Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Persian Gulf: threats make it a microcosm for the world's oceans

Another pair of articles covering studies in recent academic journals, this time on the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf: "Protecting the Arabian Gulf: Past, present and future" (Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management [Vol. 12/4]) and "The Gulf: A young sea in decline" (Marine Pollution Bulletin [60/1]). Like the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf is a nearly enclosed body of water which can often amplify the impact of environmental changes. It can also serve as a microcosm of what can happen to larger bodies of water.

The Persian Gulf is bordered by several countries that are both experiencing significant industrial, residential, and tourism development and are hampered by a lack of cross-border cooperation in investigating and acting upon environmental issues key to the health of the Gulf. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), and Iran are some of the key nations that surround the Gulf. Environmental impact studies typically depend on extensive background data, or a baseline, to determine potential impact from development activities. Due to a lack of intra-country cooperation, these baselines are limited or non-existent, thereby weakening the power and effectiveness of the studies.

Development around the Gulf ranges from dredging to provide new land areas for industrial, residential and tourism developments; to oil exploration and drilling; to dams and desalination plants. Sea bottom dredging removes large areas of productive, shallow water habitat. This destruction impacts sealife nurseries and feeder fish populations (a source of food for many local low-income communities) and the extended land for huge developments can alter the water flows which can adversely affect other productive marine areas.

The threat of oil spills from the region's oil operations, as happened in 1991, always looms as an environmental threat, just as we are seeing take place in the Gulf of Mexico today. And dams and desalination plants, designed to quench the thirst of growing populations, deprives or disrupts the Gulf of natural intakes of fresh water which rejuvenates marshlands and helps to balance overall salinity.

Then there is the impact of climate change and a marked increase in water temperature which has also contributed to changes in salinity levels and water quality, in addition to impacting coral reef communities and spurring the growth of various algi that compete and crowd out or overtake the corals.

The small, nearly enclosed nature of the Gulf exacerbates these environmental issues and without the political cooperation needed for comprehensive scientific research and multi-national strategies to preserve and protect the Gulf, one of the studies I reviewed said, "the prognosis for the Gulf continuing to provide abundant natural resources is poor."

What is happening in the Persian Gulf is also happening worldwide. Accelerated in the Gulf; perhaps more slowly on a global scale - but the end results can be the same. Will the citizens of the Gulf nations learn and respond to save the Gulf? Will the rest of us?

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