Every year, on this day, World Wetlands Day is celebrated, marking the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on February 2, 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea.
In just 35 years, the frequency of disasters worldwide has more than doubled, driven by climate-related and weather-related hazards like flooding, tropical cyclones and droughts, say experts. UN Water estimates that 90 per cent of all natural hazards are water-related, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts even more extreme events going forward, according to the Ramsar Convention website.
For this year, the Standing Committee of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands approved Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction as the theme for World Wetlands Day, so as to “raise awareness and to highlight the vital roles of healthy wetlands in reducing the impacts of extreme events such as floods, droughts and cyclones on communities, and in helping to build resilience”.
For the uninitiated, wetlands are essentially land areas that are flooded with water, either seasonally or permanently; a natural buffer against disasters. The Ramsar Convention website neatly sums up much of their significance: “Along the coastline, wetlands act as a natural protective buffer. For example, they helped avoid more than USD625 million in damages from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Inland, wetlands act as a natural sponge, absorbing and storing excess rainfall and reducing flooding. During the dry season, they release the stored water, delaying the onset of droughts and reducing water shortages. When well managed, wetlands can make communities resilient enough to prepare for, cope with and bounce back from disasters even stronger than before.”
Here, in Qatar, the most iconic of the lot, the Abu Nakhla wetland, was created in 1982. 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 sq km, this reservoir for Treated Sewage Effluent (TSE) had been regularly receiving twice-treated sewage water from Doha-South and Doha-West treatment stations. Things aren’t the same what with it being decommissioned as a TSE pond, but there’s much else to look into when it comes to wetlands of Qatar, as Dr Anna Grichting Solder, Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, at Qatar University, College of Engineering, tells Community.
Why are wetlands especially important to Qatar?
Wetlands are important landscapes and ecosystems everywhere around the world, and are increasingly threatened by urbanisation. There are many types of wetlands, from coastal to inland, and from freshwater to saltwater. There are also natural as well as constructed wetlands. Qatar has several important coastal wetland areas — mainly mangrove ecosystems — which are important not only for the habitats and biodiversity, but also for their contribution towards building resilience against coastal erosion, and acting as an interface between coastal and terrestrial ecosystems.
Qatar also has some very interesting constructed wetlands. These were not initially designed as wetlands but were built as ponds to receive excess TSE (Treated Sewage Effluent). Gradually, as in the case of the Abu Nakhla Wetland, these ponds naturally evolved over time with riparian vegetation, creating habitats for sedentary and migratory birds. These wetlands are important as they create habitats for biodiversity and landing spots for migratory birds, as well as become natural landscapes that the people of Qatar and visitors can enjoy.
Our students at Qatar University have been designing landscapes and urban developments for reconstructed wadis (Wadi Jalal) and artificial lagoons (near Al Raqqiyah farms and in urban areas) as well as remediating neighbourhood areas that suffer from flooding and water infiltration. By using TSE and storm water in this manner, we can avoid that fact that we are wasting huge amounts of water by pumping it deep into the ground as we do not have any use for it.
In what ways can wetlands help in the urban planning of a city?
If water management is better integrated into urban planning, we can use recycled water — whether it is grey water, TSE, or storm water — to create attractive landscapes in our cities. An integrated urban water system not only makes better use of all the types of water in a city, including seawater and TSE, but also creates attractive landscapes for inhabitants and creates a more resilient urban realm that can mitigate the impact of extreme weather, be it heavy rain or sandstorms.
Urban Forestry, an emerging field in urban landscape planning, encourages the planting of trees to provide many urban ecosystem services, which include improving air quality, mitigating urban heat island, producing food, creating shade, capturing CO2, and of course, creating attractive and healthy landscapes for the city’s inhabitants. These urban forests and greenways can be created with the city’s waste water and storm water networks, as well as the sea water along the coastal areas.
You believe there’s remarkable potential in the ecological rejuvenation of Abu Nakhla. What is the current status of this wetland and how does its future look?
Unfortunately, despite our efforts to save Abu Nakhla, it has been decommissioned as a TSE pond and is gradually drying out. On a positive note, the planning authorities and Public Works are constructing a landscape — along the same lines as the project that we proposed with our students for Abu Nakhla — at Doha North Sewage Treatment Plant. This will become a landscape for nature, biodiversity, and leisure, and hopefully will lead the way for other similar projects in Qatar. However, this is a constructed landscape being built from scratch, whereas the Abu Nakhla landscape evolved naturally over 40 years. So there is a great economic cost to creating fast, artificial landscapes as opposed to planning and allowing more natural landscapes to evolve. Also, 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.
Dr Anna Grichting Solder, Assistant Professor, Department of Architecture and Urban Planning, Qatar University