Urban development in coastal areas: opportunities for economic growth and how to overcome the challenges for sustainability

Claire Squires
Senior Marine Environmental Consultant
Advisian, Dubai
Email: claire.squires@advisian.com

The definition of coastal zones, regions or areas is variable; entrenched in laws for the purpose of regulation or by the scientific community in relation to research and classification. In considering the definition (Box 1) we can start to consider why these areas are important; these areas provide essential ecological services for fisheries production, nutrient cycling, coastal defence, as well as services for humans, such as residential living, recreation, commercial, navigation, wastewater disposal and tourism activities (after Daforn et al, 2016 1).

A schematic of coastal ecosystem services is provided in Figure 1. Ecosystem services are “contributions given by the environment that support, sustain and enrich human life” (Yoskowitz et al, 2010 2). Few studies have established ecosystem value in monetary terms for the ecosystem components specific to the Arabian Gulf (the ‘Gulf ’), however one recent region specific study estimates that the “present value of the regional economic loss of not protecting wetlands by 2050 is between US dollar 2.3 billion and US dollar 7.2 billion (expressed in 2007 US dollars) (Eppink et al 2014) 3 ”. Intrinsic worth is harder to value but it is clear that throughout the world coastal environments and the natural contained within have long since been desirable locations to live and work.

Coastal development requires the modification of natural systems and can range in scale, intensity and permanence; physical alteration and the destruction of habitats are regarded as one of the most significant threats to coastal areas (UNEP, 20084).

The physical changes required to enable development typically involve the creation of permanent modifications to coastal features which often involve the construction of hard engineered structures and removal of coastal habitats.

Regional context

Historical development of communities within the Gulf is inherently linked to the coast; the area provided a major food source and revenue from fishing, income from pearling and access to trading areas from overseas trade routes to the sub-continent.

Coastal development in the region cannot be discussed without noting the ambitious and complex dredging and reclamation activities; Dubai is famous for its Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebal Ali and ‘World’ developments, however dredging and reclamation schemes are present throughout the region6.

Sustainable development challenges

Box 2 sets out the familiar definition of sustainable development, but what does this mean in the context of coastal systems? Meeting the demands of current generations but not at the detriment of future generations means maintaining functionality of ecosystems. Fundamentally this involves maintaining and enhancing natural systems for use by future generations. Accounting for climate change, the pressures on the marine systems with the Gulf have perhaps never been greater.

The Gulf is a shallow sea, and due to its geographical location and morphology it experiences great extremes of temperature and salinity. Notwithstanding the harsh conditions the coastal habitats are varied and include saltmarshes and sabkhas, algal mats, rocky shores, beaches and mangroves together with macroalgal beds, seagrass meadows and reef communities. Development and its associated changes to natural systems push environmental limits further resulting in environmental degradation and habitat losses.

Considering urban development against the backdrop of the unique and harsh coastal environment of the Gulf, how can development and economic

In more recent times the coastal areas in the region have seen massive unprecedented changes (Burt, J (20145, Van Lavieren et al 20116). Discoveries of hydrocarbons and subsequent exploitation and associate revenues have seen a concomitant increase in coastal development. The southern Gulf is now home to numerous ports, major cities, offshore and nearshore oil and gas facilities, as well as industrial developments (no fewer than 199 desalination are reported plants lie within the GCC area together with associated intakes and outlets (Dawoud & Mulla, 20127).

aspirations continue whilst reversing the trend in coastal damage?

Meeting the challenge

Internationally a wealth of information exists documenting the approaches to more effective coastal management; from the evolution of Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM)8 and Ecosystem Based Management to activity specific guides, the subject continues to evolve specifically with increased global consensus on adapting to the effects of climate change.

Table 1 proposes just some of the considerations that could be incorporated within formal plans and strategies aimed at improved approaches to coastal development with associated benefits.

Abu Dhabi’s draft Plan Maritime 2030 marks a clear acknowledgement of the benefits of more organized plan-led approach to coastal development. Elsewhere in the region governments are placing more thought on the way coasts are used; an ICZM committee exists within Qatar with new policies anticipated in the near future, and in Dubai the regulator has published a technical manual on guidelines to be followed in infrastructure development. On a project basis a collaborative effort between scientists, marine engineers, landscape architects and policy makers is needed from scheme conception to construction and monitoring. Whilst not always easy to do it can be done - for the sake of marine ecosystems of the Gulf let us hope it catches on.

Further reading:


  • Dafforn K, National Marine Science Plan: White Paper on Green Engineering and Marine Urban Development
  • Yoskowitz, D.W., Santos, C., Allee, B., Carollo, C., Hendersen, J., Jordan, S.J., and Ritchie, J., 2010, Proceedings of the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem Services Workshop, Bay St. Louis, Miss., June 16–18, 2010: Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi, 16 p
  • Eppink et al (2014) An Initial Assessment of the Economic Value of Coastal and Freshwater Wetlands in West Asia in Land 2014, 3, 557-573; doi:10.3390/land3030557
  • UNEP (2008) Vital Water Graphics. An Overview of the State of the World’s Fresh and Marine Waters - 2nd Edition - 2008 Available at: http://www.unep.org/dewa/vitalwater/article179.html
  • Burt, J (2014) The environmental costs of coastal urbanization in the Arabian Gulf, City, 18:6, 760-770
  • Van Lavieren, H., J. Burt, D.A. Feary, G. Cavalcante, E. Marquis, L. Benedetti, C. Trick, B. Kjerfve, and P.F. Sale. 2011. Managing the growing impacts of development on fragile coastal and marine ecosystems: Lessons from the Gulf. A policy report, UNU-INWEH, Hamilton, ON, Canada.
  • Dawoud and Mulla (2012) Environmental Impacts of Seawater Desalination: Arabian Gulf Case Study International Journal of Environment and Sustainability ISSN 1927‐9566 | Vol. 1 No. 3, pp. 22‐37 (2012)
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