Dubai’s Nakheel is pressing ahead with some of the world’s biggest ever offshore developments. Imad Haffar, the company’s head of environmental research, explains what is being done to minimise their environmental impact

What are the key environmental challenges of building these offshore projects?

The environmental challenges are many and varied. They range from impacts on marine ecosystems to water circulation and quality. That is why environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are a key prerequisite of all Nakheel projects. They investigate issues such as consideration of alternative designs, ecology, water quality, coastal processes, noise, air, socio-economic implications, traffic, visual considerations, geology and groundwater. The EIA makes an assessment of the impact of the proposed project on each of these aspects of the environment. The EIA also proposes a range of mitigation measures against predictions of adverse impact, to offset that impact. Mitigation measures may include such aspects as design modification, specific controls for the construction and operational phases or even policy decisions aimed at safeguarding the environment. For example, each of Nakheel’s marine projects will be effectively managed as a marine sanctuary with very strict regulations aimed at protecting water quality and the inhabitant marine life.

With so much dredging and reclamation work being undertaken, what impact has there been on the marine life in the short term and what impact does Nakheel feel it will have in the long term?

One of Nakheel’s primary goals is to ensure that construction not only has the smallest possible impact on the environment, but that it actually turns any negative impacts into positive enhancements to the environment above the original, pre-development status. Prior to commencing any dredging activities for Nakheel reclamation projects, baseline surveys are carried out for the marine environment of both the proposed borrow area and the proposed reclamation site.

Our surveys to date have shown that the overall biodiversity of the study areas is low. For example, more than 95 per cent of the grid-based sampling points for the Palm Jumeirah investigations fell on bare sandy or muddy substrate. It is recognised that this substrate type represents habitat for benthic infauna such as locally common invertebrates; however, species which inhabit a dynamic open sea benthic environment will readily recolonise the new surface sediments of a borrow area once dredging is complete. Post-reclamation sampling is being conducted by Nakheel to monitor the recovery of benthic populations in dredged borrow areas and in reclaimed intertidal zones. Extensive survey studies have been carried out and results to date indicate a healthy influx of many species of marine flora and fauna. As soon as Nakheel began building the breakwater reefs, algae started to grow on them along with a wide variety of urchins, barnacles, sponges, clams, crabs and fish. Soon the area became covered with marine life.

How does Nakheel respond to criticism that the marine habitat has been destroyed forever and that the beaches are being eroded?

The majority of the marine habitat affected by Nakheel’s projects previously comprised open sea floor with bare sandy or muddy sediments. Such habitat is very well represented in the Gulf. Our projects typically provide a combination of landforms that develop into rocky reefs, seagrass meadows and extensive sandy intertidal zones (64 kilometres on Palm Jumeirah). Monitoring work by panels of independent and specialised authorities along with in-house surveys has clearly demonstrated that these habitats have been rapidly colonised by a wide range of species.

As for erosion of beaches, all of Dubai’s beaches have been subject to erosion for many years and have been stabilised by a range of defence structures such