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26 October 2007

Deterioration of the Red Sea

Deterioration of the Red Sea!

By Hoda Nassef

Wanting to buy a gift for my old school-friend visiting Egypt, I searched the shops downtown, in Garden City, and Zamalek. In each of those three districts, there was at least one shop selling handmade artifacts, which I enjoyed browsing through. But, to my dismay, each shop displayed beautiful appliqués and other crafts, all made of seashells and huge chunks of coral reef as the main centerpiece. How on earth are they still getting the coral reef, when it is, or should be, absolutely forbidden?

We exchanged gifts and then I grumbled about the shops all boldly displaying broken chunks of coral reef. She laughed and said I was becoming more ‘Americanized’ than she was, and admitted that it was a pity that we Egyptians are not really concerned with our own environment. She said that in Sharm El-Sheikh, everywhere you go, they sell handcrafts in the hotels’ boutiques or nearby shops, and even around the hotels’ swimming pools, all made of coral reef. Some ‘objects of art’ were turned into corner-table lamps, or simply used as house decorations, with other sea objects clustered around the coral.

To aggravate me even more, she said that most of the hotels that have been constructed there actually used explosives to make their artificial lakes, lagoons and swimming pools, disregarding the damage to the sea creatures, fish, and coral reef. Ironically, some of the same hotels afterwards were eventually named as “green hotels”, indicating that they were “environmentally friendly”! What a joke!

We are really self-destructive. How can we pretend to be aware of our environment, let alone CARE about it, when we ruin the environment with our own ignorance or greed? The beautiful Red Sea is ‘an endangered species’: it is in mortal danger.


Musing on the word “red” (El Bahr El Ahmar’ translates to The Red Sea, in Arabic) - researchers are still perplexed as to why this sea was named ‘red’. My theory is that the sun reflecting the crimson hues off the aura of the rocky hills surrounding it during sunsets, and mirroring it into the transparent sea, has inspired this name for earlier settlers. Yet again, it may be due to the unique coral reefs.

The Red Sea has been estimated to be between 20 and 40 million years old, as a result of the continental platforms drift that steadily separated Africa and Asia (and is actually still happening) thus creating the African Rift that extends up to the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea Depression. Egypt has nearly 1,000 km of coast on the Red Sea, together with the whole perimeter of Sinai, surrounded by the Strait of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. The Red Sea is 2,350 kilometers long and 350 kilometers wide at its widest point off Ethiopia, covering a total area of 450,000 square kilometers.

Since prehistoric time, the Red Sea has been one of the busiest and most important sea routes of the world. All ancient civilizations of the Region established outpost-trading communities on the shores of the Red Sea. Between these outposts lived scattered traditional societies. These pastoral or fishing groups never reached high population densities and archeological evidence suggests that their way of life survived unchanged for thousand of years.

In “Habitat”, it stated that the Red sea possesses unique characteristics that cannot be found anywhere else on earth. The Strait of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba close it in to the north, and the Strait of Bab El Mandeb (gate of tears) closes it in to the South at a depth of roughly 100 meters, forming a basin. This separates the Red Sea substantially from the system of currents of the Indian Ocean. Because of this 'semi-continuity' with the ocean, the Red Sea is an ecosystem of the Indo-Pacific variety. It is unique in that the Red Sea is home to around 20 percent of endemic fish species in the world, and for the particularly varied coral reefs (more than four hundred species of coral have so far been recorded). Because its deep waters can reach temperatures of 32 degrees centigrade due to volcanic activity on the seabed, the almost total lack of tides, and its regular currents - driving northwards in winter and southwards in summer - the Red Sea constitutes a fantastic and unrivalled botanical niche.

Furthermore, I read that the Red Sea contains ‘representatives’ of all major tropical marine habitats, and such high diversity of habitats (i.e. their natural environment) in the Egyptian Red Sea coast are occupied by a large and diverse number of marine animals. These animals have adapted to sharing of resources and the perfect use of available spaces. Such harmony may be affected by the human interference during the exploration of the coastal plains, not to mention constructing residential areas right along its borders.

There are several groups of animals that inhabit the Red Sea, other than fish. These include turtles and sea birds. The other marine mammals, which are recorded, include seven species of dolphin, and whales. It is thought that such minor diversity of mammal species is due to the geographical nature of the Red Sea entrances, the salinity, as well as low primary productivity.

Marine turtles form a prominent part of the fauna of the Red Sea. The areas on the shore where the turtles choose as nesting sites are very limited to small number of sites in South Sinai and few spots on the south Red Sea coast. Many of these turtles have reported to lay their eggs on offshore islands. All the marine turtles of the Red Sea are considered threatened and both the green and hawk-bills are declared endangered species.


While reading ‘Global Plan of Action’, it mentioned that the coastline of Egypt is undergoing extensive habitat alteration, due to construction, including ‘dredge and fill’ operations of shallow areas, excavation of artificial lagoons, mining and quarrying. Suspended fine sediments resulting from these activities can inflict widespread damage to coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves and other marine life, over distances of dozens of kilometers from the source.

Several urban centers have been developed along the coast at Suez, Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh. As we know, Egypt is the site of the most extensive tourism development on the Red Sea. But, tourism development constitutes a serious threat to both the marine environment and the tourism industry itself, if not planned and developed on a sound environmental basis with the effective enforcement of environmental regulations.

I discovered that on Egypt's Hurghada coast, which is the most affected, sediments from coastal alteration activities have spread to extensive fringing reefs down the coastline and to the adjacent islands and offshore reefs, where they are damaging corals and mangroves.

Another main sources of pollution on Egypt's Red Sea coast is the discharge of poorly treated or untreated sewage matter into the marine environment. Tourism areas located outside city limits have their own sewage treatment facilities, but most tourism areas on the coast of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba meet their fresh water requirements through the desalination of seawater or groundwater.

It has been reported that areas such as Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh have been developed and exploited beyond their ecological capacities and are already showing signs of environmental degradation. ‘Global Plan of Action’ also states that evidence of reef degradation due to tourism and other activities is clear, even in pristine areas such as the Ras Mohamed National Protected Park, because the coasts have become a repository for large quantities of industrial, commercial and residential trash and other solid waste. Often this takes the form of plastics, metal containers, wood, tires and even entire scrapped automobile parts at some localities!

In some areas containing extensive metal and industrial debris, the potential exists for toxic substances to leach into the marine environment. Wooden pallets and driftwood may form a physical barricade to female turtles crawling up beaches to nest. Damage to coastal and other vegetation from the use of vehicles is also evident in the Red Sea region. This not only reduces vegetation available for birds, grazing mammals and other wildlife, but also causes loss of ‘halophytes’ that can destabilize sand dunes bordering many shore areas.

Together with dredging, coastal reclamation probably represents one of the most negative impacts on the coastal marine environment of the Red Sea. Apart from the direct and permanent loss of habitat, landfill usually increases sedimentation. Inadvertent coral breakage by divers and improper mooring by diving and fishing boats, as well as damage due to sediment stir-up by diving activities, in addition to collecting corals, starfish, urchins, and other sea creatures, may ultimately cause loss of diversity in marine habitats and degradation of coral reefs.

In addition, the Middle East harbors more than half of the world's proven oil reserves, thereby ranking as the world's largest oil production area. The Red Sea, therefore, carries significant oil traffic as well as drilling sites. Oil spills, pollution from machines, oily mud sediment, and drilling into the reefs themselves are some of the unfortunate by-products of the industry.

‘Global Plan of Action’ also remarked that the Red Sea is unique and not found elsewhere in the world. Its enclosed nature, together with limited water exchanges with the Indian Ocean, considerably reduces the potential for dispersion of pollutants. This is especially so in the relatively shallow Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, as compared to the main body of the Red Sea which is very deep along most of its length.

The predicted increase in number of people either visiting or working along Egypt's Red Sea coastline require more sewage disposal and discharges which deplete the quality of the very amenities which attract tourism in the first place: clean beaches, pleasant weather and the spectacular underwater reefs.

We should protect our God-given blessings, and not let our economical need for growth overlook the vital importance of “growing”, yet under professional supervision and management. I fear that after we have exhausted all possible space and ways of ruining the Red Sea and the Red Sea Coast, we will greedily look forward to ruining the Mediterranean Sea and the spectacular Northern Coast.


H.N.H.N.

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