From The Siren No. 14, 1981

The Red Sea

by Dr. Abdullah Banaja

It has been an important route for trading ships for at least 4,000 years, yet is presents a notorious obstacle course for navigators. It is surrounded by a dessicated and largely barren landscape, yet its hot, salty waters contain coral reefs praised by scientists and sport divers as among the loveliest in the world. For centuries its coasts were populated by poor artisanal fishermen, subsistence farmers and small traders, yet its depths conceal billions of dollars in untapped mineral wealth.

The Red Sea is a sea of paradox. This is further exemplified by the fact that the countries surrounding it are now joining in an effort to fight pollution of the sea -- yet there is no pollution to speak of.

In fact, the efforts of Red Sea environmentalists are unusual in that they are designed to prevent damage to the marine environment and coastal areas before the first signs of it appear.

The man in charge of the ALECSO (Arab League Education, Cultural and Scientific Organization)-sponsored Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Environment Programme (PERSGA) is Dr. Abdullah Banaja of Saudi Arabia. Dr. Banaja is a specialist in parasites of herring gulls and fish, and pursues lateral interests in entomology and baboon behaviour. He received his PhD in 1975 from the University of Dundee (Scotland) and has since been teaching and carrying out research at King Abdul Aziz University, where he became Vice-Dean shortly before being seconded to ALECSO and appointed Executive Director of PERSGA.

Dr. Banaja agreed to tell Siren readers a bit more about the Red Sea and why the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden countries are so concerned about protecting their marine environment.

On Red Sea geology: Geologists consider the Red Sea to be very young, with the first formative stages occurring when Africa began drifting away from Arabia about 50 million years ago. This motion is still going on. as we can tell from the volcanic and earthquake activity in the area, and by the presence of hot brine in deep parts of the sea.

On climate and hydrology: The air temperature all around the sea is hot, averaging 25-29°C, and extremely humid, especially in summer. Except for areas where farmers have irrigated their fields and gardens, and certain high regions of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the land is semi-desert. There are no rivers, and very little rainfall—so little threat of flooding, erosion and river-borne pollution. There is a high rate of evaporation from the sea surface, but this is compensated for by water flowing over the sill which divides the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden. The estimated renewal time for its waters is about 20 years, vs. 80 years for the Mediterranean.

On why it is called the Red Sea: The Red Sea is normally a very lovely shade of blue-green. However, when conditions are right, the population of the algae Trichodesmium erythraeum explodes into a bloom. When these innumerable tiny plants die, they turn the sea reddish-brown.

On navigation: Coral reefs form natural barriers to ships travelling through the Red Sea on their way to or from the Suez Canal. The coral is so extensive in the south that only a narrow channel remains, which can be quite hazardous, and many southern harbours. are at least partially blocked by reefs. In the north, the coastline is quite even, lacking the indentation that, provides natural harbours. These factors, plus irregular currents and occasional sandstorms, can make navigation very difficult. Even entering it would be impossible if the channel from the Gulf of Aden at Bab el-Mandeb were not continually, dredged and blasted.

On Red Sea history: In spite of the reefs and other factors, towns along the sea have been centres of trade for thousands of years. Traditionally this trade has been in cloth, spices, aromatic woods tobacco, nuts, gum arabic, coffee, tea an other products of inland agriculture.

Fishing has always been a very important source of food for coastal and ml populations. Also, the entire area has been a centre of travel and migration, and a gathering-place for pilgrims on their way to Mecca and other holy shrines. Today tourists come in increasing numbers, both to seek the sun and to see first-hand the magnificent coral reefs.

On reasons for environmental concern: The extremely rapid development now taking place in the region has led to the fear that pollution and other environmental hazards will soon become a problem. Although overall population levels are still low, rapid growth in population and industry is taking place in the cities. With this comes increased demand for consumer goods, food staples, building materials, and services. People are migrating to the area from outside, seeking new jobs in industry and commerce. Petroleum resources are now being exploited, and the petrochemical industry is expanding to handle the oil supply. Tankers are ever-present, heading for Suez and perhaps disaster should one of them hit a coral reef. Pollution by oil, sewage and chemical effluents is an ever-increasing threat. Even something as necessary and seemingly benign as a desalination plant can damage the environment, since the effluent can raise an already high level of salinity in localised areas.

The Red Sea countries have seen what has happened in other regions facing the same threats from similar sources, and they are determined to prevent this from occurring in their sea.

On the future: As elsewhere in the world, the traditional ways of life are changing. Now development in the region focuses on the exploitation of petroleum resources, but there are other and greater resources lying in wait: recent discoveries have revealed that some of the deeper regions are full of metals of enormous value. Exploitation of these will no doubt have great impact on the economies of Red Sea countries. What that impact is, and whether the delicate sea environment will survive that exploitation, will depend on how it is carried out

On PERSGA: This environment programme is starting where it must—with detailed surveys and assessment of where we are and where we are going, especially with regard to development in the region and what its environmental impact is likely to be. We’ll first look at the scientific and other institutions of the region and see how capable they are of dealing with the problem. We will study the ecosystems most vulnerable to stress from development activities, and decide on the best ways to protect and preserve these systems.

The main impetus for all this work will be provided, we hope, by the adoption later this year by a Conference of Plenipotentiaries of an action plan, convention and protocol which will form a basis for conservation of the marine environment and coastal areas of the region.

If all goes well, and our preventive strategy works, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden environment will be as clean and beautiful in 100 years as it is today.

The Siren , No 14, fall 1981, p6-7.