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Desert pearl

Environment Kuwait

Kuwait's Al Khiran Pearl City will have 300km of artificial coastline and become home to 100,000 inhabitants. It sounds like an ecological minefield. But Andrew Mylius discovers different.

While US and British armour massed in northern Kuwait ready to invade Iraq, a different kind of mobilisation was taking place in the south. For construction of the extraordinary Al Khiran Pearl City, a maritime development that will more than double Kuwait's coastline, a battalion of cranes and excavators had to be assembled. In April they rolled into action.

Al Khiran is at present little more than a large village, with holiday homes ranged along the banks of a creek. Inland, it is surrounded by a seeming wasteland of inhospitable saltmarsh and desert. The coast to either side is largely devoted to the pipelines, storage depots, refineries and shipping terminals of Kuwait's oil and gas industry.

But the demand for homes with beach frontage in Kuwait is so great that as long ago as 1987 the La'ala' All Kuwait Real Estate Company set out to create a seaside idyll in this hostile landscape.

Buro Happold partner Terry Ealey, who has been involved with the project for the last 16 years, saw plans for construction of Pearl City dashed by the Gulf War of 1990. His heart sank as relations with Iraq worsened last year, he admits. It is an immense relief to have broken ground - to have started what will be a 15 year construction programme, Ealey adds.

Al Khiran Pearl City is being developed in five phases, with overall cost expected to exceed ú1bn. Creating it involves carving out an interconnecting network of channels, each around 100m wide, from the saltmarsh and desert, to make around 340km of artificial coast.

Above the gleaming beaches of this new coast some 12,000 houses will be built. With housing in a new city centre, which will be built on the 'mainland', inland of Pearl City, the development's population is planned to top 100,000.

Nobody wants to live in a desert, natural or manmade, Ealey points out. So developing a rich, biodiverse marine environment has been one of his key concerns.

'The very organic, frond-like shape of the canals and landforms has been generated in response to the natural environment at site, ' Ealey says. 'All the shapes have been developed on the basis of existing topography - we're digging at low points and not at high ground.'

Rock outcrops will be turned into islands. A 17m high hill is being retained as a major feature of the new scheme. 'It's known across Kuwait, which is like a table top, ' Ealey grins.

The labyrinth of channels being carved into the coast will be connected to the Gulf by two new inlets as well as the existing creek, to allow water to circulate.

'Prevailing winds blow from the north to north west. The main channels are all oriented to benefit from this: wind blowing for a long enough time sets up currents in the water. Mixed with tidal penetration you get very good water exchange, ' says Ealey.

Careful physical and numerical modelling of water exchange has been cross referenced with data from a similar but far smaller scheme built on the Saudi coast. Ealey reckons the only significant differences between water in the channels and in the main body of the Gulf will be a 1infinityC to 2infinityC increase in temperature, caused by the sun heating the shallows, and 1% to 2% greater salinity, caused by evaporation.

'In terms of waterborne pollutants there will be no discernable difference, ' he says.

When fully realised, the system of channels will be flushed through, naturally, every three tides.

The new sea bed - thousands of square kilometres of relatively sheltered shallow water - will become a major haven and breeding ground for the rich plant and fish life of the Gulf.

Rock groynes every 400m or so, built to act against drift as tides wash through the channels, will be colonised by crustacea, small fish and fry, which in turn will attract larger, predatory fish.

'We expect to get all the principal marine life of the Gulf, which is really quite rich, only we expect it to be more concentrated, ' says Ealey.

At the same time, areas of mangrove, all but wiped out from Kuwait in the last century, will be reinstated, providing a natural habitat for shrimps and fish like the mud skipper. 'Mangroves used to exist off Kuwait.

We know from what older people have told us, and marine biologists have found resident populations of mud skippers, which only exist where there are mangroves.'

With fish teeming in the water, birds are also expected to colonise Pearl City.

A suction dredger is being used to deepen and widen the main creek, but the real work of creating Pearl City is a colossal earthmoving exercise. Cut off walls will be used to hold back water in channels already filled, and groundwater levels - which naturally sit around 1m below the surface - will be lowered to provide dry working conditions.

This enables faster progress and greater accuracy, says Ealey.

Channel sides are being excavated to a 1:12 gradient to the low tide line, providing beaches with a natural slope. Below the low water mark they steepen to a 1:6 slope.

Spoil is being used to raise ground level on the frond-like shore to 2.5m above the high tide line, which will keep houses safe from storm surges and 300mm of sea level rise. Dynamic compaction will bring the soft ground up to adequate load bearing capacity.

Crucially for a seaside city, Pearl City needs sandy beaches.

Sand is being won by blowing out fines from excavated material.

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