Egypt is preparing to host the 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 14) on 17-19 November in Sharm El-Sheikh.
The UN conference will be attended by 12,000 representatives from 196 countries, including heads-of-state, government officials, environmental experts, NGOs, and youth and civil society representatives.
Biodiversity is considered to be an accurate measurement of the health of ecological systems and includes the relationships between all living organisms, big and small, on the planet.
The COP 14 Conference will call on attendees to step up efforts to halt ecological losses and to protect the planet’s biological systems that provide food and water for billions of people worldwide.
In preparation for the COP 14, the Association of Environmental and Development Writers, an NGO, organised a training workshop for members about the importance of protecting biodiversity and nature reserves in Egypt, with the aim of integrating biodiversity protection into the press and media.
The workshop, held in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada last week, is part of a protocol signed by the association and the government Environmental Affairs Agency. With the sponsorship of Minister of the Environment Yasmine Fouad, it was attended by ministry officials and media experts.
Fouad said the workshop had concluded with recommendations to promote the COP 14 Conference, including “the participation of young people in universities, youth centres, and on social media in a promotion campaign and by holding local contests for the best documentary film and photographs that express biodiversity.
The winners of the contests will be able to participate in an international competition held on the sidelines of the COP 14 Conference,” she said.
She stressed the importance of raising awareness of environmental hazards in Egypt. Under the protocol signed between the association and the agency, media activities will be held in various governorates to help found a solid basis for environmental campaigns.
The protocol would also help to increase public awareness of biodiversity across the country, she said.
International environmental expert Mustafa Fouda explained why the current threats to ecological systems were occurring. He cited “the fragmentation of environments” as one example.
“The spread of water hyacinth, or eichhornia, is alone responsible for much of the disintegration of biodiversity around the world, for example. Pollution, climate change and the depletion of natural resources are other reasons,” he said.
In order to overcome the negative effects of gas pollutants, a list was being prepared of these followed by contacting the concerned authorities to issue decrees regulating their use, Fouda said.
“Using simple mathematics, it is clear that saving a single dolphin can generate up to $92,000 annually in tourist revenues. This is one way of showing how important it is to preserve and protect endangered creatures,” he said.
He also talked about the impressive role the Abu Salama Association, an NGO, had been playing as one of the oldest groups concerned with marine and dolphin protection in Hurghada.
“Egypt has 30 nature reserves, comprising 15 per cent of the country, and they contain unparalleled biodiversity,” said Ahmed Abdel-Hakim, head of the technical bureau at the Ministry of the Environment’s Nature Preservation Department. “Egypt’s nature reserves include more than one UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they include the Saint Catherine’s Reserve in Sinai and the Whales Valley Reserve in Fayoum,” he said.
Abdel-Hakim said the ministry was working on development programmes in the country’s nature reserves that would work in cooperation with local communities to provide job opportunities and develop handicrafts to maintain the cultural heritage of each area.
Media campaigns were able to stop the sale of the Red Sea Giftun Island in 2005 to a foreign investor, said Khaled Mubarak, head of the Association of Environmental and Development Writers.
Campaigns were launched in the newspapers decrying the potential sale and publishing expert opinions on the dangers of misusing Egypt’s riches for commercial benefit.
This had been another reason behind the decision of Wael Reda, head of the Media Department at the ministry, to focus on the importance of the media in increasing people’s awareness of threats to the environment.
The association is also preparing to launch further campaigns to raise the awareness of both decision-makers and the public at large, also announcing training programmes for young journalists who want to specialise in the environment.
On the sidelines of the recent workshop, participants visited the nature reserve on Giftun Island near Hurghada, which is home to 50 per cent of the world’s white-eyed seagulls, the endangered osprey, and five types of rare sea turtles, including the hawksbill turtle.
Very few places on the planet are still blessed with silence without the least hint of noise or pollution. However, the island is one of them, where the white powdery sand softly touches the crystal waters of the Red Sea, and different shades of blue and turquoise colour the water surrounding the island.
The Giftun Island and the whole of the Red Sea are vulnerable to climate change, said Ahmed Ghallab, head of the Red Sea Nature Reserves. “Seventy per cent of the Red Sea’s creatures exist nowhere else in the world. Fortunately, marine scientists expect the Red Sea to whether climate change.”
Ghallab said that the ministry had taken measures to preserve the Red Sea’s biodiversity, including regulations on visiting dolphin areas. “A maximum of 300 people per day, for $10 each, can now visit areas where dolphins swim in order not to force them to swim away to quieter waters,” he said.
New diving areas are being added to create additional diving sites with hard and soft coral reefs, while committing to a maximum of 20,000 dives per year instead of the older regulation of 100,000 dives, he said.
The Giftun Island is split into Larger Giftun, at 18km2, and Smaller Giftun, at 3km2. It is of crucial importance to the tourism sector, since it is the only island in the area where tourists are currently allowed to set foot. It houses 14 diving sites, is rich in natural resources, and is a pillar of the economy of the Red Sea and the national economy as a whole.
Official figures indicate that Larger Giftun has been gaining the attention of tourists year after year, since they are more attracted to less-developed beaches, natural scenery and primitive locations.
It has helped to generate many jobs, with 40 to 60 boats landing on its shores every day. The island receives 188,000 visitors a year, 32 per cent of them engaged in marine activities. Overall, it attracts 12 per cent of Red Sea visitors.
The island has maintained its eco-friendly style. Ihab Dandash, owner of an eco-friendly project on Giftun Island, said that “we need four tons of water on a daily basis.
This is transported on special boats, which on their way back contain two tons of drainage water. We can’t allow non-natural materials on the island, and we can’t construct stations to purify the water since these would increase the saltiness of the soil and consequently affect biodiversity.”
“We also don’t allow the use of bricks or cement in construction. Instead, we use natural materials such as tree stalks and palm fronds. Since the inception of the project nine years ago, we have been using eco-friendly materials,” Dandash said.
Director of the project Tamer Gamal expects a 10 per cent increase in visitors during the summer season. “We receive between 2,500 and 3,000 holiday-makers per week,” he said, adding that these enjoy sports and marine activities that don’t harm the environment. “To decorate the camp we use leftovers, such as empty bottles,” he added.
Constant follow-up on the part of the authorities has helped give tourists additional security, Gamal added. “There are regulations that are strictly followed. Fishing, touching marine creatures and collecting seashells are not allowed.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Blessed with biodiversity