THE TIMES KUWAIT REPORT
Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth and the patterns it forms, as well as the multitude of ecosystems such as seas, deserts, forests, wetlands, mountains, lakes, rivers and others that form our natural environment. Biodiversity has been shaped by nature-driven processes over billions of years, but also increasingly in recent times by human influences.
World Environment Day, marked each year on 5 June, reminds us of the need to urgently address the biodiversity challenges facing the world, and introspect our role in negatively influencing the environment. We are all an integral part of biodiversity and any loss or damage to this natural biodiversity threatens the lives and livelihood of everyone on this planet, either directly or indirectly.
The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we live on, as well as other essential resources and services that allow societies and economies to flourish are delivered by the biodiversity that nature provides. Kuwait, a hot arid land with scant rainfall, no natural surface water, and little if any groundwater supplies. has an environment that generates its own share of biodiversity challenges. Unlike nature-induced biodiversity problems in many other places, much of the ecosystem breakdowns in Kuwait can be attributed to damaging human influences on nature, as well as from inexcusable negligence of this vital issue by policymakers over the years.
The 1990-91 invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces and the war to evict the occupation forces, was a major human influence that had devastating effects on Kuwait, its environment, and biological diversity. In addition to the air pollution from the more than 700 oil wells set ablaze by the retreating Iraqi troops, the crude oil spills in marine and land environments took a huge toll on biodiversity. Adding to this, the bombings, movement of military vehicles, proliferation of mines and weapons and building of long defensive and offensive trenches along the coastline and in the desert, had severe and long-lasting negative impacts on the soil and land.
The days and months immediately after the liberation of the country presented a surreal environment. The thick pallor of dark smoke and soot covering the sky from the burning oil wells turned day to night. The large oil slicks floating over the pristine Gulf waters threatened desalination plants and marine lifeforms. What was once untrammeled desert landscape, was pocked with track marks of heavy military vehicles, and equipment brought in to extinguish the oil fires.
In addition, oil spewing out of the wells alongwith waters used to extinguish the fires formed black glimmering oil lakes that dotted the oilfield areas, even as oil contaminants degraded the soil and chemicals seeped down to pollute the limited groundwater supplies. Probably, the one positive outcome from this devastating environmental tragedy was that for the first time it jostled the authorities out of their reverie, and made them realize the fragility of the natural landscape, and the enormous impact that environmental damage can have on the country and the wellbeing of people.
However, in what is considered archetypal Kuwait decision-making process, the time taken to acknowledge the vulnerability and to implement solutions to address the exigency, was significant. It was only in 2022, more than 30 years after the invasion that the concerned entities began efforts to remediate the soil damaged by the oil well fires. Negligence by policymakers, lack of awareness among the larger public, and an unwillingness to take responsibility for our actions have combined to create a situation where the country’s biodiversity and environment continue to be degraded and damaged.
Our indifference to biodiversity and its consequences is highlighted in numerous environmental reports that show continued discharge of treated and untreated wastewater, including biological and chemical contaminants, into the marine environment. Additionally, the unrestricted outflows from power generation, water desalination and industrial plants, along with pollutants emitted by land and marine transport vehicles continue to deplete marine life and damage biodiversity.
Studies by Environment Public Authority (EPA) and others reveal that despite existing regulations, marine biodiversity degradation continues unabated. The use of mechanized bottom trawlers that drag weighted nets across the seafloor to gather fish indiscriminately and then destroy and discard unwanted fish; illegal fishing during breeding seasons and in breeding areas; and hordes of amateur sports fishermen who contribute to damaging the marine environment by anchoring their fishing vessels on coral reefs.
On land, biodiversity challenges arise from overgrazing, uprooting of plants and shrubs, and from the seasonal increases in human activities, such as during spring camps when the use of vehicles to transport people and lug camping equipment to camp sites, as well as the use of sand buggies and other motorized vehicles for leisure jaunts, destroys flora and fauna in the desert environment. Additionally, the proliferation of authorized and unauthorized gravel and sand quarries and other environmental infringements, have contributed to further biodiversity loss.
Kuwait’s relatively small land area has also created its own biodiversity challenges, as huge demand for development of new urban, residential, industrial and tourism areas encroaches on desert environments. The urban expansions further exacerbate existing intrusions by roads, power generation plants, defense installations, and the sprawling oil industry. Additionally, ongoing and new construction projects to develop artificial islands and inland waterways, over existing intertidal and muddy coastal areas, destroys unique ecosystems.
Besides challenges within our borders, events taking place elsewhere could also have severe implications on the ecosystem in Kuwait, and threaten sustainability of its biodiversity in future. For instance, an increase in level of the Gulf waters due to climate change and other natural or human induced alterations, could be devastating to Kuwait, where most of its urban conglomerations are located along the coast at sea-level. Meanwhile, the Iranian nuclear plant at Bushehr on the shores of the Arabian Gulf remains a potential threat to Kuwait, not only in military terms, but also from the pollution danger they pose to Gulf waters and desalination plants in the region.
Similarly,dams being built by Turkey on the River Tigris, which flows through Syria and Iraq before emptying into the Arabian Gulf, also impacts Kuwait. The lack of freshwater flows from tributaries of River Tigris increases salinity of waters around Kuwait and threatens its marine biodiversity. This only worsens existing marine afflictions, including depletion of fish population, increases in occurrence of fungal growth, and in bleaching of corals.
In a delayed, but nevertheless welcome move to protect biodiversity, Kuwait has in recent years established several nature reserves of various sizes that together comprise around 10 percent of the country’s total area, with plans to eventually increase this coverage to 20 percent in coming years. These reserves have already begun to have salutary effects in reviving and rehabilitating natural habitats for migratory birds, small desert animals and plant life.
In its latest report on the biodiversity profile of Kuwait, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), to which Kuwait has been a Party since 2002, identified several obstacles to implementation of a robust biodiversity strategy in Kuwait, including the lack of coordination mechanisms between government agencies and NGOs responsible for environmental affairs, as well as the lack of implementation of biodiversity legislation.
Other shortcomings noted in the report included an acute shortage of specialists for the protection and classification of indigenous plants, marine organisms and wild, migratory and endemic species; failure to adopt budgets for implementing national policies, strategies and action plans; and, finally, a multiplicity of powers producing overlap in institutional actions.
The number of entities currently associated with biodiversity in Kuwait include the Environment Public Authority (EPA), Public Authority for Agriculture Affairs and Fish Resources (PAAFR), Kuwait University, Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, Environment Protection Society (NGO), and the Voluntary Work Centre in Kuwait (NGO). Authorities in Kuwait have since clarified that they intend to strengthen coordination and coherence among policies, programs and legislation in various sectors so as to overcome institutional gaps, and improve operational efficiency.
It needs pointing out that Kuwait is not unique in facing biodiversity challenges, it is increasingly becoming the norm in many countries around the world. The latest report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on world biodiversity describes a continued decline and degradation in biodiversity globally. The report notes that biodiversity loss along with climate disruption and pollution could deprive ourselves and future generations of the food, water and other natural resources needed to survive.
Despite the criticality of biodiversity to human survival, statistics from the UNEP on the continued degradation of the natural world is alarming. The figures show biodiversity degradation undermines the well-being of 3.2 billion people, or 40 percent of humanity; nearly 75 percent of the Earth’s land surface has been significantly altered by human actions, including 85 percent of wetland areas and over 66 percent of ocean areas; close to 90 percent of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted; and an estimated eight million animal and plant species are threatened by extinction.
Data also shows that the global food system is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, with agricultural expansion reportedly accounting for 70 percent of the projected loss of terrestrial biodiversity. In addition, around 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are generated by land clearing, crop production and fertilization. Human developments through deforestation and land-clearing also brings people and animals in closer contact, thereby increasing the risk of diseases like COVID-19 spreading.
Speaking at the launch of the ‘United Nation Decade on Ecosystem Restoration’, that began on World Environment Day in 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged governments, businesses, civil society and private citizens to undertake an unprecedented joint effort to restore ecosystems. He called for a global effort in replanting and protecting forests, cleaning up rivers and seas, greening our cities, and driving a transformation that will contribute to the achievement of all the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
He concluded by saying, “Let today be the start of a new decade — one in which we finally make peace with nature and secure a better future for all.” Sadly, as we mark the third year of the ‘Decade on Ecosystem Restoration’, we look around and see very few signs of this push to restore the environment. Nevertheless, unless we change our attitude towards nature, nature will change it for us — irrevocably and catastrophically for the worse.