30 November 2011

What lies beneath...

I went diving at Ras Hamar (Donkey's Head) a few days ago. Along with a beautiful eagle ray and two large, dancing cuttlefish, I saw four guitar sharks.  This should have been a joyous occasion. Guitar sharks are rare, and it was the first time I'd ever encountered them, but instead it was heartbreaking. All four guitar sharks were DEAD - caught in fishing cages, along with other unsuspecting marine life.  The worst thing was that these cages weren't even attached to anything. Their ropes were long gone.  No-one will pull them up out of the water and they'll continue to act as marine exterminators.  Four magnificant creatures killed, for nothing.

Fishing cages seem to be becoming more & more prolific in our waters.  The last time I dived Ras Hamar, about 10 months ago, there were hardly any.  This time there were tell-tale marker buoys everywhere.  What, if anything, is being done to regulate fishing in the area?  No-one wants to deny fishermen their livelihood but there has to be a more sustainable way of doing things.  The fishermen don't dive - they don't know what's beneath them when they throw in their cages.  Not only are the reefs getting destroyed, but the fishing cages are ending up in places where the fishermen can't retrieve them because the ropes get caught up in rocky features.  No-one wins. The fishermen lose their cages and their catch, and the marine life perishes unnoticed. 

Oman needs to wake up to what it has and what it's destroying. Even if the environment in itself isn't Oman's top priority, it has to understand the economic ripple-effect of its actions.  Oman is intent on promoting itself as a tourist destination. Scuba-diving brings in big dollars (look at places like the Red Sea in Egypt).  If things continue this way Oman will lose the very attractions that tourists come for.  These marine creatures are worth a lot more alive in the sea than they are dead in a market, or rotting in a cage at the bottom of the ocean. 

Please do something to protect marine life before it's too late!!

Dead Guitar Sharks at Ras Hamar

Dead guitar sharks caught in abandoned fishing cages

07 November 2011

Stormy Outlook? ...

In light of the recent weather in our usually sunny Salalah, I felt compelled to write about the subject.  Afterall, there's nothing like a huge storm to make you feel utterly insignificant and powerless in the world. The forces of nature truly are awesome (and I mean that in the strictest sense of the word, not the overused American version). Here we are in a desert country, lashed this past week by torrential rainfall and strong winds, thanks to tropical storm Keila.  This isn't the first time Oman has been hit by such weather and it certainly wont be the last.  But are these types of storms just part of normal weather patterns or is there something else going on? All over the world we seem to be seeing more and more crazy weather.  Huge areas of Thailand are currently under water, Italy is flooded, New York saw unseasonal snowfall, Myanmar & Cambodia recently faced floods. The list continues...

With the world population at 7 billion and growing, is it possible someone's trying to tell us something?! Are we the masters of our own destruction?

Recent studies suggest that increasing air pollution in the Indian sub-continent is enhancing the intensity of tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea.  Diesel fumes and biomass burning are blamed for creating 'brown clouds' which disrupt normal air circulation. It is believed that this thick layer of pollution helps create the right atmospheric conditions for the formation of large tropical cyclones.

Of course, there will always be debate about these kinds of claims - and I'm no scientist - but whatever your view, shouldn't we see these kinds of events as a wake-up call? We need to start thinking about how we treat the Earth and start doing our bit to preserve this planet we call home!!

On that note, Eid Mubarak!! and, if you haven't already, be sure to visit Wadi Darbat which has turned into a raging river and giant waterfall! Not something I would ever have imagined witnessing.  Sadly though, the beautiful beach at Khor Ruri has all but disppeared - washed away by a torrent of muddy water.  According to some sources, we're not out of the woods yet either. It looks like another storm may be brewing....

20 September 2011

Save Mirbat Beach!!

World-class beach! A good place to build a navy dock?!
Rumours have been swirling for some time now, and I have also heard it directly from a reliable source who has personally seen the plans, that a navy dock is to be built at the beach at Mirbat.  This information horrifies me and I truly hope that it is false, but I fear that it is not.  Such a development would be catastrophic in this area.  The beaches around Mirbat are truly unspoiled (something that is very difficult to find anywhere in the world anymore) and the bays are home to an incredible diversity of marine life.  Military development at this site would completely destroy it and put the entire area out of bounds to both locals and visitors alike.  This is an area popular with local fishermen as well as visiting snorkellers & scuba-divers.  I myself have dived there on numerous occasions and have seen an incredible array of marine creatures, including a huge resident bull-ray who is seen on almost every dive.

At a time when Oman is supposedly trying to promote tourism it seems totally counterproductive to destroy the very things that make the country so attractive.  Richness is about so much more than money.  Oman is blessed with a richness of nature & biodiversity that you can not put a price on.

Surely there must be more appropriate places in which to build a navy dock? Couldn't it be added to the existing Salalah Port?  I would be very interested to know what the Marriott Hotel thinks of the plans. Who will want to visit the area if this goes ahead? or perhaps they are relying on the influx of military personnel?

Something needs to be done to stop this going ahead! So what can we do? and is there any way to even officially confirm the plans? I would be very grateful for feedback - particularly from Omanis who may know more on planning applications and what can be done to submit objections.  It is very difficult to get the support of an organisation (e.g. ESO) when we can not even get proof that the development is due to go ahead!

Just some of the marine creatures that would be affected...

(photos taken by me whilst diving in Mirbat)

Back in Business!!

Dhofar Eco Bug is back! A belated Eid Mubarak to you all and apologies for the absence. Dhofar ESO members will be meeting in Salalah tonight at 9pm at the Cafe de Paris. If you're keen to get involved and do your bit for our environment please join us! Also, watch out for my next post - which should be up later today and may be the most important one yet! Good to be back! Now when is khareef going to be over?!

16 August 2011

ESO Quiz Night

Dear Readers, firstly apologies for my long absence! Dhofar Eco Bug is on holiday! I have lots of ideas for blog posts though and will be writing again soon when I return to Oman.  In the meantime, I wanted to pass on the news that ESO are hosting a fundraising quiz night tomorrow - 17th August - at 9.30pm at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Muscat (Sohar Room).  Attendance costs 3 OMR per person and there are some great prizes to be won.  To reserve a place call Anna on 24482121 or email anna@eso.org.om

04 July 2011

ESO in Dhofar

I am delighted to announce that ESO (Environment Society of Oman) are holding a meeting in Salalah for their Dhofar members.  The meeting will take place on Monday 11th July from 5 - 7pm at the Port of Salalah Auditorium.  I would strongly encourage all ESO members to attend and, if you're not already a member, why not come along anyway and join up that evening? Please confirm attendance by contacting Omar Al Riyami (ESO volunteering/membership manager) omar.riyami@eso.org.om

I think this represents a great opportunity for us to get involved and hopefully create an active local group. There is often a tendency for all activity to be based in and around Muscat. Let's turn up in large numbers and show that Dhofar is committed to the environmental cause!

02 July 2011

Dhofar Litter Bugs!

I was at Al Hafa beach yesterday, sipping a café latte and watching the ocean.  This is my first khareef season and it’s quite incredible to experience the change in the sea.  Our once calm, turquoise waters have transformed into a menacing, yet mesmorising, monsoon swell.  Talk about nature in action.  Here you really bear witness to the might of Mother Earth.

Watching ‘khareef TV’ is obviously a popular pastime.  All along the beach there are groups of people staring out into the distance, hypnotised by the waves and not caring that they’re being drenched in salty spray.  

So what was wrong with this perfect picture?! Well, apart from the young quad-biker hurtling down the pavement at a ridiculous pace, my concern lay with the vista below the surf.  Lower your gaze just a little and you soon become aware that you’re sitting in what can only be described as a giant ashtray! Cigarette smoking is arguably a disgusting habit at the best of times, but littering beaches with countless cigarette butts is truly filthy.  Don’t the polluters see the irony? They come to the beach to enjoy the beauty of their environment yet they have no qualms about discarding their rubbish there.

Cigarette butts might seem like the least of the littering problem, but they’re not just an eyesore, they can also do tremendous harm to marine life.  Invariably, the Al Hafa cigarette butts will end up getting washed into the sea. There they will leak their poisonous chemicals into the water as well as into the stomachs of unsuspecting fish, turtles and other marine creatures who were simply looking for a meal.  It seems that the ‘smoking is dangerous to health’ message is valid not just for humans!!

But where does this sense of entitlement to litter indiscriminately come from? Why is there such a culture of discarding things whenever and wherever?  I simply can not understand why anyone would want to turn their own recreational area into a rubbish tip!

In the short time I was sat at the café, I witnessed a group of Omani men at the table next to me throw their paper cups nonchalantly over their shoulders when they’d finished their tea.  No-one batted an eyelid.  Would you throw your empty plate on the floor in a restaurant? Is this really that different?  A similar thing happened at Mughsayl last week.  I was strolling along the walkway and a large family was walking towards me. We smiled at one another and exchanged a brief greeting.  The children then proceeded to throw their used plastic drinks bottles over the fence and into the sea below as they continued on their way.  I know this kind of behaviour is commonplace but I still can't help but be shocked by it.  It's so shameless, so blatant.  People flock to these beauty spots but see no irony in spoiling them. 

Is this attitude a result of being too used to having someone else clean up after you? Almost everyone here seems to have a housemaid. I guess if you’re used to your mess magically ‘disappearing’ then perhaps you somehow imagine the same thing happens outside of the home? Mess is somebody else’s problem!!

Whatever it is, it has to stop.  Parents are setting a terrible example for their kids and some kind of intervention is needed to stop this problem continuing for generations to come.  But what can we do to change a littering culture that is so deeply ingrained? It’s a difficult problem to tackle because it requires a real shift in attitude.  We can organise beach clean-ups but they’re only a very temporary solution and don’t get to the root of the real problem.  In fact in some ways they perhaps even reinforce the attitude that it’s OK to litter because someone else will clean it up.

There’s a real need for public awareness campaigns as well as education within the school curriculum so that children learn early on about the consequences of their littering actions.  From a practical point of view there also need to be more bins.  Let’s face it, if people can’t be bothered to walk more than 5 metres to a shop entrance then they’re not about to walk a multiple of that in order to find a rubbish bin.  Bins are fairly scarce around here at the best of times and it seems they may even be decreasing in number.  A friend I was chatting to over the weekend had just recently been up to Wadi Darbat and said that the bins that used to be there have been removed!! Why on earth would anyone get rid of them? If anyone knows anything more about this, please do enlighten us! Perhaps they’re simply about to replace them with European-style colour-coded sortable bins for recycling?! If only…

I think perhaps the most brazen littering I’ve yet seen here though was on a recent flight from Salalah to Muscat.  We were walking towards the plane when an abaya-clad lady simply bent down and placed her used teacup on the tarmac – right beside the aircraft! Does she have any idea how dangerous debris on a runway can be? I was completely gobsmacked.  The ground staff looked equally dumbfounded but, annoyingly, said nothing to her and simply picked up the offending item.  This is a big part of the problem here. Someone really needed to confront her about it and perhaps she’d think twice the next time.  It took only a 40cm piece of metal debris to bring down concorde, killing everyone on board.  Runway debris is an incredibly serious matter but one for which this particular lady had no regard.  Insha’Allah we will arrive safely! I’m getting angry again just thinking about it!!

So what can we do to turn Dhofar’s litter bugs into eco bugs? 
  • Set an example by not littering yourself
  • If you're camping/BBQ-ing at the beach or in the desert etc. always take your litter away with you
  • Keep a rubbish bag in your car so you can pick up litter when you're out and about
  • Educate the people you know - friends, family, students etc.
  • Organise clean-ups - If you'd be interested in taking part in one please get in touch!
  • Write to Dhofar Municipality to suggest more rubbish bins in prominent places and to encourage recycling facilities 
  • Adopt a street or park to keep clean - a little bit of community pride works wonders!
Any more suggestions are warmly welcomed!!


27 June 2011

Plastic, Fantastic?!

No, it’s not, as the title might suggest, a commentary on cosmetic surgery, but rather a look at the Omani love affair with plastic bags. Seriously, what is it with bags here? I have never before been to a country where their (over) use is quite so prolific and ingrained.  I challenge you to be able to leave a supermarket without one. It’s nigh on impossible even when, as I do, you take your own bags with you.  First you have to run the gauntlet of the customer services (read: security) desk who will try to take them off you, then, if you make it that far, the bag-packers will look at you with a mix of bemusement, confusion or contempt before bagging your items in plastic and then putting them in your re-useable bags.  Of course they will use at least one huge bombproof carrier bag for every two items. Thank you – how generous!

A recent visit to K&M is a case in point.  I was stopped by the vigilant (bored?) man at the desk who insisted I check-in my empty eco-bag. I tried to explain that I wanted to put my shopping in it but he insisted the offending item could not enter the supermarket.  Helpfully though he indicated that he’d bring the bag to me when I was at the till. So far, so good.  Of course he didn’t bother to come over (despite my frantic waving) till after everything was in a million plastic bags, at which point he packed all that plastic into my eco-carriers and looked very pleased with himself.  A job well done. Talk about missing the point!

Variations of the story repeat themselves all the time.  I have, however, discovered that in the new Lulu, if I fold my bags flat and tuck them under my arm, I can stride past the bag-snatchers unchallenged. Result!

Next port of call though is the fruit & veg section where apparently it is illegal to price an item of produce that isn’t in a bag.  God forbid the sticker should come into contact with the skin of a melon (which has probably been priced as a rambutan anyway, but I digress. Staff training on fruit/veg I.D. is a whole other topic!). Anyway, rules it seems are rules: no bag – no price – no purchase. A sticker can not and will not be attached directly to the product. Got it?!

And so to the till again…
I greet the lady in Arabic and ask how she is.  Nine times out of ten I get no reply. I find it astounding that they can so blatantly ignore me, but at the same time I can’t help but be impressed by their innate ability to hide even a flicker of acknowledgement.  Dhofari till ladies would be outstanding at poker!!  I try to maintain a smile despite having been snubbed and turn my attention to the packer.  My Arabic is basic to say the least but I do try my best to make myself understood, usually using both mime and words like “laa plastic” and “kull fee haathi” – which I hope means something along the lines of “everything in this” (pointing to re-useable bags).  I am still met with largely vacant stares but I’m getting better at showing them what to do.  I did for a while try packing my own bags but that seemed to go against some unwritten protocol and led to raised eyebrows and chatter amongst staff which I couldn’t interpret but invariably revolved around the weird Westerner.

The response from shop staff simply highlights though how rarely the request for ‘no plastic’ is encountered.  They are confused because it’s new to them.  In this regard the supermarkets themselves really need to take some responsibility.  Re-useable eco-bags need to be widely available and encouraged, and staff need training on how to pack effectively.  If we can’t get through to the supermarkets on an environmental argument, then hit them with profit.  Less plastic bags = less expense.  We should also support supermarkets charging a nominal fee for bags.  It’s amazing how quickly behaviour changes when cost is involved.  Ultimately though, shoppers also need to be educated on why these changes should be made.  If they feel like the supermarket is simply trying to save money then they’ll resent the lack of free bags.  What does the supermarket really have to lose here though?  Are people going to stop going to the new Lulu hypermarket because they don’t get a bag? I don’t think so!!  Lulu really has an opportunity here to lead the way and set a shining example.  They claim to be a “trendsetter of the retail industry in the region” so let’s hold them to it and push for change.  Words on corporate websites mean nothing unless they are translated into action.  Carrefour talk of “commitment to the environment” and “earning customer preference through social commitment and action” but last time I visited the branch in Muscat City Centre there were no re-useable bags in sight.  I know they produce them and I know Lulu does too, but try finding one.  They certainly haven’t made it to Salalah’s Lulu and they’re certainly not promoted in Muscat either.  Having a few hanging randomly by an isolated till is not enough.  The proof is at the exit where EVERYONE is walking off in a sea of branded plastic.  It’s like part of the uniform. Dishdasha, abaya, plastic bag!

I had a look at some Lulu bags today to see if there was any information on what type of plastic they were made from.  The small size bag simply has “keep your city clean” printed on it. A nice sentiment, but let’s face it - not one that anyone is listening to. (Littering is a real problem in Oman and one that I’ll address in a later post).  The large bag I was interested to see has a logo for d2w and says “this bag is totally oxo-degradable”.  Where I come from oxo is a stock cube(!) so I was intrigued and did a little research.  At first glance I was encouraged –  a green(ish) looking website with talk of plastic degrading and being bio-assimilated “faster than straw or twigs”.  However, my eye was drawn to an initial statement saying “all plastic will in time fragment and completely biodegrade” which didn’t ring true to me.  I’m no expert by any means (just a lay-person with an interest in our planet!) but my whole understanding of the problem with plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade? It photodegrades – breaking down into increasingly smaller toxic particles that pollute soil, waterways and oceans and are ingested by animals, thereby entering the food chain.  Either way, I’m concerned that d2w bags are not as green as they might claim to be.  It turns out that oxo-bio plastic is not designed to degrade in landfill.  Now I don’t know anything much about rubbish collection or disposal here in the Sultanate but since most plastic bags probably end up as household waste, where does that waste go? Into landfill I imagine? Meaning the oxo-plastic wont degrade as intended.  If anybody knows anything different then please do enlighten me. I’d love to stand corrected!

I really do think the answer lies in recycling. To my knowledge though there are no recycling facilities at all here in Dhofar and only very limited recycling up in Muscat. Again, if anybody knows different please do share!

I read a statistic that says 6 million plastic bags are used every month in hypermarkets in Muscat alone. That number is truly staggering – and terrifying! Please take action!!

So what can we do?
  • Say NO THANK YOU or LAA SHUKRAN to plastic!
  • Use re-useable eco-bags for all your shopping (and re-use any plastic bags you still have)
  • Write to the supermarkets to encourage the use of re-useable bags and support a charge on plastic
  • Write to the Ministry of Environment & Climate Affairs to encourage a ban on plastic bags
  • SPREAD THE WORD! Knowledge is power!

22 June 2011

For Dhofar, for Oman, for the World!

Hello and welcome to Dhofar Eco Bug's inaugural post - the first of many I hope. I'm completely new to blogging so please bear with me whilst I get used to the new world of social media. Given I'm perhaps the only person left on the planet with a mobile phone that functions solely for calls/SMS that could prove quite a challenge!! I've made it as far as facebook, but don't expect me to understand twitter, android or i-anything (except perhaps the pod!).  You might have noticed already that I have a penchant for exclamation marks.  It's an affliction. I'm sorry!

Anyway, I've started this blog because in the relatively short time I've been living in Salalah I've noticed some things that, at best, cause me concern and, at worst, make me downright angry. I hope this blog will provide a platform for people to discuss environmental issues in the region and, most importantly, promote action to effect positive change.  Together we can make a difference!!