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How Saudi Arabia’s environmental initiatives are restoring the natural balance

JEDDAH: Centuries of human abuses have challenged the natural cycle of the globe’s biodiversity. On this World Environment Day, governments are working to restore balance, including in Saudi Arabia, a country with one of the most challenging and diverse natural environments on the planet.

Almost all organisms live in environments that have been altered to some extent by human activities, causing habitat loss, species endangerment and extinction, pollution and more. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s report on world forests 2022 said that as the window for action narrows and as population growth and aspirations place new demands on physical resources, it appears clear that natural ecosystems are vital assets that need to be restored, maintained and managed sustainably.

Led by the United Nations Environment Program since its inception in 1973, World Environment Day, the most influential global platform for environmental awareness, serves as a reminder of the problems and challenges facing the world, with millions committed to protect the planet.

The conservation, care and preservation of natural resources is not a recent phenomenon, although it has been undermined and ignored until the 21st century and the harsh reality of climate change has become apparent, making environmental policy-making a task ever more urgent.

The Saudi Green Initiative, an ambitious national plan to combat climate change, was launched in 2021. (SGI)

It has often proved to be an uphill challenge. Understanding the consequences of inaction, intense and determined campaigns have been promoted to advance the complex task of setting long-term goals at a time when nature is under attack, to issue guidelines and laws with profound changes in environmental infrastructure and to promote environmental protection and conservation.

In 2021, the Saudi Green Initiative was launched, an ambitious national plan to fight climate change, improve the quality of life and protect the planet for future generations. It coined the term conservation with initiatives like environmental protection, energy transition, sustainability programs and more under its umbrella. It has become a core message in every ambitious project, corporate environmental goal, and social responsibility goal in less than two years.

Under the SGI, Saudi Arabia pledged to protect 30 percent of its land and marine area by 2030. Its goals are clear emissions reductions, afforestation, and land and sea protection , with 77 initiatives activated. As of today, 66,000 sq km of land and sea are currently protected, over 1,200 animals have been released into the wild, and around 17% of the Kingdom’s land and sea are protected.

Ecosystems, especially their living components, have always provided the capital to fuel human economies, an idea realized in Saudi Arabia as conservation efforts and development projects go hand in hand.

Kingdoms flagship giga project, NEOM, is regarded as one of the most ambitious projects with sustainable development embedded in its core values.

While there is no universally acceptable, practical definition of sustainable development, the concept has evolved to encompass three significant viewpoints: economic, social, and environmental.

The economics is primarily oriented towards improving human well-being, the environmental domain focuses on protecting the integrity and resilience of ecological systems, and the social domain emphasizes the enrichment of human life and achievements, and the strengthening of values ​​and institutions.

INNUMBERS

  • More than 1,200 endangered animals released into the wild in 15 Saudi locations.
  • $25 million fund for conservation efforts of the critically endangered Arabian leopard.
  • 8 million hectares of degraded land to be rehabilitated by 2030.
  • 600m Trees to be planted by 2030.
  • 10 billion trees planted are equivalent to rehabilitating 40 million hectares of degraded land.
  • Protected areas on land for 16% and marine for 5.5%.

Speaking to Arab News, Dr. Paul Marshall, head of the Nature Region, said NEOM has embarked on an ambitious and innovative conservation mission that includes the greening and restoration of nature, dedicating 95% of the project to nature, covering 26,500 square km.

For greening, NEOM is planting native vegetation and reducing pressure on the landscape from livestock, which will protect and reverse land degradation by planting 100 million shrubs, trees and other plants by 2030. So far, more than 100,000 plants have been planted, with more than 1 million trees, shrubs and grasses to be planted by the end of 2023.

As for rewilding, it will reintroduce species that were once indigenous to the area but have since declined. Native species will initially be reintroduced into large enclosed areas and, over time, as the landscape recovers and animal numbers increase, fences will be removed.

An early indicator of the success of the rewilding project can be seen in the first breeding season of the NEOM nature reserves. Working closely with our partner, the National Center for Wildlife, the first release of native animals into our reserve occurred in late 2022 with the successful reintroduction of herds of Nubian Ibex, Arabian Sand gazelle, Mountain gazelle and Arabian oryx. The total number of cubs born this breeding season is 31. These are 23 sand gazelle cubs and 8 ibex cubs.

Arabian Sand Gazelle released to NEOM Nature Reserve in December 2022. (NEOM)

The result is challenging, as he explained that three elements are incorporated into the animal distribution modeling of NEOM. The first assesses immediately accessible areas to ensure a safe and healthy release environment, the second analyzes potential dispersion constraints, and the third simulates dispersal over time, he said.

As such, we work collaboratively with the plant recovery team to ascertain where our animals’ potential food sources will be. This helps us model likely dispersion patterns and allows us to track reservoir regeneration.

In terms of the change needed to protect certain species, I think it is fair to say that a century ago, if we had the tools, knowledge, skills and abilities that we have now, the Nubian ibex, the Arabian sand gazelle, the mountain and Arabian oryx would never disappear from the region and would instead thrive in a vibrant, rich and self-sustaining ecosystem. It’s what we imagine NEOM land looks like and what we’re working towards.

In a statement to Arab News on Sunday, NEOM said the total number of babies born this breeding season is 31, including 23 sand gazelles and eight (Nubian) ibexes. The total number of animals in the NEOM Nature Reserve is now 146.

With its rich terrestrial and marine biodiversity, extraordinary wildlife and breathtaking bird migrations that soar above the Kingdom’s skies, it is difficult to disconnect the link between science and action.

The Arabian oryx was released into the NEOM nature reserve in December 2022 for the first time in more than 100 years the species has walked the sands of this region. (NEOM)

There are 15 designated protected areas in Saudi Arabia managed by the National Center for Wildlife, including several royal reserves and nature reserves managed by other authorities that are home to over 10,000 species of animals, nearly 500 species of birds, more than 1,800 species of fish, whales and dolphins, 330 coral reef species and many more according to NCW.

Like land conservation, marine conservation is considered one of the world’s most pressing scientific issues. From space, Earth is a pale blue dot covered by more than 70% water.

According to UNESCO, the ocean functions as a life support system for our blue planet, regulating climate on a global scale and producing more than half of the oxygen we breathe. Despite this, humanity has mistreated these life-giving oceans to the point that approximately 40% of marine ecosystems have been damaged.

Nestled in one of the lagoons of the Red Sea, King Abdullah University for Science and Technology regards the neighboring body of water as its largest and only laboratory. and one of the Kingdom’s most vital strategic assets.

Coral reefs in the Red Sea. (Provided)

Considered one of the saltiest and warmest seas, it provides insight into environmental stressors that the rest of the world’s seas will face in the near future, director of KAUST’s Red Sea Research Center, Michael Berumen, told Arab News.

Marine life in the Red Sea has adapted to these harsh conditions and we seek to understand the mechanisms that facilitate this adaptation, from genes and genomes to unique behaviors and physiologies.

Careful management of Red Sea ecosystems is critical to conservation and to ensuring this national treasure remains as healthy as possible for generations to come. Particular attention was paid to improving fisheries management and habitat restoration capabilities. RSRC faculty work closely with KAUST’s Reefscape Restoration Initiative at Shushah Island, arguably the most ambitious coral restoration program in the world, said Prof. Berumen.

The lessons learned from the Red Sea can be transferred to many other regions of the world. In line with KAUST’s educational goals, the RSRC facilitates the training and education of future leaders in the marine sciences through student and postdoctoral support, he added.

Wide angle view of plants over the water and boats in the distance on the mangrove coast. (Provided)

The world population is growing, with an estimated increase of almost 2 billion people over the next 30 years, reaching 9.7 billion by 2050. The trend is towards migration to cities.

By 2050, more than two-thirds of the world’s population, nearly 7 billion people, are expected to live in urban areas. There is a long-standing dispute about how much population growth causes environmental degradation.

Historical trajectories, local policies, and cultural preferences influence how compact or dispersed residential areas are built. What is needed are solutions that see nature protected and restored, not marred by human development and increased urbanization, Marshall said.

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