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Making the desert bloom: The UAE's restored wetlands

Kieron Monks, CNNUpdated 18th September 2019
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(CNN) — The judges of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture selected an eclectic mix of winners this year.
These included an amphibious bamboo school in Bangladesh, a wedge-shaped museum in the West Bank, and the Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah, UAE.
The latter entry, created by Dubai architecture firm X-Architects, is the centerpiece of an ambitious restoration project that has seen a stagnant dump transformed into a flourishing natural ecosystem and popular visitor attraction.
"The project sets a powerful precedent that encourages low-impact and environmentally conscious development in a region known for its propensity to go in the opposite direction," the award judges commented.

Blending into nature

The site has became a magnet for bird watchers and researchers. A fully transparent wall allows the visitors to experience the birds' natural environment and become part of it.
The site has became a magnet for bird watchers and researchers. A fully transparent wall allows the visitors to experience the birds' natural environment and become part of it.
Nelson Garrido/X-Architects
The 20-acre wetland site was once known as an unkept wasteland.
Over the past two decades the area has been cleaned up and made into suitable habitat for an abundance of plant and animal species.
The prize-winning Centre at its heart was conceived as a discreet presence that would allow the Emirati public a rare look at a wetland landscape, within a largely desert environment.
The designers used the natural topography of the site to make the buildings appear submerged and unobtrusive to wildlife. Visitors enter via a ramp that leads them into a complex containing an extended viewing gallery as well as education spaces and research facilities.
"The idea was to minimize our intervention," says X-Architects co-founder Farid Esmaeil. "We built architecture as a catalyst to regenerate nature rather than to impose the built form on top of nature."
Esmaeil is pleased that the built and natural environments are becoming increasingly intertwined, with plantlife taking root all around the Centre.
"As time passes nature starts to take over the site and creates its own architecture," he says.
The development also consisted of several platforms for birdwatching dotted around the wetlands, camouflaged to allow close-up views of the site's avian population.

Reclaiming barren land

The rehabilitation process of the damaged eco-system started in 2005, with 35,000 trees been re-planted.
The rehabilitation process of the damaged eco-system started in 2005, with 35,000 trees been re-planted.
Nelson Garrido/X-Architects
The restoration process for the site began in the early 2000s when the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan III, commissioned a survey to explore its potential to support wildlife.
When that survey revealed that even as wasteland with some stagnant pools of water the site attracted significant bird populations, the ruler gave a green light for development and granted protected status in 2007.
The UAE-based British writer and environmentalist Peter Hellyer, part of the original survey team, says the restoration entailed some heavy lifting.
"(Developers) put in new banks to hold back water in some places and removed other banks," he recalls. "They put a complete stop to dumping and planted a protective screen of trees around the site."
The slow process led to a dramatic increase in biodiversity with plant, insect, and bird species rapidly multiplying. Wasit now claims to be home to 350 species of birds, with up to 100 migrant species visiting the site, according to the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority (EPAA).
The site has also become a popular destination for ecotourism and school visits.
For Hellyer, a key lesson to take from this success is the value of patience.
"It does take time for these wetlands to achieve their full value and develop to their best effect,' he says. "You have to protect an area, and then sort out a consistent and effective way of ensuring there is sufficient water, and then monitor and manage it. No one should expect this kind of thing to reach full flowering in a few years."

Wild future?

Despite the challenges of the UAE climate, which delivers little rainfall, the field of wetland restoration and conservation appears to be in healthy condition.
The Wasit Wetlands is one of several sites that the EPAA has developed in recent years, including the Khor Kalba reserve on the opposite coast.
In total, the UAE boasts 10 entrants on the Ramsar list of wetlands of international importance. This includes Dubai's Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, the Jebel Ali Wildlife Sanctuary and the recently-added Hatta Mountain Reserve. The list also features Al Wathba Wetland Reserve close to Abu Dhabi that drew breeding flamingos to the territory for the first time in more than 70 years.
Step out of the city and Dubai's desert offers luxury eco-experiences for the ethically-minded tourist.
Typically such sites rely on human intervention for a water supply due to the climate, with treated sewage water a common source. Carefully chosen reeds can provide a second filtering process.
Hellyer believes such projects are increasingly "a priority" for state governments. As custodians of newly Ramsar-designated wetlands they are obliged to maintain the sites, a demonstration of commitment.
The environmentalist hopes the next phase of development will include further research into the country's wetland environments to better understand the native wildlife, and how to make the habitat more attractive to new species.
Farid Esmaeil hopes the legacy of Wasit can be to encourage children to take an interest in conservation, as well as to influence planners and architects.
"I think due to the speed of development in our region many wetlands and natural environments have been sacrificed,' he says. "I think we should look into architecture that is more culturally and environmentally sensitive."