Sabah Al Ahmad Sea City

Major Civil Engineering projects are often controversial and get a lot of bad press. Concerns about the impact on the environment and the damage they cause consistently makes headlines, especially when fragile ecosystems are affected. It is therefore extremely rare that a major project gains much acclaim for the way in which it works with the environment and creates a thriving ecosystem, especially when this project is located in the Arabian Gulf which has suffered considerably from overdevelopment in recent years. One project receiving international recognition for it benefit to the environment is a massive development project located in the south of Kuwait.

Sabah Al Ahmad Sea City (formally known as Al Khiran Pearl City) is a major marine development project some 100kms south of Kuwait City, close to the Saudi Arabian boarder. This unique civil engineering project is larger than Manhattan and will eventually be the home for over 100,000 people.

Unlike many other coastal projects in the Gulf where millions of tonnes of material have been tipped offshore, to reclaim land for development and in the process impacting on the marine breeding grounds, at Sabah al Ahmad Sea city they have done the opposite! They have brought the sea into the land. They have excavated up to 7 Kilometers into low lying, hyper-saline, environmentally impoverished salt flats creating lagoons and islands, some 9.5 million square meters of water to date. The whole of this massive waterway network is self flushing using only the power of the tides. All of the materials excavated from the lagoons are used to raise the remaining land well above any predicted sea level change. Amazingly, since the opening of the waterways of the first two phases they have recorded over 1000 species of marine macro biota, with over 100 species of fish and shellfish, including one new to science. This is in just over 5 years!

At a recent international conference on the state of the Gulf held in Kuwait during February 2011 and attended by marine specialists from all over the world, Sabah Al Ahmad Sea City was lauded as an example of ‘how to do it’. Dr. David Jones Professor Emeritus of Marine Biology University of Wales Bangor stated ‘ this project clearly demonstrates that with a multi disciplinary design approach  it is possible to  compensate for any future sea level change and in the process create an unique marine environment that is co-existing with man. It is a world first’.

However, it has been a long and difficult road to get to where they are today. The project was first conceived in the mid 80’s by the late visionary Kuwaiti businessman Khalid Yousef Al Marzouq. This was well before any of the Emirates had even commenced on their breakneck development programmes. Invasion, liberation, Gulf wars, political upheaval and bureaucracy kept delaying the project. It took the concerted efforts and determination of Marzouk’s son Fawaz Khalid Al Marzouq to get final approval for project. Work eventually commenced on this Mega project in early 2003.

The whole idea of the building of building a massive marine city was to meet the local demand for living by the sea. Kuwaiti’s are passionate about the sea; it’s their historical lifeblood and was the basis of commercial activities pre petro development. Most Kuwaiti’s aspire to have a chalet by the water. Unfortunately, very little of Kuwait’s sandy coastline remains undeveloped. Sabah Al Ahmad Sea city will eventually almost double the length of existing sandy shoreline within the project. Well over 200Kms of beach will be created by completion of this pioneering project. To date, more than 84kms of beach has already been completed and is being enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

By any stretch of the imagination Sabah Al Ahmad Sea City is massive. It occupies an of approximately 67square kilometres, some 7 square kilometres more than the published area of Manhattan.  Much of the land is classified as Sabkha. This is very low lying salt encrusted land, prone to flooding and sustaining very little flora or fauna. With sea level change over the millennia much of the subsoil was saturated silts and fine sands, making it virtually impossible to build on. And with average predicted sea level change of 50cms this century, most of this land would be lost to the sea. The challenge for the multi disciplinary team of engineers and scientists was how to create an economically feasible, environmentally sustainable development that would provide the much needed beachfront property.

Before any real engineering could begin a clear idea of the existing environment and the impact the project would have, was needed. An extensive environmental impact assessment was carried out and the findings formed the basis on which the engineering could commence. Whilst the majority of the site was environmentally impoverished with little or no Flora or Fauna, there were two intertidal creeks that provided a home for a hundred or so species of Macro Fauna. All the evidence showed that the new intertidal waterways would more than compensate for any losses in the existing creeks; however, in order to ensure that the few species that were particular to this muddier estuarine environment would not be greatly affected additional habitats were identified. It was decided to create a series of self sustaining islands in the lagoon system, to provide extensive habitat for some of the threatened species. More radically it was decided to re-introduce the grey mangrove (Avicenna Marina) into Kuwait. Whilst evidence showed that this plant had historically grown in Kuwait in more temperate times, it was now at the northern limit of its ability to grow. The benefits of introduction of the mangrove were threefold. It stabilised the island perimeter thus reducing the impact of erosion, it trapped silts and fine sands thus providing the environment for the threatened species and provided an important nursery ground for juvenile species of marine life. The interior of the islands were planted with salt and drought tolerant plants. These specially developed plants will become self sufficient requiring only on the subsurface salt water and periodic rains to survive.

Considerable problems were experienced with the growing of mangroves. After a disastrous start, with the loss of all of the imported seedlings from Saudi Arabia and a freak hail storm that stripped the young plants of their leaves, some 5 years later hundreds of thriving mangrove plants can be seen around the perimeter of the islands. In 2008 the annual marine survey identified that all of the pre-existing species were successfully flourishing and that the overall species count had risen from a pre-disturbance figure of 120 to over 1000 species of macro biota, including one species new to science. This microscopic crustacean species was named Euridice Marzouki.

With the myriad of engineering and environmental challenges the one caused the team the most sleepless nights was the effective circulation of water throughout the extensive network of canals. Whilst near shore flushing was easily obtained, flushing and water exchange deep into the project was a major challenge. Without proper flushing and water exchange the waterways would soon become hyper saline, devoid of oxygen and susceptible to any pollutant that may be accidentally introduced. This would lead to a stagnant body of water unable to sustain a wide ranging eco system. Certainly not a desirable environment to live alongside.

Sophisticated computer software demonstrated that by the time the tide was able to penetrate half way into the project it would have turned, thus not flushing the innermost depths of the project. Solutions such as pumping and artificial aeration by fountains were quickly ruled out as unsustainable. Not only because of the capital and long term maintenance costs, but the amount of energy used in their operation. An innovative solution was needed. The design team thought that tidally powered gates were possibly the solution. The introduction of a series of gates into the system would force the tide to circulate around the project rather than just in and out. The computer models showed that this would lead to an exchange of 90% of all of the water in the system within 10 days. This far exceeded the minimum internationally recognised requirements. However, these gates would be very big. Specialist hydraulic designers identified that six gates, each 50 square meters in area and over 10 tonnes in weight would be needed. The gates were manufactured in the UK and built into specially designed culverts towards the end of 2010.

To date water quality and environmental conditions on the project have exceeded all expectations. Water quality monitoring is carried out on a daily basis. Such a rigorous regime of testing is able to demonstrate that at all locations within the site the water quality is equal to that of the external waters of the Gulf. If further proof of the water quality is needed a remarkable find was discovered last year. Without any assistance from the team corals are starting to grow within the project site. With the worldwide demise of many coral reefs this can only be seen as remarkable.

Some of the statistics on a project of this size are staggering. None more than the amount of material that had to be excavated from the lagoons and place on the land to raise it above future predicted sea levels. In addition the historically deposited silts both in the lagoons and the land zones had to be separated from the useable sands and taken to predefined spoil areas. By the time the project is completed they will have moved more material than was excavated in the construction of the Suez Canal. In the first 3 completed phases a total of over 50 million cubic meters of material has been moved. At the peak of the work activity over 50,000 cubic meters (100,000 tonnes) of material was moved in a 24 hour operation.

Excavating the material was only the start of the immense challenge. In order to lift the land to account for sea level change between 2 to 5 meters of sand had to be placed. In order to allow for future buildings to be constructed this material had to be in a compacted and dense condition, otherwise buildings would settle. If this had been done using conventional roller compactors schedules could not have been met. The decision was made to use a seldom use technique called ‘dynamic compaction’. In this method a 100 tonne crane drops a 15tonne weight from a height of 10meters onto the ground. The effect is to drive the soil particles together with huge force, a mini earthquake. By the time the project is finished they will have made over 10 million drops.

Another unexpected problem that had to be overcome was that of the beaches. In a desert country the last thing that was expected was not to be able to find suitable sand for the beaches. Unfortunately all of the sand available contained too many fine particles. This sand would not allow water to easily pass through it resulting in a mud like condition. Using this material would have been a disaster. Either suitable sand had to be imported or the available sand treated. Importation of such huge quantities of sand was not option; therefore, treating site material was the only solution. Large sand washing plants, eight of them in total, were installed and the sand was washed up to four times. In the 3 phases completed to date almost 4 million cubic meters of sand have washed in order to produce the 2 million cubic meters required for the beaches. Whilst a major headache, the results have been fantastic and the clean golden beaches are being enjoyed by the residents and public alike.

Prior to building any of the residential plots, commercial and residential complexes, the 4 marinas or any of the other schools, mosques, medical centres, fire and police stations, extensive infrastructure has to be installed. Here the statistics are mind blowing. The asphalt laid to date is enough to cover 1,200 football pitches, 510 kilometres of drainage and water main has been laid and over 1,500 kilometres of electrical and telecommunications cable have been installed. In addition a state of the art sewage treatment plant, a water storage complex and four major electrical substations have been built to serve the project.

With the filling of the latest section of lagoons currently taking place, the future is looking bright for Sabah Al Ahmad Sea City. Villas are being built on the first 2 phases, the waterways are being extensively used by the public and the annual surveys are demonstrating that the marine environment is thriving. Leading environmental experts are thrilled that land of poor environmental value has been transformed into a blossoming living ecosystem. Mark Twain famously said ‘buy land they’re not making it anymore’. Whilst we hate to contradict him but it is, and it’s being made in an environmentally sustainable way at Sabah al Ahmad Sea City.