In the Red Sea naturalists’ haven of Marsa Alam lies Wadi el-Gemal National Park, a series of vegetated Red Sea islands home to unique terrestrial features and an abundance of marine life. The hilly, mountainous terrain stretches across the Red Sea as well as the coastal deserts, boasting ancient rock formations and breeding grounds for endangered species, including the green turtle and Dorcas gazelle.
Over the years the area has become more and more popular with tourists, who come to see sea turtles in the summer digging holes in the sand to lay their eggs, explore the marine life, and enjoy the simple serene Bedouin life, eating traditional food and drinking tea and coffee while watching the sun disappear behind the golden sand dunes at the end of the day. At Hamata island, visitors stop at Qulaan, which is known for its white sands and shallow warm lake that cuts into the waters of the Red Sea. The area is full of mangrove trees where many migratory bird nests can be found. For beach enthusiasts the park has it all: colorful sands, coral reefs, dolphins, sea turtles and many other delightful sea creatures to be seen.
But the tourists who come to appreciate the breathtaking natural beauty are threatening the park’s ecosystem by littering and dumping plastic items into the sea, threatening both the marine and the wildlife of the area.
“When we started [following] documentaries [showing how] birds eat plastics, we decided to start by removing plastics and wastes from all birds’ nests, such as from osprey nests. We also made a short film Permission to Save Birds to raise awareness of the extreme dangers of plastics to birds,” explains Ahmed Fathi, director of Shabab Betheb Masr, a national youth foundation working to promote ecotourism in Egypt.
Together with the Red Sea Protectorates team, Shabab Betheb Masr (Youths whoLove Egypt) has launched a five-year campaign called “Red Sea Islands Free from Plastics” to help clean up the Red Sea and raise awareness of littering and plastic waste.
Fathi attended the United Nations Environment Assembly held in Nairobi in December 2017 where plastic pollution was the main topic. He explains that the meeting identified that one of the major focuses of 2018 is minimizing plastic pollution and highlighting how dangerous plastics are to natural resources and environmental sustainability, especially that they take too long to decompose.
“They are ingested by animals and fish, poisoning and killing them, and ultimately that comes back to our food chain as referred to by many UN reports. They also cause acute damage to coral reefs and marine ecosystem,” says Ahmed Ghaleb, director of Red Sea Protectorates, which is affiliated to the Ministry of Environment.
In response to the stark UN warning over the consequences of increasing plastics in oceans and seas, the Red Sea Protectorates is determined to remove plastics from diving spots and beaches at Wadi el-Gemal National Park with the goal of making it completely free of plastics within five years.
Marsa Alam’s Wadi el-Gemal islands.
“Funded by the Ministry of Environment and Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, we have started this campaign since 2017. We have pledged to declare all of Wadi el-Gemal’s shores and beaches as zero plastic in 2018,” Fathi says.
In addition to protecting the national park’s living organisms, the initiative aims to promote tourism by cleaning up the touristic areas such as Qulaan and Hankurab as low levels of pollution can mean spectacular visibility for tourists while snorkeling or diving, Ghaleb remarks.
“We decided to begin our campaign with Wadi el-Gemal National Park because while we were making documentary films about the most important natural reserves in Egypt, we found that the terrestrial and marine life at Wadi el-Gemal are littered with plastics,” Fathi says.
They first headed to Mahabis Island, which is famous for sea turtle and osprey, where they arranged two camps with the participation of 55 volunteers. Off the island alone the participants collected six tons of wastes, varying from plastics, iron, carton and paper, Fathi says.
“In October, we declared the island zeroplastic with the attendance of Canadian Counsellor Isabelle Savard at the Canada Fund, and before the UN Environment Assembly’s meeting held in Nairobi, where we presented a documentary about the island,” Fathi adds.
The second camp was launched last December on the small island of Om El Sheikh, where 38 volunteers from Cairo and Ismailia helped remove three and a half tons of plastics. Today, it is the second island free of plastics in Wadi el-Gemal, Fathi says.
“We also moved to Marina Hamata and Qulaan areas, collecting three tons of waste in only eight hours. However, we have not totally gotten rid of the waste due to their massive amounts and rising tourist activities there.”
This year the initiative aims to clean up three more islands, namely Wadi el-Gemal, Siyul and Showarit, in addition to with clearing remaining waste from the Marina
Hamata and Qulaan areas.
To ensure sustainability, Shabab Betheb Masr and the Red Sea Protectorates plan to cooperate with officials in Red Sea governorates to construct a factory, which could replace plastics used to manufacture bags with paper, Ghaleb says.
“Previously, the Red Sea governorates had taken a decision to ban plastic usage in 2009, but it did not come into effect due to the absence of factories to substitute synthetic materials with paper in manufacturing,” Ghaleb explains.
As part of the campaign two workshops have already been held to raise awareness among Wadi el-Gemal citizens to give their attention to the dangers of synthetic materials to biodiversity and to the ways to properly dispose of plastic waste, Ghaleb says. “This is in addition to the workshop convened for the primary stage children at Hamata schools as well as the two training workshops for the campaign’s volunteers on the importance of natural reserves and the harmful effects of plastics,” he adds.
“Saving Sea Turtles” is another initiative by the Red Sea Protectorates in Hurghada to preserve the Red Sea’s creatures and protect them from extinction. “We are also planning in the future to open new diving locations in Hurghada, which would be some of the biggest in the Red Sea,” Ghaleb concludes.