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As the virus lockdown lifts, will Kuwait’s marine life be able to recover fully?

A school of fish swim in an aquarium at the Scientific Center of Kuwait on 20 March 2016, in Kuwait City [YASSER AL/ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images)]
A school of fish swim in an aquarium at the Scientific Center of Kuwait on 20 March 2016 [YASSER AL/ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images]

With a third of the world’s population on lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there is growing evidence that oceans, rivers and lakes are cleaner and once more full of life. The virus is basically forcing us all to rethink our economies, supply chains and science.

According to Assistant Professor Dr Dari Alhuwail at Kuwait University’s Department of Information Science, we must think about how we can emerge with a more sustainable post-pandemic world that places living resources at its heart. “There have been many challenges experienced by governments and institutions around the world due to Covid-19,” he explained. “This is not unique to Kuwait because this is something new. And it’s even harsher if it’s new to countries or nations where there wasn’t necessarily much experience of national or international outbreaks of infectious diseases.”

However, a policy of openness has to be a critical part of any government’s efforts to defeat Covid-19, added Alhuwail. He praised the Kuwaiti government in this respect, and suggested that the real story of this pandemic is one of remarkable public heroism; if the virus has been contained it is because of citizens’ strict compliance with the lockdown, which has been beyond expectations.

“One thing that I found common is that the more accessible and transparent the efforts of the government are with the data and information for the public, including members of the scientific and research community, the better these plans to overcome the crisis have been.”

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Data is a necessary factor in decision-making, but in this rapidly evolving situation it’s especially crucial for scientists, who can use it to replicate and build upon each other’s work, Alhuwail told me. “This is our country, our home and we love it. So we always want opportunities to help and support the country. The Ministry of Health here in Kuwait has definitely opened doors to make that possible.”

Demonstrating how Kuwait’s government is coordinating efficiently with the public in response to the coronavirus, he explained that he has been volunteering with the ministry to advise and support the development of public health systems relevant to Covid-19. “We have built a website — Corona Maps Kuwait — where we disseminate useful information from the government, and put it all in one place for easier public access.”

People wear medical masks as a precaution against coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, on 26 February 2020 in Kuwait city, Kuwait. [Jaber Abdulkhaleg - Anadolu Agency]

People wear medical masks as a precaution against coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, in Kuwait City, Kuwait, on 26 February 2020
[Jaber Abdulkhaleg / Anadolu Agency]

Alhuwail is also the Kuwait Dive Team’s Coordinator and International Relations Officer. Acting as a custodian for the ocean is second nature to him. The divers involved are committed to protecting the marine ecosystem through salvage operations. His relationship with the team goes back to his high school days, when he saw press releases about the Dive Team’s initiatives for picking up marine debris, sunken boats and beach detritus.

“Kuwait is all about the sea,” he said. “We have a coral transplantation project in place where we try to build new homes for the reefs. There are artificial reef installations along the coast.”

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The State of Kuwait’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf are characterised by their relatively shallow marine environment. Last week, the body of a 15-metre-long whale was washed up. Social media footage showed the massive remains being taken away on the back of a lorry.

The ecosystems are under ever-increasing pressure from anthropogenic activities associated with the economic, social and industrial developments in the Gulf countries. Moreover, oil is often discharged into the water as a result of armed conflict. During the Gulf War in 1991, for example, vast quantities of oil were released into the Persian Gulf for tactical reasons.

“Studying the impacts on the coral reef environment has been a key aspect for us in Kuwait,” Alhuwail pointed out. “We don’t have many coral reefs and, unfortunately, because of human activities some of them have been destroyed.”

The team is focusing a lot on schools and children. “We know that if we catch them at a young age they will grow up with an awareness of marine and environmental issues.” He believes that the strategy is an essential foundation for sustainable resource management and conservation.

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The State of the Marine Environment Report (SOMER) for Kuwait highlighted the effect of coastal pollution, particularly sewage, on human health and the environment. It showed that the rapid urbanisation of Kuwait has led to significant changes in local ecology, with a clear impact on coral reefs, turtle nesting locations and the habitats of migratory birds.

Long-term changes in nutrient levels, via waste water and modified freshwater outlets, are resulting in demonstrable impacts on a range of marine species and habitats within Kuwait’s territorial waters. Alhuwail said that most of the damage is due to natural causes such as bleaching. This, he argued, could be caused by humans or naturally; even by humans indirectly causing nature to do the damage.

Kuwait’s environmental pollution indicators show that the level is still generally low, although the pollution of waste water is alarming. Research shows that it contains hazardous chemical and biological pollutants, which could endanger marine and human life. This is critical, as the country depends a lot on fish for food and the sea for recreation.

Another key concern for Alhuwail is illegal fishing, which is on the rise. Fishermen are reportedly taking advantage of a perceived drop in law enforcement to operate illegally. This must be stopped, he insisted, as it is a threat to marine life.

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“Kuwait Bay is extremely nutritious and has great biodiversity. These fishermen know that so they fish illegally. When they are spotted, they abandon their nets and sail away, and nobody has the responsibility to find and remove the nets. This is where the Kuwait Dive Team gets involved.”

Finding and removing the plastic “ghost nets” is painstaking work. Many are not clearly visible and they can be tangled on rocks or even shipwrecks.

UN environmental and food agencies estimate that ghost nets account for one tenth of all plastic waste in the world’s seas and oceans. They have been known to entangle animals as large as dolphins and whales, killing them slowly and painfully.

“The good news,” said Alhuwail, “is that when we went out recently, we didn’t detect as many of these nets, which is great. The question is, will this improvement continue? I only hope so.”

In the coming months, as Kuwait moves back on track following the unprecedented health crisis, Alhuwail told me that it will be a missed opportunity if it does not learn from this crisis, and boost its economy by investing in sustainable practices. Critically, he noted that while Covid-19 response measures may offer citizens support for a year, a sustainable marine environment will support livelihoods for many more years to come. “The coronavirus lockdown is giving the world’s oceans much-needed breathing space. I really hope that we do not lose sight of this and forget how beautiful Kuwait’s environment can be.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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