“The world's oceans and their adjacent seas, along with the living and non-living resources they contain, are essential for the survival of life as we know it. The sustainability of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the climate in which we live is dependent upon the health of our oceans and seas.”

—(UNESCO Director General, Koïchiro Matsuura, on the occasion of The World Environment day in 2004).

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in August/September, 2002, various governments agreed on an action plan with specific targets and timetables, to address the many problems and threats facing the sustainable development of oceans, coasts and islands. These targets and timetables represent an important global consensus reached at the highest political levels, on the need for urgent action. The assumption underpinning this agenda for action is that the world is still capable of making significant choices however time is running out. If we do too little too late, in effect we will be choosing to let our oceans and seas die.

UNESCO reaffirms its commitment to sustainable development in general, and to the sustainable development and protection of the ocean environment in particular. In the face of the stark alternatives before us, the making of timely and informed choices is crucial if our oceans, seas, and islands are to remain alive. In this context it is believed that the Gulf needs good coordination of environmental activities, and a network of professionally managed protected areas. The management plans need to be based on science, and adjusted according to ecosystem changes in time and space. UNESCO supports these activities via the “Man and the Biosphere (MaB) Programme”, as well as via the establishment of World Heritage Sites, and other activities.

The UNESCO Director General pointed out that 70 percent of 126 marine mammal species are threatened, and important seagrass habitats are rapidly being destroyed. The UNESCO Office in Doha therefore supports the member states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with the establishment of marine protected areas in the Gulf. Special attention is paid to the conservation of the marine sea cow Dugong dugong, and to the conservation of its highly productive feeding habitats, in particular the important seagrass beds.

As for the Gulf, what is urgently needed are detailed marine, coastal, and terrestrial resources maps, scientific ecological monitoring projects, and oil spill sensitivity maps as tools for professional environmental management. The Gulf also needs a network of marine, coastal, and terrestrial protected areas which are managed based on science. Such management plans should be adjusted according to ecosystem changes in time and space. With that in mind, the UNESCO Office in Doha is carrying out a number of activities towards the sustainable development of the marine environment in the Gulf.

Concrete steps have been initiated with the environmental authorities in the Kingdom of Bahrain. UNESCO assisted Bahrain with an initiative to establish a World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve centered on the Hawar Islands. This is still in process, and currently being followed-up. A proposal for the establishment of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) has been developed for Qatar Petroleum – Dukhan Operations, with the support of UNESCO, and the University of Qatar. The overall aim is to establish an MPA network in the Gulf, considering conservation flagship species, as well, and even more importantly, the habitats they depend on. A sub-regional network of protected areas, some of which can be cross-border areas and connected by wildlife corridors, would be an ideal instrument to aid science based marine environmental management. In Qatar, in partnership with the Supreme Council for Environment and Natural Reserves (SCENR), and with support from the Qatar Tourism Authority, a survey was made, and a nomination file for the potential world natural heritage site Khor Al Udayd was developed, and is ready for review and submission. Also in Qatar, and in partnership with the SCENR and Shell GTL, plans are currently underway to establish a large Biosphere Reserve in the North-West of Qatar, including marine, coastal, and terrestrial areas. In the United Arab Emirates a biosphere reserve study was carried out in the wetlands of Khor Kalba and Abu Dhabi has announced that its Environment Agency similarly aims to establish the Jazeerat Merawah Protected Area as a marine and coastal Biosphere Reserve. Discussions are going on with authorities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in this regard. In Oman, a survey was carried out, and a nomination file for the potential Jebel Samhan Biosphere Reserve has been prepared, including mountainous, coastal and marine systems. In order to coordinate relevant conservation activities for biosphere reserves and natural heritage sites, and provide guidance towards tourism management, the plan is to organize a “Sub-regional seminar, training workshop and field-campaign on ecotourism, biosphere reserves, heritage and geoparks in the Arabian Peninsula”, in Muscat and Salalah, to be held in September, 2007. Government nominated experts will be invited from each member state in the Doha cluster (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE).

Technical and training meetings with government nominated experts, dealing with coastal and marine issues, aiming at improved communication, and coordination between the riparian countries of the Gulf frequently take place (Dubai 2002, Muscat 2003, Kesh 2003, Ras al Khaimah 2004, Tehran 2005, Bahrain 2006). The activity “Trans-Boundary-Diagnostic-Analysis (TDA) of Coastal and Marine Environmental Issues in the ROPME Sea Area” is supported in partnership between UNESCO, the Regional Organisation for the Protection of the Marine Environment (ROPME), and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and conducted in three phases:

  • Phase I. (Project Initiation Phase). Presentation of initial regional and national reports on key coastal and marine environmental issues, identification of and discussion on prioritization of transboundary issues, identification of coordinators and national representatives, literature search, and drafting of a work plan and budget for the formulation phase. The latest product is The Final Report Phase I., produced by the Senckenberg Research Institute, Frankfurt, Germany.

  • Phase II. (TDA Formulation Phase). Conducting the TDA with assessments based on existing information and analysis at the regional levels in a participatory process involving key stakeholders.

  • Phase III. (Publication of Results). Editing and publishing the final document, and initiation of pilot projects.

Furthermore a science-based book is currently being prepared “Protecting the Gulf's marine environment from pollution”. This is being developed by UNESCO together with Saudi Arabia's National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development NCWCD, and supported by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, ADNOC.

UNESCO aims at developing a “Red List of Endangered Species of Kuwait” with Kuwait's Institute for Scientific Research, KISR, and a “Flora of Ras al Khaimah”, jointly with the Natural Resources Research Centre. The two volumes will include important information on coastal and marine plant species.

On a regional level, in conjunction with the United Nations University (UNU), a book entitled “Policy perspectives for ecosystem and water management in the Arabian Peninsula” has been published in 2006 and contains a chapter on marine ecosystems.

The second volume of UNESCO Doha's sabkha ecosystem series (Sabkha Ecosystems Volume II: Western & Central Asia) was published recently. The book provides comprehensive information on sabkha ecosystem management since most of them are coastal ecosystems.

“The First International Conference on the State of the Gulf Ecosystems: Future & Threats”, Al Ain, March 5 –7, 2006, was organized by the University of the United Arab Emirates and the Aquatic Ecosystem Health and Management Society (AEHMS), Canada. The UNESCO Doha office was pleased to co-sponsor the conference as well as financially support this special issue of the AEHMS Journal: Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management consisting of a compendium of selected peer reviewed papers originating from the Al-Ain conference.

Moreover, a number of Gulf Arab senior and junior experts receive funding to participate in international conferences and training courses that deal with ecosystem and water management.

Many of the above activities are carried out in cooperation with UNEP, UNU, ROPME, national governments, and non-government agencies. They contribute to enhancement of knowledge and capacity building for marine and coastal ecosystem management. In addition the UNESCO Doha also supports terrestrial and coastal environmental activities.