Qatar University‘s initiative of ‘Gardening’ in the Arabian Gulf could be considered an unprecedented one. It is looking a long way forward. In effect, life in the Gulf revolved around living off the natural resources of the surrounding sea. Wild pearl diving was for centuries one of the few means of earning life. Pearl grounds originally stretched on the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula from Kuwait to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. The very recent advent of oil and gas has changed all that. For good? One cannot help but think that things might get back to the way they were. In the meantime, Gardening in the Arabian Gulf might be taken as a strategic step that ultimate goal. Here is the story as published by THE.

The picture above is for illustration and is of Doha News.

‘Gardening’ in the Arabian Gulf

Qatar is making ambitious plans to reintroduce corals and counteract marine pollution with a new artificial reef

For Qatar, like much of the planet, climate change is an ever-present concern. As demand for urban expansion increases, the country’s construction industry is booming – causing inevitable tension between Qatar’s economic and environmental agendas.

One area that has suffered dramatically is the Arabian Gulf’s natural coral reef. Common estimates suggest that just 2 per cent of coral life here has survived since humans began their development of the region.

But a bold new plan led by experts at Qatar University hopes to change this trajectory: the Mushroom Forest Artificial Reef is the brainchild of Bruno Welter Giraldes, research assistant professor of marine biology at the university’s Environmental Science Centre.

According to Dr Giraldes, it is “the systemic pattern of urban development in coastal areas” that is to blame for the reef’s decline. Unlike many of the planet’s reefs – which are threatened by rising sea temperatures as well as other climatic changes – the Arabian Peninsula has one of the only types of coral reef ecosystems able to survive high temperatures. Because of this, experts believe that the loss of marine life here is a direct consequence of pollution, overfishing and, in particular, coastal sedimentation spurred on by construction work along the coast.

“There can be no doubt that it has killed a lot of the corals,” says Dr Giraldes. “It’s possible our generation will see the total extinction of one ecosystem – which is why we have to find an alternative.”

Originally from Brazil, Dr Giraldes came up with the idea of the mushroom reef after becoming fascinated with an unusual coral formation called “chapeirões”, which grows off the Brazilian coastline.

“It is the only species that grows vertically, creating something like a Greek column,” he explains. “When they get nearer the surface, they spread laterally, creating a mushroom effect.”

Observing how these vertical corals behaved in nature gave Dr Giraldes the idea that such a structure could be created artificially to boost marine life in endangered waters such as those of the Arabian Gulf. With help from the Qatar University Internal Funding Programme, he now leads a three-year project worth $300,000 (£260,000) to help achieve that aim.

“What we are doing is biomimicry – we are taking an idea of something that already exists in nature in the hope that we can reintroduce marine life naturally,” he explains. “If we can create artificial structures that naturally adapt to the marine environment, with a bit of help, we can ‘farm’ marine life indoors before introducing them to artificial reefs – I call it ‘gardening’”, he says.

This approach to growing corals indoors has been tested successfully in different universities worldwide, including the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which has the indoor tanks and facilities required for large-scale observation. The sedimentation experiment in the Coastal Engineering laboratory at the University of Queensland in Australia “worked beautifully”, says Dr Giraldes, thanks mainly to the mushroom-shaped design. “Imagine a lot of mushrooms together – they create one forest of mushrooms that can be deployed together, connected in the base. The water current moves horizontally, close to the bottom, isolating the coral habitat away from the sedimentation.”

While there are other artificial reef designs in the market, it is only his iconic vertical design that can withstand currents carrying sediment along the seabed, Dr Giraldes explains. “Most artificial reefs are fine when used close to natural coral reefs that already exist; but if you want to increase the habitat by starting from scratch in a soft, sandy bottom, this new artificial reef with a large base can ‘float’ above the sediment so that corals don’t sink or disappear, buried by sediment.”

To start such a project from so little is a huge challenge. Right now, there can be no guarantee that pollution won’t overcome the marine life eventually, should the current level of construction continue. But any attempt to reintroduce coral life is important, says Dr Giraldes, not only to protect the existing endangered reef but also for ecological balance and security.

“In Brazil, when we destroyed the forest, it increased dengue fever and other threats to humans,” he says. “In the case of the coral reef here, we’ve already caused an imbalance, where some animals are dying and others, which are harmful to humans, are increasing in numbers.” It is an acknowledged phenomenon, for example, that growing populations of jellyfish “stalk” the Arabian Peninsula and interfere with water desalination plants – a resource that humans depend on heavily in desert countries such as Qatar.

But reintroducing coral reefs is just one part of Dr Giraldes’ master plan. “What I am proposing is not just the reef but an entire change in approach to the social and economic system,” he explains.

To truly protect the natural environment going forward, his research takes into account the varying priorities for industry, as well as what he calls “nature users” of many kinds. “We have several social companies that use the marine environment for tourism; we have divers, recreational and commercial fishing and artisan users…all of them contribute towards a society that uses this environment. So if we satisfy the population with their ordinary needs – enjoying the sea, having fun, fishing, doing what they are used to doing – then it works for us as a scientific and environmentalist group, too.”

By offering these businesses an alternative to the existing, exhausted natural reef, the natural reef can be helped in its recovery. But more than this, Dr Giraldes wants to make the artificial reefs an investment opportunity for businesses, including the construction industries that contributed to the death of the coral reef in the first place.

“Industrial developers and academia fight each other – and environmentalists are losing the war,” he says. “That’s why I’m sowing a seed for this new form of construction – it’s a new field that the industry can make money in.”

One construction company is already working with Qatar University to build the base structures for the new reef using a special kind of concrete designed by the researchers. “This probiotic concrete assimilates faster,” Dr Giraldes says. “The bacterial microorganism can get really close to the natural rock, fast, which avoids barnacles and unwanted growth, for example”.

By the end of the current project, Dr Giraldes hopes to have successfully installed a living reef in the Gulf, but also have a patented product that can be sold to governments around the world.

“As a scientist and a stakeholder in the university, I am giving society an alternative to make this restoration a profitable action for all,” he says.

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