Wasting Water In Dubai

Dubai isn't ranked alone but as part of the U.A.E., which comes in at 112th.

Ah, Dubai. No metropolis has ever grown so fast from so little. The world's highest building now soars upward from land where camels wandered a few years ago. Three huge designer archipelagoes have erupted in the sea, including one that forms a map of the world. The question, environmentally speaking, is whether this mad, visionary experiment represents a threat to the world.

The Environmental Performance Index for the United Arab Emirates gives a fair idea of the impact that Dubai has had so far. The Emirates, a federation that also includes Abu Dhabi and five other states, ranks way down the EPI list at 112, an appalling performance for a country that falls among the world's 30 richest. By comparison, the worst European nation in the same income group, Belgium, comes in at 57, more than 50 places ahead of the Emirates, which scores as poorly as some of the world's 30 poorest nations. No rich nation except Kuwait lags its peers so badly. And if Dubai alone were surveyed, the numbers would be far worse.

The main problem is not environmental health for human beings. There's plenty of drinking water, thanks to the vast desalination plants, and sanitation is good. The real problem is what's being done to the natural ecosystems. The Emirates' score on that front is a miserable 38.2, while the "climate change" score from all the oil and gas burning is an abysmal 26.6.

In Dubai, entertainment trumps the environment everywhere you turn, imitating it and reconstituting it. On the inland edge of Dubai a stupendous theme park and resort complex now under construction advertises itself as 186 million square meters "encompassing the entire spectrum of human experience." A promotional video calls it "a fantasy land set right in the heart of the desert." Yet there's going to be water everywhere: seawater made potable by enormous oil- and gas-burning plants that already have an installed capacity of 1.26 billion liters a day.

The eponymous Water World will include giant slides with "more water, more thrills, more screams and more fun," and pools with real live dolphins that "reach out for human contact." Shoppers in the enormous malls will stroll along "walkways among gurgling streams." At Dubailand, the developers tell us, the slogan is "Think bigger." Snow World will be grander than the indoor slope already operating in Dubai: "the only place in the world where it snows at 40 degrees Celsius," brag the developers. There's also Bio World, a vast rain forest under glass, and a wild-animal park. "Think ecotourism, think bigger!" intones the video's narrator. "Ecotourism"? Think chutzpah.

If you go to Dubai and get stuck in traffic (which you almost certainly will), you'll see instantly, and feel in your eyes, the belching, brutal impact on the environment of countless cars with enormous engines. But even from outer space you can get an idea what's happening. On Google Earth you see the cartographic islands of "The World" surrounded by great sprays of underwater silt. Coral and oyster beds have been smothered by construction dust. What used to be a protected marine reserve near Jebel Ali was obliterated by the second Palm Island development project.

Yet it's hard to say that Dubai is paving over paradise. There is still a lot of desert out there beyond the city limits, after all. And while there is little left that's truly wild, some efforts have been made to preserve native antelopes, falcons and other iconic animals. As for the gulf waters off the coast of Dubai, they never had as many coral reefs and oyster beds as elsewhere in the area. Through the clear water you could see mile after mile of flat bottom. A spokesman for Nakheel, the development firm building the Palm Island complexes, recently responded to criticism from greens by claiming that there are actually more sea grasses, more fish and more varieties of life in the sheltered waters of the Palm Jumeirah, the oldest of the artificial archipelagoes, than there were before. But of course that is the point, and the problem. Many of those grasses and fish may not be native to the region. Dubai is creating an ecology that is new—beyond the spectrum of human experience, or nature's—and where that will lead nobody can be sure.