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Construction works around mangroves on Abu Dhabi resort

BIG 5: Rupert Cornford heads offshore to see the balance of construction and ecology on Al Gurm Resort in Abu Dhabi.

ANALYSIS, Projects

Developing a project in a desert ecosystem is a real challenge at the best of times but building on desert islands brings with it added levels of complexity in terms of the protection of plant and animal species. While this is not a direct concern of many onshore developments in the region, those working in Abu Dhabi face more of a challenge. The UAE capital is made up of 218 islands and around 40km2 of mangroves grow on the emirate's northeastern fringes.

Mangrove trees grow in tropical and subtropical areas. With the natural availability of these shrubs in several coastal areas in the UAE and neighbouring countries, it is believed that if properly utilised, they can reduce desertification impacts. They can also contribute in improving coastal areas as natural habitat for birds, fisheries and other forms of life.

One project having to work in and around this sensitive ecosystem is Al Gurm Resort. Comprised of 11 reclaimed offshore islands and a stretch of mangrove-covered coastline, Aldar Properties' mixed-use project will contain 73 residential villas and a 158-suite five-star resort. Design and construction supervision is being undertaken by Dar Al Handasah, Parsons is the project manager and Dome carried out the environmental consultancy work. In May 2006, National Marine Dredging Company (NMDC) won the reclamation contract, and Six Construct - with Swissboring as a subcontractor - is working on the US $20 million (AED70 million) piling contract. Six Construct has also just been awarded the $163 million shell and core contract for the villas. Work on the project started in May 2006 and is expected to complete by mid-2009.

The contractors cannot take the site for granted as they would do with any dry land or remote site.

"The environmental aspects of the project have been considered from a very early stage," says Majdi Twal, senior project leader, Al Gurm Resort Development. "Environmental consultant, Dome, was engaged to analyse the existing conditions of the mangrove. And it has done an Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] for the site."

After the EIA was carried out, a method statement from the contractor was issued with the endorsement of the environmental consultant. Before the project could move into the construction phase, however, the EIA had to become a CEMP: Construction Environmental Management Plan.

"The CEMP is submitted to the Environment Agency and approval is required to proceed with the construction," says Twal.

"This either comes back to be resubmitted or it may say 'approved with notes', which means 'go ahead but observe the following...'. Much of the agency's concern is for continuous monitoring of the CEMP conditions," he adds.

According to Twal, the Environment Agency's rules and regulations have to be very closely followed. And in an effort to completely understand what it was getting into prior to the project, Aldar carried out its own analysis of the mangroves' sensitivities.

"We went into our own research programme to find information on the mangroves and what type of species they contain. We also had to find out what time of the year they can be planted and replanted, because we have further plantation to be done.

"We have barren areas and outlying areas - and have contacted local companies who planted the original mangrove. We understand that the ideal time is between the beginning of September and the middle of October to plant these species in seed. During this time, three operations will be underway: collecting seeds, planting seeds and also preparing nursery plants incase some of the seeded plants do not work."

But while the long-term preservation of the mangroves can be helped by understanding seeding patterns, the existing site needs to be protected from ongoing construction work and the continual movement of heavy plant and machinery. Contractors working on the development have to adopt careful practices to ensure that their activities have minimum impact on the mangroves, which run right across the centre of the site between the shoreline villas and the reclaimed islands.

"The contractors cannot take the site for granted as they would do with any dry land or remote site," says Twal.

"They have to observe careful procedures for any burials and use of any instruments or tools that would cut off water flow to the mangrove species.

"They also have to maintain their equipment to contain or prevent any possible leaks of fuel. If a contractor was operating on a site away from the mangrove, it would not be so concerned about a small diesel spill, for example," he adds.

A further stipulation by Aldar is that contractors are not able to use certain solvents and chemicals during construction that may leak into the water and damage the environment.

In order for the mangrove to be further protected from construction activity, a silt screen has been placed around the entire perimeter to preserve the in-situ silt environment and prevent any migration of silt or nutrients. This is especially applicable when there may be strong currents being created due to dredging and changing environmental conditions in the surrounding channels. The screen, which is made from geotextile mesh, allows water to pass through but it will prevent silt and nutrients to migrate outwards.

"It's a safe separation of the two soil environments," says Twal.

But it's not just the construction phase that could affect the mangroves; once the development is fully operational, issues of pollution will be prevalent, and this has not escaped the architects at Aldar.

"We are adopting a vacuum sewerage system, which we used in Al Raha Gardens, because of the sensitivities of the surrounding areas and the topography," says Twal.

"We have quite a few islands and the systems will be quite spread out. Most of the system, specifically the sewage pipeline, will be housed in the deck of a bridge that will go through the mangroves and will connect all the residential developments."

While constructing a project in an environmentally sensitive area brings with it certain stipulations regarding protection and preservation, the nature of the Al Gurm development is also demanding in terms of the material supply chain. Even though the amount of steel and concrete needed for the project isn't going to break any records, the procurement of other key materials within the UAE can be a major challenge, even if the developer uses a central system.

"We have used the help of the Aldar network to procure rock for the dredging and rock walls," says Firas Dababneh, project manager, Aldar Properties.

"It is a very demanding market in Dubai and Abu Dhabi; the supply of rock across the Emirates is reducing all the time, so we got in touch with our colleagues on Al Raha Beach and they provided us with a good quantity of rock for this project."

Partial screening and sorting was done on the Al Raha Beach site and then brought to the Al Gurm site. Any shortfall in the supply of rock from Aldar's other projects is procured through the market by NMDC, but this has also proved a major challenge.

"Beach sand is also very difficult to get hold of - we are trying to find a source for it at the moment for the resort. It's not a problem but it's a challenge to find a resource with the right specifications," says Dababneh.

Although NMDC has completed its dredging package, the contractor is still working to locate viable beach sand for the development. According to Twal, it has recently produced some samples of sand that have been obtained from local sources. And these have been submitted to local laboratories for analysis for compliance with the required specification.

The team on Al Gurm Resort is working hard to ensure that the development preserves the ecological balance of the surrounding mangroves. And while the local environment agency are hot on their heels, strict attention is being paid to the management plan.

With tough regulations to follow and very specific development goals, there is a feeling that Aldar realises the significance of this project for the future of Abu Dhabi as a whole. Indeed, the carrying capacity of the emirate's outlying islands and mangroves is truly being put to the test. Only when projects like Al Gurm are complete, will the scope of Abu Dhabi's development opportunities become clearer.

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