12 major oil companies operating in the Gulf as well as oil tanker owners.

Recso functions under the concept of ”mutual aid” at times of marine oil spills and is a voluntary, non-commercial association with the objective of accomplishing a ‘clean sea’ vision. The main aim of the organisation is preventing oil spills even before they occur.

”We need more such coordinated efforts in this field. Marine pollution is a bane to both humans and marine life and all-out efforts must be made to prevent it at its roots,” said Prasad.

”This can be achieved only if all the concerned parties work together with the authorities to create a strategy that can plug every loophole and take the offenders to task,” he stressed.

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