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Built on sand?

Environment - Is Dubai is in danger of becoming a victim of its own phenomenal growth- Andrew Mylius investigates.

Few will say it openly, but among many consultants there is a sense of unease about Dubai's £53bn construction bonanza. Its rate of growth is so prodigious, so extravagant that, if unchecked, some fear the very things that make the place attractive to tourists and multi-national businesses will be irredeemably spoiled.

'Few other places in the world have seen such rapid change, ' says managing principal of master planner Edaw, Bill Hanway.

Dubai stands apart from most other cities in having the ability to drive forward development at an amazingly rapid pace.

The city's royal family makes the political running, and its objective is to conjure from the desert one of the world's pre-eminent leisure and commercial hubs.

Construction is being enabled by inward investment, kick started by oil revenues.

Dubai's almost featureless desert and shallow coastal waters provide developers with a blank canvas on which to invent new urban districts. There are no planning laws to bog projects down, and little of conspicuous environmental value to save.

Power is inexpensive and armies of cheap labour can be imported from the Indian sub-continent.

'There's a fundamental ability to deliver projects in Dubai, ' Hanway summarises. Each new project is more fantastic in scale and complexity than the last. 'The question is: Is that curve going to be viable over the next 15 years?

My gut feeling is that there will be problems.' Hanway differs from other UK consultants working in Dubai in being willing to speak out about his concerns over the sustainability of growth. Edaw is in the process of negotiating its contractual release from one of the city's biggest schemes because its developer is not willing to provide the diversity needed to make a city district self-sufficient (News last week).

Hanway is also worried about the impact of massive offshore dredging operations on marine currents and water quality, and about the long-term viability of the desalination required.

Edaw is active on other Dubai projects, and anticipates continued involvement in the city and neighbouring Emirates. 'There are a lot of clients we respect and who adhere to principles we do, ' says Hanway. He feels that voicing concern over, and backing away from, badly conceived projects will do Edaw's reputation no harm, and could strengthen its professional credentials.

Other rms feel that implied criticism could be commercial, suicide. Some Middle East or international directors profess to exert quiet influence over their clients. 'They're receptive to advice, but ultimately make up their own minds, ' says one.

But in the main it seems that the principles of balancing environmental and financial sustainability are eclipsed by the temptations of high value work, and firms are keeping any concerns they might have quiet.

'Consultants don't exactly have flexible consciences but what would we say if we were asked to work on dredging a bigger channel into Jebel Ali Port-' the chairman of one firm ponders. 'I guess we'd say we are not doing anything we understand as environmentally dodgy, and we'd tell the client that we would expect them to have done an environmental impact study.' Most consultants are unwilling to stick their necks out to champion sustainability, for fear of being cut out of the money. Others may not have enough expat staff in country to create awareness of sustainability: 'Two to three expats in an office of 20 to 30 can exert a big influence and keep everyone on message, ' says one Middle East director. 'But if you have 12 expats and 450 people it's difficult to check.' Construction activity in Dubai consists of hundreds of individual projects. 'They're mostly private, and it is impossible to gauge whether individually they are good, bad or indifferent, ' says a senior engineer in the city. What Hanway and, privately, others are concerned about is the aggregate effect of development.

This is most graphically represented by the mushrooming of artificial island developments along Dubai's coast (see box).

'My biggest concern is that the whole waterfront has been allocated to projects. The first couple of Palms were OK. But my feeling is that, with the introduction of the larger islands, there has not been proper regard for the impact on marine currents, ' says Hanway.

He fears water will stagnate, and that discharges from the port and shoreline industry will hit water quality. 'As soon as you get bad water quality you create a knockon on land value, and that leads to loss of confi dence.' His concerns are echoed by a marine engineering expert.

'There are some studies being done where there's a lot of pressure to come up with positive results - they're probably nowhere near as extensive as you'd expect in the UK.' One major contractor active in the Middle East counters that good quality environmental research is being done, but that clients are far less hesitant than their UK counterparts about getting stuck into construction.

'In the UK we don't start work until all the Ts have been crossed and the Is dotted. In Dubai, there's far more a can-do attitude, and they believe problems will be resolvable as they go. The main thing is to push ahead with work that's going to enhance the economy.' Many engineers working in Dubai are simply dazzled by the transformation. But a handful are worried about the amount of energy required to create the cool interior and lush exterior spaces.

'From a property perspective, energy conservation is unimportant to our clients because the cost of oil - of power - is highly subsidised. As a result they attach relatively little importance to double glazing, heating and cooling. We would view a lot of what's being done as pretty unsustainable, ' says the international director of one longterm player in Dubai.

'Water is a hugely precious asset, but it's not treated as such because of the benevolence of the state. 'When the price of oil is so heavily subsidised it changes the economic dynamics.' The present dynamic is founded on the assumption of secure oil reserves in neighbouring Emirate states for at least 100 years.

Western consultants have relatively little power to influence design in the face of such overwhelming economic odds, he argues.

However, the environmental performance of projects in Dubai is just starting to come under scrutiny. The United Arab Emirates has recently created a Federal Environmental Agency (FEA) to implement United Nations policies.

If the FEA has the teeth to enforce policy, environmental regulation could be just in time to curb the worst excesses of Dubai's development.

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