Hana Saif Al Suwaidi, Chairperson, Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA): Interview

Interview: Hana Saif Al Suwaidi

How can technology and public awareness be leveraged to safeguard natural habitats?

HANA SAIF AL SUWAIDI: Sharjah is well equipped to preserve its biodiversity, particularly its protected areas. We have turned to innovation and the emirate’s numerous research centres to help meet our goals. For example, we have used drones to monitor and survey protected areas, some of which cover large expanses and difficult terrain. In the same vein, satellite imagery and automated alarm systems were instrumental in the quick reaction to and containment of an oil spill on the coasts of Kalba and Khorfakkan during the summer of 2020.

However, technology alone cannot ensure our natural reserves remain protected. Citizens and visitors must also understand the importance of maintaining a delicate balance in the habitat to support flora and fauna. Awareness campaigns at schools and other spaces are essential in this regard. In both Sharjah and the wider UAE there are communication-related challenges arising from the population’s diversity, as different generations and cultural backgrounds relate differently to the environment.

Unfortunately, awareness is not always enough and legal measures are sometimes required. Since 2016 Sharjah’s government has authorised the EPAA – in cooperation with the police and municipality – to punish offences with harsh fines that in some categories are exclusive to this emirate. These measures have proved to be effective in preventing repeated environmental violations, particularly those related to littering when camping in the desert – a very popular winter leisure activity.

In what ways can policy support environmental action in the UAE and Sharjah specifically?

AL SUWAIDI: The UAE Environmental Policy launched in December 2020 by the federal Ministry of Climate Change and Environment deepened cooperation between individual emirates and national-level institutions. Two aspects are of particular importance in the case of Sharjah: eliminating the trade of endangered species – in line with our priorities and the UAE’s commitments under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – and identifying the origins of the oil spills in the summer of 2020 to prevent future incidents of this nature. The emirate is working with the federal authorities to address these issues.

What has been done in recent years to develop the ecotourism segment in Sharjah?

AL SUWAIDI: Sharjah has 13 protected areas that are home to species unique to the UAE, such as the Arabian collared kingfisher in the Al Qurm Nature Reserve. There has been a concerted effort to develop ecotourism and capitalise on these natural resources in the last decade. In 2015 the EPAA opened the Wasit Nature Reserve to the public; this was the first time a protected area was offered as a tourism site in Sharjah. The Wasit Nature Reserve was created through a wetlands rehabilitation project to safeguard and showcase migratory birds, and it was the first such facility in the GCC.

More recently, in April 2021 Sharjah inaugurated the Khor Kalba Mangrove Centre. As well as being part of ongoing efforts to support biodiversity, the centre contributes to a broader push to attract visitors and investment to the Kalba and Khorfakkan regions on the eastern coast of the emirate. Preserving wildlife while developing the emirate’s appeal as a tourism destination is also a goal of the ongoing expansion of Sharjah Safari, the largest safari project outside Africa. In addition to its diverse wildlife, Sharjah is known for its geological heritage as well. The Buhais Geology Park, opened in early 2020, is surrounded by a landscape dating back 93m years and contains a wealth of rare fossils.

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The Report: Sharjah 2021

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