A few travelers passing through Cairo earlier this month sent me an email describing their disappointment at the diving they experienced off Egypt's top resort, Sharm el-Sheikh. What they saw was "completely a different scene" from their first visit in 2004. "The coral was turning grey and dying," they said.
Over and over stories from divers are related about the decaying state of the Red Sea's coral reefs. The Red Sea is no longer a pristine location to witness the spectacle of marine life and coral reefs. One of the main causes is the constant pouring of waste from hotels along the coastal areas, but the tourism industry more generally has done further harm by pumping chemicals and other waste products into the sea. Resolving these problems is proving extremely difficult.
Not only are coral reefs under threat, but other marine life, too. Offshore oil rigs have been in the Red Sea waters for decades, but little has been done to ensure the equipment is up to date. These rigs stream a constant pool of oil into the sea. Ahmed el-Droubi of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Agency (Hepca) said earlier this year that much of the dolphin population has migrated further and further south as a result.
There are areas that are uninhabitable as a result of oil spillage, he said. Hepca has warned about the oil continually seeping into areas along the coast, including beaches, which have seen massive degradation in recent years. A major oil spill last summer showed the ugly face of offshore drilling – not only in the Gulf of Mexico – but here in the Red Sea.
The oil spread far and wide, according to reports, and even as the government claimed it had been contained, beaches continued to be flooded with it. Even today, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) said that a number of the beaches are still "unsafe for tourism".
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has warned of what is happening to the Red Sea:
"The major threats to the marine environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden are related to land-based activities. These include urbanization and coastal development (for example, dredge and fill operations), industries including power and desalination plants and refineries, recreation and tourism, waste water treatment facilities, power plants, coastal mining and quarrying activities, oil bunkering and habitat modification such as the filling and conversion of wetlands."With tourism one of the top foreign currency providers in Egypt, the resultant loss of coral reef quality and marine life has left Egypt in a bind.
There are good people working hard to clean up the ecosystems across the region, including the Red Sea. Hepca and Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) are two of these organizations, but they come up against one major problem in their work: a lack of overall environmental consciousness.
Take the efforts to rid the Red Sea of plastic bags – a major culprit in the pollution of the water and marine life and biodiversity degradation in the Red Sea. Hepca launched a campaign last year, garnering the support of local Egyptian government in the area to ban the use of plastic bags at supermarkets.
Today, more than a year since that law was passed, go to any supermarket on Egypt's Red Sea coast and your purchases will be thrown into a plastic bag. Those bags are then scattered in the desert and make their way into the water, leaving sea life threatened. People, despite knowing that their actions have a great impact on their surroundings, continue to avoid solutions.
Yahia Shawkat, writing in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, attempted to argue that Egyptians are "environmentally conscious people" – adding, of course, "in our own way". That's just the problem, as wealthy and elite Egyptians and Arabs such as Shawkat continue to paint a rosy picture of environmentalism in the country and around the region, the facts on the ground are more stark and depressing. Take a look at the coral, or at least what is left.
What is needed, one environmental consultant at a major supermarket chain in Egypt said recently, was a change of mindset. "We live in a time where information goes so quickly and we sometimes get inundated with too much too quickly, but in terms of what we are doing, and buying from the local supermarket, we have to be more conscious of how this changes the environment."
He said Egyptians and Arabs who head to the Red Sea need to make "environmental strong decisions of how they are going to spend their money and time". If we want to see dolphins in the Red Sea in the immediate future, we must be more aware of the products we use, where we stay and what actions we support. Or face the consequences.
The Guardian, "Egypt must go green to save Red Sea", accessed October 16, 2010