Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary,

28/06/2006

Report of the Mission to Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary

Reported by Peter Bridgewater & Guangchun Lei, Ramsar Convention Secretariat

Invited by the Dubai Municipal Government, we visited Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary from June 4-5th, 2006. During the visits, we met representatives from the UAE Federal Environment Agency, Dubai Municipal Government, Sama Dubai (government developer), EIA consultants, and WWF UAE. The Department of Environment of Dubai Municipality presented the current situation of the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, and its qualification under Ramsar site criteria, Sama Dubai presented their comprehensive EIA assessment on the low intensity housing and health service development in its buffer zones and their associated environment management plans. After the meeting, two field trips were made to look at different aspects, including the habitats, migratory water bird populations, fish, water quality, visitor facilities, and the buffer zones for planned future development. Towards the end of the trip, we exchanged views with the stakeholders.

Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary (RAKWS) as a Ramsar site

From the documents we received, and our site visits, we are convinced this site is an excellent potential Ramsar site in an arid region. It qualifies under Ramsar Criteria 2, 4, 6 and 8. It may also qualify under Criterion 5 (if the most recent census data confirm the total number of birds exceeds 20,000). The mangroves, mudflats, lagoons, sabkhas, reedbeds and shrubs form a wonderful wetland coastscape that supports both nature and local people. Recognition of its global importance will not only promote its ecological, educational, cultural and aesthetic values, but more importantly, provide an opportunity for the Ramsar Convention to communicate and demonstrate its mission i.e:

the conservation and wise use of wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.

Management issues of the site

We are pleased with the high standard of management that Department of Environment has put in place at the RAKWS. Clear management objectives have been identified, good quality EIA has been undertaken for the low intensity housing and health service development in its buffer zones, its associated environment management planning, and the RAKWS enhancement plan. An effective partnership has been built up with key stakeholders, such as Sama Dubai (Dubai International Property), EWS and WWF-UAE.

However, we are living in a changing world. With future developments in the buffer zones (with the increasing of human activities on the edge of the wetlands), Dubai's growing international attraction, and global warming, we have to develop good strategies to adopt such changes.

From our short visit, we feel there are a number of management issues that require management authorities to monitor closely and take timely measures to ensure the maintenance of the ecological character of the wetland. Such key issues include habitat quality, and communication, education and public awareness (CEPA).

Habitat Management

Habitat management in RAKWS must focus on control of mangroves within the core zone; thus maintaining a mosaic habitat through water level management, as well as improved water quality through biological and engineering measures.

Management of mangroves: It was an excellent idea to introduce mangroves into the wetland 15 years ago. Mangrove forests have been well established with the help of the conservation measures, and the extremely rich nutrients in the system. However, if this process is not managed, according to the objective of the RAKWS as a habitat for migratory waterbirds, most of the waterbirds' habitat (especially the tidal mudflats for shore birds, and the open space for waterfowl) will be covered by the mangroves in the near future. We would like to suggest the management agency prepare a mangrove forest management plan, which maximises the benefits of the mangrove ecosystem, and at the same time, maintains habitat for wildlife.

Management of water level: The most commonly applied technology in managing wetland habitat is through manipulation of water levels across the system, so that a heterogonous habitat is maintained. This has been demonstrated at RAKWS for the flamingoes, and we understand some brine shrimp ponds have been planned. Such technology can be combined with mangrove forest management activities, coupled with water purification activities.

Improve water quality: According to the data, as well as the site visits, water quality at the site is going to be a major problem. The Environment Management Plan proposed opening a new creek, which could improve the water circulation of the lagoon. The plan also suggests stopping all treated sewage water flowing into the system. These measures should be enough to tackle the problem of eutrophication. However, whether stopping all treated sewage water entering the system is feasible is not evident. With the development around the site, it is anticipated the volume of treated sewage water will be soon increased considerably. To divert all treated sewage water to other locations obviously requires time.

We therefore recommend a combination of biological and engineering water purification to de-eutrophicate the current treated sewage water. All treated sewage water would be diverted to the buffer zone and large reed beds (Phragmites, and/or Typha) developed to allow the water to percolate through to the lagoon. Reeds have proved to be highly efficient in removing nutrients from water bodies, especially if the reeds are harvested regularly. After the treated sewage water is remediated by the reed bed, it can then flow into the core zone. Such biological measures, together with the improved circulation promoted by the new water channel to the sea, we believe will significantly improve the water quality.

CEPA Programmes at the site

With the excellent location of the site in Dubai, and the great appreciation of the wetland ecosystem, greatly improved access, and anticipated population increase, a CEPA Programme, which aims to develop communication, education and public awareness activity could be a very powerful tool to promote the conservation of and raise awareness of the educational, cultural and aesthetic values of the wetland. This will not only contribute to the global wetland conservation network, but also raise the international profile of Dubai & UAE.

A CEPA programme can be effectively linked to the global network through Ramsar Convention platform. But the most effective programme design should be based locally, at the site, demonstrating the function and ecological services of the RAKWS. Necessary facilities include a planned visitor centre and natural trails or boardwalks into the ecosystems, especially the mangrove forests, to allow first-hand visitor experience of the complex set of ecosystems making up the RAKWS. In this way local inhabitants as well as visitors can acquire a full appreciation of the habitats of the RAKWS.

We look forward to the UAE acceding to the Convention to allow registration of the RAKWS as a Ramsar site.

Photos from the site:

Flamingoes are regular visitors to the site

The lagoon edge - with mangroves invading

Reedbeds developing at the edge of the lagoon

Inside the well-developed mangrove forest

-- photos by Peter Bridgewater

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