With the spectre of draining Abu Nakhla wetland imminent, Rana Sameh al-Amawi, a
Masters in Urban Planning and Design from the College of Engineering Qatar
University, presents a four-way solution that she, and her teacher, Dr Anna Grichting
Solder, believe could help regenerate it, writes Anand Holla
Seven months ago, Ashgal, Qatar’s Public Works Authority, declared that the nation’s biggest wetland, Abu Nakhla, will be drained by the end of the year. Save for some faint voices of environmentalists concerned over the damage it would cause the ecosystem, the decision to call time on this important artificial wetland didn’t spur many discussions.
For Rana Sameh al-Amawi, who recently completed her Masters in Urban Planning and Design at the College of Engineering Qatar University, though, the subject seemed to be the most relevant for her thesis.
“When I learned that Abu Nakhla will be drained, I realised how important it is to develop strategies to save it,” says al-Amawi.
This was completely in sync with what her teacher Dr Anna Grichting Solder, Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, had been asking students to explore while teaching regeneration design. Grichting, who finds the emerging trend of landscape urbanism — a confluence of urban planning and landscape planning — interesting, sees tremendous potential in the ecological regeneration of Abu Nakhla.
Grichting says, “Some of the projects the students took up dealt with understanding an old part of Doha, an abandoned village near Zubarah, or as Rana’s thesis, utilising Abu Nakhla.”
Given that Qatar has the highest per capita water consumption in the world (at around 500 litres per person per day), this wetland certainly merits a thorough understanding.
Created in 1982, the Abu Nakhla wetland is located around 12km south of Doha — close to Aqua Park — near the southern borders of Abu Nakhla village. It is rich in ecological biodiversity and considered an artificial wetland with natural topography.
Sprawled across nine square kilometres, this reservoir for Treated Sewage Effluent (TSE) has been regularly receiving twice-treated sewage water from Doha-South and Doha-West treatment stations. It’s only after undergoing another round of proper treatment that the water gets pumped back to Doha for its many uses as anything from irrigation water to landscaping.
“In Qatar, TSE is being used in animal fodder for industrial use, sand washing, central cooling district, and beautification of roads and gardens. This is great but statistics show that a big percentage of it isn’t used. So we must utilise it in a better way,” al-Amawi says.
In her thesis, supervised by Dr Yasser Maghroub and Dr Grichting, al-Amawi presents a compelling case for revamping Abu Nakhla and maximising wastewater management.
“In the last few years, Qatar has witnessed a dramatic increase in population. Accordingly, the water consumption has gone up heavily, too. Since Qatar has very limited water fresh resources, it depends on desalination of sea water alone,” al-Amawi says.
That’s where a wetland like Abu Nakhla can be of help. “There’s amazing potential in TSE, and it’s the discharged TSE that accidentally created Abu Nakhla wetland. Three decades later, it has grown, become huge, and has fostered various kinds of habitat and vegetation,” she adds.
While the reasons for draining Abu Nakhla haven’t exactly been spelt out, Ashgal has said the area will be rehabilitated after studying the best environmental solutions. However, al-Amawi and Grichting believe that preserving and improving on an ecosystem that has taken so long to build is the need of the hour.
“It’s amazing to see how when you put water, you create an oasis that naturally brings in the plants, birds, fishes, everything, without any human intervention. In Abu Nakhla, we saw this spontaneous creation of an ecological habitat. For Qatar, such a rich ecosystem is very precious,” says Grichting, “Regenerating Abu Nakhla can increase biodiversity, food security, water security and social sustainability.”
For her thesis on Abu Nakhla, al-Amawi did everything from interacting with local authorities and visiting the site to understanding challenges and offering solutions. Of them all, perhaps her case studies of wetland success stories yield the most heartening solutions for Qatar’s quandary.
Al-Amawi has closely examined Saudi Arabia’s Wadi Hanifa wetlands, Abu Dhabi’s Al Wathba wetlands, Malaysia’s Putrajaya wetlands, and the Hong Kong Wetlands Park, in her work.
The Wadi Hanifa, for instance, is a natural water drainage course in Riyadh. What had descended into a neglected dumping ground for construction, industrial, hydrocarbon, and domestic waste, was cleverly transformed into a shimmering oasis of life.
The “ecological remediation” saw several public spaces such as parks and productive landscapes springing up at Wadi Hanifa. The project involved bio-remediation facility with which water could be cleaned naturally through various processes of biological functions. The initiative won the 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.
“Wadi Hanifa winning the award shows that this landscape is becoming increasingly important also in urbanism and architecture, and more so in this region,” points out Grichting.
Borne from a situation similar to Abu Nakhla has been the Al Wathba wetland. Created by an accidental discharge of excess TSE, it was developed as a serene habitat for migratory birds and a breeding area for the Greater Flamingo.
The late UAE president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan declared it a protected area in 1998. Recently, it was declared an official Ramsar site (wetlands of international importance, designated under the Ramsar Convention).
Even the Putrajaya wetland, deemed to be the largest constructed freshwater wetlands in the tropics, and the Hong Kong Wetland Park, a popular conservation, education and tourism facility, hold a world of wisdom on the significance of wetlands in today’s era obsessed with the breathless run of urbanisation.
“The Putrajaya wetland, for instance, is the central part of the new city. This shows that a wetland can even become the centre of a city,” Grichting says. This is in line with an urban planning theory which proposes that the best way to organise cities is through the design of the city’s landscape rather than the design of its buildings.
Grichting continues, “We don’t have access to the masterplan of Abu Nakhla. But it doesn’t stop us from envisioning and planning design. As designers, our role is to speculate the future and to create visions for the future based on the information we have, like the site visits, the case studies, etc.”
That’s why al-Amawi’s thesis presents four solutions in utilising Abu Nakhla, which also happen to “complement one another.” The first is to turn Abu Nakhla into an eco-tourism hotspot. “From engaging in fun activities such as bird watching, trails, and canoe rides, to more serious ones like educating landowners and businesses on the functions and values of wetlands, eco-tourism will work wonders,” she says.
The second is to bolster local food production and thereby also help the social minorities residing in Industrial areas. The third option is to make Abu Nakhla a field trip haunt for educational purposes. By interacting with nature rather than learning of it inside the walled confines of a classroom may help simplify key ecological concepts. During November and December, for instance, more than 240 varieties of migratory birds visit here.
“The fourth scenario I have offered is to turn Abu Nakhla into a recreational spot. Here, we could create something like the Masada Cable Car ride in Palestine which offers breath-taking views of the desert and the Dead Sea,” says al-Amawi.
To emphasise on reviving Abu Nakhla, Grichting talks about one of her favourite heritage restoration stories. “The High Line in New York was a derelict elevated freight train line above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. Around 15 years ago, it was about to be torn down. Two people got together and decided they can’t let such a beautiful structure go to waste. They formed the non-profit group Friends of the High Line which raised awareness, held an international competition inviting ideas to conserve it, and today, it is a beautiful public park,” Grichting says.
Borrowing bits of motivation from such episodes, Grichting is keen on engaging the youth and using social media to draw people’s attention to Abu Nakhla. “We will try and build on al-Amawi’s work and develop more ideas and scenarios,” Grichting says, “Friends of Abu Nakhla Wetlands is one such group we are planning on.”
In transforming the wetland, Grichting sees multiple advantages. “It won’t just contribute to our food and water security, but also to social sustainability and will improve the neighbourhood. Using this water, we can create a whole green network which will improve the whole area,” she says, “Biodiversity is important, and urban biodiversity, even more so. Since we are urbanising more and more, we have to integrate biodiversity more than ever into our environment.”