The government department is looking to plant 10 mangroves in Abu Dhabi for every visitor to the COP28 climate conference in Dubai in November.

Jack Dutton November 1, 2023

Drones of Abu Dhabi mangroves
Drones scattering mangrove seeds over the Jubail Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. – The Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi

On Abu Dhabi’s Jubail Island, there are more than 17,500 hectares of mangroves, a verdant canopy that draws kayakers, paddleboarders and other tourists from all over the world. The mangrove forest also acts as one of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) main carbon sinks: Jubail Mangrove Park forms 75% of all the UAE’s forests of the crop, which can sequester as much as 10 times more carbon dioxide than mature tropical forests. 

The Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD) in September announced the Ghars Al Emarat initiative to plant 10 mangrove trees for each visitor to the COP28 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai at the end of November.

Some 50,000 to 100,000 visitors are expected at the COP28, including representatives of more than 190 countries, according to the EAD’s executive director of the terrestrial & marine biodiversity sector, Ahmed Esmaeil Alsayed Alhashmi.

Blue carbon sinks

This means that up to a million mangroves could be planted in Abu Dhabi’s waters within the space of about four months, Alhashmi told Al-Monitor in an interview. 

This mammoth task is made possible using drones to plant the seeds, which is a “much, much cheaper” and quicker way of planting mangroves than using people, he said.

“Imagine in the past you had a nursery, you needed to build the nursery, hire manpower and collect the seeds,” Alhashmi said. “After collecting the seeds, you needed no less than three to four months just to have an acceptable rate of growing. You needed to put some of the freshwater to irrigate them. You needed to translocate them. All of these costs are going away by using a drone that is dedicated to our work.”

The only steps his team must take now are to source and program the drones, as well as prepare the mangrove seeds.

EAD is a governmental agency that was established in 1996, and chaired by Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The Ghars Al Emarat project is part of the UAE’s plan to plant 100 million mangroves by 2030.

According to EAD research, each hectare of mangroves in Abu Dhabi’s forest sequesters 98 tons of carbon dioxide on average.

The use of ecologically-based drone mangrove restoration used by the EAD was recognized in June 2022 by the World Economic Forum as one of the top 12 low-carbon technologies supporting the environment.

“This technology helps us not only to plant, to extend the area of the mangroves, but also to enhance their restoration. So if any areas are being impacted due to water, circulation or any other reason, we are enhancing our mangroves already by using these technologies to identify those areas that need to be rehabilitated and restored and doing our work there,” Alhashmi said.

Mangroves can sequester carbon over thousands of years. They are critical in arid climates like the UAE, as the weather conditions make it difficult to grow a forest using other crops.

The plants also increase the nutrition of the surrounding organisms, enhancing soil and air quality. In an urban setting like in Abu Dhabi, they also act as a barrier to reduce noise from the city.

The mangroves are also helping aquatic species and migratory birds flourish, with the EAD identifying more than 160 bird species in the forest such as the greater flamingo and red-wattled lapwing. Mangroves provide a multitude of environmental benefits, including playing an important role in helping bees make honey.

COP clarion call

With the COP28 conference beginning in Dubai this month, the main message the EAD wants to take to the summit is that the biodiversity sector needs to learn to monitor habitats more efficiently using new technology.

“It’s very important to invest in it and to have more frequent updates on the status of the habitats we have the species in, so we can act at the best time,” Alhashmi said. As shown with the mangrove planting, new technology can also reduce costs.

He believes that using new technology such as drones and underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) will help environmental agencies meet unprecedented conservation challenges due to the climate rapidly changing and the weather becoming more erratic and unpredictable. 

“We believe the rate of climate change is very fast, so our monitoring also needs to be adapted to that in order to track and see if any changes are happening. By using the drones, we are not only working on the restoration, we are looking to identify the status of those habitats,” Alhasmi said.

The EAD is testing different drone sensors to develop a system that can monitor habitats and identify ones damaged by climate change quickly so they can be restored. The drones are also used to monitor plant growth and the success rate of the EAD’s restoration initiatives. 

Reef restoration

Another new technology EAD is investing in underwater ROVs to monitor and restore coral habitats in the UAE. Coral reefs have been badly hit by climate change, many of them bleaching due to warmer ocean temperatures. 

In 2021, the EAD launched a project to restore a million coral reef colonies. “Currently we’re replanting from the nursery so we create the most resilient coral reef. We are growing them and then we are using those colonies to restore the impacted areas. We’ve succeeded in planting more than 300,000 coral reefs and different locations where they have been hit by climate change and have been bleached,” Alhashmi said.

“We will want also to enhance the technologies for monitoring the coral habitats, seagrass and the different seabeds, and using old and traditional technologies is not helping anyone. It’s time-consuming, it’s requiring a lot of funding and resources,” Alhashmi added.

By using ROVs, Alhashmi said human interaction is kept to a minimum and analysis can be carried out much quicker and more frequently, allowing for a faster restoration of the areas of the reefs that have been bleached by climate change.

Environmental agencies are increasingly seeing investment in new technology such as drones and artificial intelligence in conservation projects, he said.
The EAD is getting many requests from the private sector to help fund initiatives, Alhashmi said. Private sector funding into conservation has been growing rapidly over the last five years, according to him.

“In the past, it was just government entities and academics. Nowadays, most of our partners are private sector companies,” Alhashmi concluded.