By : Nadir Mumtaz
Coral reefs underly ocean biodiversity and contribute significantly in the economic, social, touristic and cultural scope .
The extent of biodiversity of coral reefs incorporating a multitude of symbiotic relationships , encompasses 285,000 km2 covering less then 0.1 % of the ocean exterior. Coral colonies are not attached to land and entire nurseries can be moved to waters with appropriate temperatures.
Over 780 recognized species of reef building corals maintain habitats hosting diverse marine species. Reefs provide critically needed natural infrastructure shielding vulnerable coastlines from flooding and damage from storms and ocean swells.
The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) goals are aimed at the restoration of degraded ecosystems to enhance food security, purify air quality and adequately manage the climate crisis attributable to ocean warming
.Coastal development schemes are required to be in conformity with 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and the circular carbon economy (CCE) targets to reduce carbon emissions to 280 million tons.
Coastal Development in the Middle East
The Red Sea Development megaproject , along the north western coast of Saudi Arabia , is being carried out under the aegis of the Saudi Public Investment Fund essentially a strategic component of the Saudi Vision 2030.
The vision is geared at diversification of the economy expected to contribute upwards of Saudi Riyal 11 billion to the GDP.
The project is tentatively scheduled for completion in the year 2024. Presently bulk earthwork is in progress with a substantial part of fill quantity completed in flagship projects such as Yacht Club, Red Sea Marine Life Institute,
The Marina and premier hotels. The marine pristine terrain comprises 4,155 km2 and an archipelago of 90 islands as tourist attractions out of which nine islands have been designated as conservation sites.
The mega project is designed to operate with a zero-carbon footprint to be powered by renewable energy with no connection to the national grid and send zero waste to landfill.
KSA Protects its Marine Life
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is committed to protect marine resources through several agreements and consortia prominent being the Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea (PERSGA) essentially an intergovernmental body dedicated to conserving marine and coastal environments of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aqaba, Gulf of Suez, Suez Canal and Gulf of Aden surrounding the Socotra Archipelago and nearby waters. Member include Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, KSA, Somalia and Yemen.
Oil Lanes and Coral Reef Integrity
The region is a major international route for maritime traffic with KSA being the world’s largest producer and exporter of oil mostly transported by sea. These factors place the region’s reefs and coastal and marine ecosystems at significant risk from major ecological disruption through vessel groundings , collisions or oil spillage.
In the United States of America states like South Carolina and Florida have plowed millions of dollars into expanding port infrastructure through dedicating port land to commercial port operations and infrastructure to ensure economic security inclusive of food and energy security as the US maritime industry comprises of a diverse combination of sea going carriers, terminal operators, labor organizations, merchant navy organizations, truckers, stevedores and maritime logistic stakeholders.
In KSA such ballpark and estate luxury coastal development is consciously not being done at the cost of any area of industrial working port .
Business Model of KSA Red Sea Development Project is Biodiversity
The peculiarity of Red Sea Corals is that the corals can withstand extreme temperatures and have been known to survive a seven degree variation.
The business model of the megaproject is segregated temperatures in marine areas which enhances biodiversity .Environmental research has ostensibly been a precursor although coastal development and marine conservation are traditionally antagonistic.
The bane of coastal development is that it typically alters marine ecosystems, damages coral reefs and feeding zones thereby reducing the extent of habitats and generates pollution and noise.
Before embarking on this coastal development project involving reclamation , landfill and dredging an interdisciplinary team of practitioners, including concept master planners, marine engineers, architects, environmental managers and marine ecologists was constituted to address marine environmental issues primarily focusing on coral reefs conservation.
The megaproject comprises a 20,000 km2 special economic zone with a marine component of 7,000 km2. Various options in the concept master plan were explored to avoid impacting Al Wajh lagoon (2,081 km2) development while achieving net conservation benefits.
Wherever required design modifications to preserve marine habitats were factored in the conceptual master plan to avoid proximity to nesting sites of turtles and other marine species with an emphasis on conservation value, implementing buffer zones and reducing the density of the development .
The cornerstone of development emphasized Marine and Carbon neutrality end goals to be managed through regulation of fisheries , plastics , zero waste to landfill to be ensured, international marine landfill and reclamation standards to be adhered , Marine Spatial Planning Guidelines to be conformed , hydraulic regime study in port and backwaters to address siltation , waste management , sewage and effluence discharge to be eliminated and development not to exceed an advance prescribed percentage of site area.
The project is pioneering a new concept of operating floating coral nurseries to establish seed stocks.
Marine Spatial Planning Guidelines
Marine spatial planning (MSP) has emerged as a policy framework to optimize marine space allocation to marine activities to avoid negative interactions, improve synergies and advance towards a sustainable ocean economy. Such authorizations have not so far been prescribed for any of the areas considered by PERSGA although MSP policy guidance is in place in the adjacent Mediterranean Sea involving European Union member states with marine exclusive economic zones .
Digital Technology to save Coral Reefs
Middle Eastern countries are initiating employing digital technology of nano satellite imagery in order to sustain reef fisheries. Technology today is hampered by fragmentation of data and its timely and coordinated regional interpretation.
The Middle Eastern countries need to outline territorial boundaries to integrate emerging technologies into reef conservation science.
Coral Reefs of United Arab Emirates
The emirate of Abu Dhabi is richly endowed with coral reef assemblages appraised at 1190 km2 . However these coral reefs are endangered due to urban and industrial encroachment through landfill and dredging , hydrocarbon and seismic exploration.
Egypt’s tourism industry absorbs more then 11 million tourists annually including snorkelers exploring the reefs. In anticipation of coral reef restoration and conservation requirements for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) Egypt which has the presidency this year initiated a pioneer project in the year 2022.
Net Positive Conservation Benefit
The KSA megaproject in its present pure form , relying upon digital technology and extensive research , will ostensibly achieve a net positive conservation benefit of up to 30 % by 2040 . No comparable conservation of marine ecosystems and especially of coral reefs has been documented in coastal development in the world.
The “blue economy“ benchmark has been reset and marine and coastal development in maritime countries may henceforth conform to the KSA business and environmental model.