October 6, 2000

The economic boom that Kuwait has built in the past 30 years on oil has not come without cost to the flora and fauna of the country's small offshore islands in the Gulf.

Their fragile ecosystems are being damaged by oil pollution, which was particularly bad after Kuwait's wells burned at the end of the Gulf war, the pumping of raw sewage into the sea and the rising number of boat owners who visit the islands.

Kubbar, Qarrouh and Umm al-Maradem, within 15 to 20 miles of the Kuwaiti coast, are surrounded by coral reefs unique in structure and composition. The reefs are also important breeding grounds for several species of sea turtles and migrating sea birds.

Menaf Behbehani, assistant professor at the University of Kuwait's department of biological sciences, said: "As the most northerly coral reefs in the Indian Ocean system, they are already subject to a very stressed environment, given Kuwait's huge variation in temperatures between summer and winter and the high levels of silt from the Shatt Al-Arab waterway.

"Their peculiar structure - they are mostly finger corals rather than mass formations - means they are very vulnerable to damage by boats' anchors and scuba divers brushing against them. Many people collect them, and there are no controls in place to stop this."

In the past two years, environmental campaigns have sprung up to clean up the reefs, protect the islands' wildlife and encourage the authorities to implement local laws on the protection of the environment.

Under the banner "Reef Rescue", an umbrella body of divers and environmentalists, groups of up to 120 volunteers have cleared debris from the reefs and raised the profile of environmental issues in Kuwait.

A 10-year exclusion zone around the islands may be the only way to protect them. "The Environmental Protection Agency wants to play a role," said Shaker Al-Hazeem, a research associate in mariculture and fisheries at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research and a leading figure in Reef Rescue. "But it is still formulating the rules for its intervention and clarifying their legal status."

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