By Anand Holla

This year might see the end of Qatar’s biggest wetland, after all. After declaring, last year, of their plans to drain the Abu Nakhla wetland, Ashghal, Qatar’s Public Works Authority, could carry out the drain in the coming months.
Located around 12 km South of Doha – close to Aqua Park – near the Southern borders of Abu Nakhla village, the wetland was created in 1982. Rich in ecological biodiversity, it is considered an artificial wetland with natural topography and nature lovers say that draining it will damage the fragile ecosystem and wildlife that has flourished there for over three decades.
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 treatment that the water gets pumped back to the city, for its many uses such as irrigation water or water used for beautifying roads and gardens.
Dr Anna Grichting Solder, Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, at Qatar University, College of Engineering, believes there’s remarkable potential in the ecological rejuvenation of Abu Nakhla. Community caught up with Grichting to know more:

Q. What is the significance of this wetland to Qatar?
A. When I first came to Qatar, four years ago, to teach Architecture, Urbanism and Landscape Design, I needed to get to know my new territory. When I studied Qatar on Google Earth, I discovered what looked like a large lake just outside Doha. I became very interested in this unique landscape. I began research with my students and organised field trips which resulted in a Masters Thesis, and design projects to use Abu Nakhla to address Food Security. Lately, it has also led to an integrated Urban and Landscape Design project with my Masters Students in Urban Design and Planning to transform Abu Nakhla into an ecological wetland reserve with infrastructures for ecotourism, botanical garden focused on food urbanism and a regional centre for constructed and natural wetlands in the Gulf region. While working on the Abu Nakhla wetland, I discovered that most people – students, colleagues and friends – did not know about it. Those who do know about it are, especially, bird watchers – and unfortunately, bird hunters. Amongst the nature lovers and preservationists, the Abu Nakhla reservoir is known in the whole region, and a number of rare species have been photographed here – and is home to large flocks of flamingos. We worked with Dr Saif al-Hajri, President of Friends of the Environment, an organisation that is also deeply concerned with preserving this unique landscape.

Q. Do you feel that such a unique wetland can’t be recreated?
A. As a constructed wetland, it can certainly be recreated elsewhere. Nevertheless, the succession of the ecosystem has taken more than 40 years to reach its current diversity, with new species of flora and fauna developing over the years as the landscape and water conditions evolve. It is an important stopover for migratory birds, and therefore, also contributes to regional and international ecologies and flyways.

Q. What are the fallouts expected from the closing of Abu Nakhla?
A. We will lose out on a unique landscape and a future eco-tourism attraction. Abu Nakhla presents to us a singular opportunity to plan an innovative urban oasis development with the wetland and TSE network. If you look at the case studies in the region, you will find several wetland reserves in the Gulf, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which have been recognised by the Ramsar Convention. The Al Wathba Wetland Reserve was declared a Ramsar site in 2013. Like Abu Nakhla, it was initially constructed as a reservoir for Treated Waste Water.

Q. Can Abu Nakhla also be turned into a recognised Ramsar wetland?
A. Yes, with good planning and design, it’s possible. Abu Nakhla could contribute to the sustainable ecosystems of Qatar. I met the Director of Ramsar at the World Leaders Conservation Forum to which I was invited in July this year, and he is very keen to support any initiative in Qatar to create a Ramsar Wetland. Birdlife International is also ready to support us. Wetlands are one of the most undervalued ecosystems but provide a range of vital services. They provide food, filter water and offer a unique habitat for varied species.

Q. With Qatar’s growing population, how challenging does the problem of increased water consumption and its effective disposal seem to you?
A. Both sourcing water and recycling or disposal of water and waste is a real challenge and an issue. But we have many innovative ways to address this, both at the administrative level and the household level. I think this is where design is also important, and this is why I am working with students towards systems design in their architecture, urbanism and landscape. Individual houses should be designed to directly recycle grey waste water – from sinks and washing machines – into the landscape. Also, there are interesting experiments being conducted here in Qatar using Reed beds to clean black or sewage water and then redirect it into the landscapes. While we may have the technologies and infrastructure to desalinate as much water as we want – and this accounts for around 99 per cent of water used in Qatar – this has a serious effect on the environment, in particular the marine ecologies. We have to think of our systems in an integrated way, and think of the whole water issue in a manner that it includes the land and sea ecosystems because they are very closely interrelated.

Q. What other methods of wastewater management can we adopt to make the best use of TSE?
A. I am neither an engineer nor an expert in Wastewater management. But I believe we need to explore new technologies and systems, and also implement ecological solutions. For this reason, the proposed Wetlands in Drylands Research Center would be an ideal institution for us to collaborate with other Gulf countries and Drylands on these issues. For Abu Nakhla, for instance, a system of bio-drainage using trees with deep roots that absorb water and are planted around the pond could remediate the problems of seepage. It is known that certain plants clean up polluted water – the process is called bioremediation. These solutions are more sustainable and economical in the long run. They could also help us find a remedy for Abu Nakhla so that we preserve this beautiful and precious ecosystem and landscape for future generations.

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