So for the past couple of weekends, we’ve taken to wandering around some of our old haunts up in the mountains of the Northern Emirates.
It’s strange how life can overtake you: there are places we used to go to a lot which we simply haven’t bothered with in the past few years and we’re now finding they’ve changed out of all recognition when we revisit them.
The Hatta Track, for instance, which is now 95% blacktop from just beyond the pools all the way down to Al Ain, including the Mahda/Al Ain track. Last weekend we went wandering from Hatta (where we stayed at that slightly eccentric but rarely less than brilliant chill-out weekend bolt-hole, the Hatta Fort Hotel) to Tawi Mileha (Fossil Rock to you, mate). We took what used to be the Munay/Siji track which is now blacktop all the way up through to its connection with the Dhaid/Masafi Road. It also, for a stretch, combines with the new Mileha road, which leads from the infamous National Paints roundabout in Sharjah right the way through to Khor Kalba on the East coast. We can, literally, remember when it all used to be sand. Now it’s quarries and crushers, heavy trucks and truck stops and weighbridges: new roads blasted through the mountains and snaking across the sandy plains.
The graded mountain tracks that criss-crossed and even ran up wadi beds have given way to tarmac and remote villages have been transformed into new municipality housing projects. Whole mountains have disappeared, too. They’re blowing up and crushing down so much rock from these areas, that the very shape and form of the Hajjar mountains is starting to change.
Every few kilometres through the mountains, there’s a broken crash barrier and a pile of rocks by the roadside. We found ourselves wondering how many of those drivers had managed to walk away and concluding, from the often precipitous landscape around us, that there were a lot of grieving families we weren’t hearing about.
We also took to wondering what the sheer scale of quarrying that we saw is going to do to the flow of water from those mountainsides. The rainwater flows down the natural funnels of the rocky landscape, channelled by the wadis to drain down through the natural filters of the rock and gravel wadi beds into the underground aquifers that provide the UAE’s scant natural water.
Those aquifers are already dangerously depleted and becoming saline in places.
Of course, flattening a few mountains won’t make any difference. But we’re looking at more than a few mountains. The scale of the operation is massive. Give it a few years of unplanned, unchecked exploitation and you’re going to be looking at some very unpredictable changes to the flow of the seasonal waters in those mountains: seasonal waters that can flow with unstoppable, punishing force. But also seasonal waters that feed the great desert wadis of Dhaid, Falaj Al Moalla and Mahda and sustain the many farms and date plantations that surround them.