We have been in varying degrees of lockdown for some time now, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, and with the majority of the world’s human population staying indoors in a bid to flatten the curve, we have seen stories popping up around the world, showing the animal kingdom coming out to play. Deserted streets have become animal crossings, and marine wildlife appear to be enjoying unusually calm waters. Comparisons are being shown of air pollution pre-lockdown versus present day, as the environment feels the effects of our slower pace of life. Fast fashion, air travel and overconsumption are just a few of the hot topics right now, as we try to comprehend where we go from here, once this is all over. Except that nobody really knows when that will be, or how things will be, but one thing we have certainly had time to think about is what we consume, how we consume and why we consume.

I caught up with Natalie Banks, Founder of Azraq, a registered non-profit marine conservation organisation in the United Arab Emirates to talk more about the environmental impacts being felt and what the uncertain future may hold from a sustainability standpoint.

Natalie is a qualified journalist and has worked with various news agencies across the globe, with articles notably printed in The Guardian and Huffington Post. After working on shark conservation in Australia, Natalie now focuses her attention on marine conservation issues in the MENA region.

Azraq Middle East
Kayleigh Hyslop (left) and Natalie Banks (right) diving at Dibba Rock.

Imprint: Tell us about Azraq’s current projects and initiatives. 
Natalie: Azraq in Arabic means blue, and we are about conserving and protecting the local marine environment. We do this by utilising our volunteer base to educate the public through a range of school and corporate talks, as well as hosting movie nights and raising awareness of marine conservation issues through traditional and social media platforms. Azraq also activates the community by hosting a variety of beach cleans and mangrove tree plantings.

Imprint: What are some of the main impacts on the environment that you have seen since we have been in lockdown here in the UAE? 
Natalie: The main impact to the environment since lockdown started in Dubai as a result of the COVID-19 virus, has been the record low emissions. The Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi recently reported a 50 per cent decline in nitrogen oxide levels as a result of measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which simply means that there are less air pollutants and the air is therefore clearer. The decrease in boat traffic has seen sightings of marine life in larger than usual numbers, in places like the marinas within Dubai. On the flip side however, there appears to have been an increase in single use plastic, particularly gloves and surgical masks which are not being disposed of properly.

Imprint: One view is that things clearly weren’t sustainable before, and the world is telling us to slow down; what is your take on this?
Natalie: Environmentalists, scientists and conservationists globally have been advising of a range of issues in terms of Earth’s sustainability. The environment generally takes a back seat to convenience, comfort, growth, development and profits. It is imperative that there is a healthy balance, and for years now, the scales have been tilted. Sadly, if history is our teacher, the slow down associated with COVID-19 will have a minimal (if any) impact on large environmental issues such as climate change. What it has done however, is show that we are capable of taking unprecedented measures when required. No environmentalist or conservationist would want to have a virus killing thousands of people and therefore limiting human movement, to be the reason for an improvement to the environment. Those working on improvements to issues such as climate change, would want to see forward thinking policies and plans put in place for sustainable improvements with a long term strategy.

Imprint: How do you think we can find a healthy balance?
Natalie: Quite simply, the planet needs to rebuild its connection to nature. Every living organism on this planet is connected and as such, the environment should be given as much thought in terms of decisions by individuals, corporates and governments, as convenience, comfort, growth, development and profits do. There needs to be a genuine balance and the scales brought to an equilibrium status.

Imprint: Returning to normality – do you think we will go back to the same normal, or will things have to change?
Natalie: Though I would love to think that this incident will have given the world pause on the habits of humans, history has taught us that the environment takes a backseat to economic development, even after deadly viruses like the Spanish Flu. Even the financial crash of 2008-2009 led to an overall dip of emissions of 1.3%, but this quickly rebounded by 2010 as the economy recovered, leading to an all-time high.

Imprint: In a perfect world, how would the new normal look to you, and why?
Natalie: Where there is humanity, there is hope. The sightings of wildlife in the United Arab Emirates has given conservationists the opportunity to teach the public about the vast amount of life in the country and to educate people on the particular species. This enables some community members to care on a greater level and be moved to do more to conserve and protect the wildlife. There is the opportunity also for eco-friendly tourism to take place and take advantage of the wildlife on offer, and with it, opportunities for organisations and individuals to work with the government to identify areas that need greater protection.

Follow Azraq on social media to learn more about their initiatives and for ways to get involved locally at @azraqme.

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