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It is twenty years since the construction of the man-made islands of Dubai began, the world's largest artificial archipelago. Widely announced as the star project of the urban development of the United Emirate, two decades later, the story is very different to what the developers would have imagined. Islands yet to be completed, abandoned projects, the sea reclaiming its space... Even so, Dubai is not giving up and it is confident that, despite the delay, its dream will become a reality.
The current state of the islands
At the beginning of the 21st century, Dubai experienced a frenzy of urban development, positioning the Arab Emirate as the capital of eccentricities and architectural records. The most ambitious project was the construction of the Palm Islands, which was later joined by The World and The Universe archipelagos, currently under construction. In total, a group of five man-made archipelagos, promoted as an oasis of luxury that has reclaimed land from the sea. Made up of Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira, they measure 5.6 km², 8.4 km² and 46.35 km² respectively, and they have increased Dubai's beach area by 320 km. Deira received its first visitors in December 2020, while Jebel Ali is still being developed and Jumeirah is the most developed of the three. The World- a group of 300 islands forming the map of the world- is 9.34 km² and has added 232 kilometers of coastline. Despite the project being started 17 years ago, it is yet to be finished and it is the one that has experienced most of the problems. Then is the Universe- a recreation of the constellations which is set to be completed between 2023 and 2028.
Construction on the Palm Jumeirah began in 2001. It was constructed through a process of dredging up 3,257,212,970.389 cubic feet of sand from the Persian Gulf and then spraying it into place, adding nearly 50 miles to Dubai's coastline. GPS satellites were used to ensure the accuracy of the where the sand was sprayed to create the palm tree shape. It is undeniably a monumental feat of engineering and modern technology. Hotels line the trunk of the palm tree, while villas and homes sit on the sixteen fronds of the island. The first homes were handed over in 2006 and, at this point, the island is packed with hotels, apartment buildings, and construction. Nakheel, the government-owned developer behind the project, expects 120,000 residents and workers and 20,000 tourists on the island when it's all said and done. All of that comes at an environmental price. Despite Nakheel's attempts to mitigate environmental damage, some researchers believe the construction of the islands has had drastic changes on local marine flora and fauna, coastal erosion, and wave patterns. Greenpeace called the islands a "visual scar", clouding the once clear Arabian gulf with silt and burying coral reefs. In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund declared that the U.A.E. 's ecological footprint was the "highest in the world."
In 20 years, numerous different problems have led to delays in the works, nonpayment, debts, legal problems, an irreparable environmental impact, some islands sinking back into the sea. Despite all these unforeseen circumstances that have threatened the feasibility of the project, the developer, Nakheel, has is not giving up on it.
First problem: Oil and financial crisis
The financial and real estate crisis of 2008 and the drop in oil prices in 2014 which fuel the Emirate's economy were the first events to have a negative impact on the feasibility of this macro-project. The chronology of the events is long and complex, but essentially it can be summarized in private investors that pulled out, million-dollar debts incurred by the developer, lawsuits and suspended works, with no restart date. The problems continue today. In 2018, sales of new real estate developments dropped by 46% during the first quarter of the year. Since the end of 2014, house prices have dropped by 15%. Numerous real estate projects have proposed relaunching The World project, with new investors such as the Philippine startup Revolution Precrafted, which will invest 3.2 billion dollars in the construction of luxury apartments and a hotel.
The World: At risk of sinking
Still with The World, in 2010, the marine company Penguin Marine warned that this group of archipelagos was sinking back into the sea. The company, responsible for providing logistics and transport services to the islands, regularly took measurements for safety purposes. The main reason is that the sand extracted from the seabed to build the 300 archipelagos, was gradually returning to its place of origin. A photograph taken from the International Space Station in February 2010, showed evidence that, indeed, the waters of the Persian Gulf were rising and the islands were starting to disappear. This also led to the channels between the islands becoming obstructed. Nakheel, the project developer, denied all these allegations and ended up winning the trial against Penguin Marine, which wanted to cancel its contract. According to information from NASA, Palm Jumeirah was also sinking at a rate of five millimeters per year.
Premature erosion of the construction materials
The artificial islands are mainly constructed on a bed of sand and rock. Despite Dubai being surrounded by desert, marine sand was used to build the artificial islands, which is more appropriate for this type of construction, as it is more compact. According to the conclusions obtained from the environmental studies presented by the researcher Bayyinah Salahuddin, Dubai's beaches lose between 10,000 and 15,000 cubic meters of sand each year. The Palm Jumeirah construction, which has affected the natural flow of the wind, has caused the tides to increase this rate of erosion. The result is that marine sediment deposits have moved 40 kilometers over a five-year period. All the movement caused during the construction has affected marine biodiversity, burying oyster beds and causing irreparable damage to the coral on the sea floor.
Rising sea levels
This problem is not exclusive to Dubai. In 2017, the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency warned that the in the worst-case scenario regarding the effects of climate change, sea levels would increase by 9 meters, which would be catastrophic for Dubai and its artificial islands. Approximately 85% of residents in the United Arab Emirates live in coastal areas. To protect them from the waves, the islands are surrounded by a giant wave breaker. It is only 2 meters above sea level to ensure that residents and visitors have uninterrupted views. The immediate result is the artificial alteration of the marine flows and the reduction of marine currents. In the long term, this barrier is unlikely to be sufficient in the event of the worst forecasts or even the most optimistic of these. The alteration of marine currents and loss of local biodiversity may increase this problem. The exacerbated rate of construction that took place during the first decade of the 21st century and the pollution associated with this activity did not help to mitigate the warming of the city or of the Persian Gulf.
But all of that is in the future. For now, Dubai is focused on its aim to be the most popular tourist destination in the world by 2025. Already, it is the fourth-most visited city in the world, with a projected 16.7 million visitors this year, according to Mastercard's Global Destination Cities Index.
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