The Siren No. 14, 1981
Dr. Abdullah Banaja
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Siren , No 14, fall 1981, p6-7.