We do not care for that which we do not value: Resilience valuation of the marine natural resources in Saudi Arabia

sheronlukWhen one thinks of Saudi Arabia, what comes to mind is Lawrence of Arabia, a trek through vast sand dunes, a country in a desolate environment made rich through oil production. But look past the oilrigs and the peaks of dunes, and there is unexpected treasure to be found in the marine natural resources of Saudi Arabia. Economically speaking, the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf provide Saudi Arabia with access to goods and services, which—though second to fossil fuels—are a resource significantly quantifiable towards the country’s GDP.[1] Yet these goods and services are poorly managed and currently overexploited. It is critical to highlight the value of environmental services that the Gulf and Red Sea provide, such as crucial habitat for fishery species, coastal protection, gas regulation, oil assimilation, climate amelioration, a source of desalinated water, and tourism and recreational value.[1] While an all-inclusive review of valuation methods of the various non-market goods and services provided by the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea would extend beyond the scope of this paper, I will focus on the valuation of ecosystem resilience within the Saudi Arabian marine natural resources.

Resilience, as defined by Baumgartner et al.,[2] is an ecosystem’s capacity to maintain basic functions and controls under external disturbances and forces. In response to an exogenous natural disturbance, a system has the capacity to flip from one stable domain into another with very different basic controls and functions. For example, a clear lake provides the services of water purification and habitat for fish species. This system could flip into an algal dominated lake system due to the exogenous pressure of excess nutrients, bringing a decrease in the original service flows of water purification and habitat provision. Thus, the ability of the lake to retain its clear water state, despite increasing exogenous pressures, is defined as its resilience. When the critical threshold of an ecosystem is passed, the structure and function of the capital stock changes, which will change flow levels of goods and services. The real value (value in present dollars) of the stock decreases as the likelihood of crossing the threshold into the alternate regime increases. This is due to the fact that there is added value when consumers have the knowledge and confidence that they and future generations can receive the same goods and services from the ecosystem in the future.

The coral reefs, sea grass beds, and mangroves in the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea inhabit some of the world’s most extreme environmental conditions. The reefs found in these two marine environments survive within the highest ranges of temperatures and salinity in the world.[3] The narrow exchange through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman causes high turbidity within the Gulf, with a total water turnover rate of 3-3.5 years.[4] This slow replenishment rate factors into the reason why there are high concentrations of anthropogenic contaminants within the Gulf. Marine species that reside within these waters have thus evolved to have a higher tolerance for these contaminants due to the consistent levels of exposure that have been experienced over the years.[4]

While the combination of high temperatures, salinity, and turbidity would cause high mortality of reef fauna in any other region of the world, the coral reefs found in Saudi Arabian waters demonstrate a higher resilience when compared to other reef systems. This can be attributed to the fact that the reef systems have adapted to the stressful conditions of the Gulf’s waters. As climate change continues to raise the temperatures of seawater, coral reefs across the world will soon face conditions similar to the Arabian Peninsula waters. Therefore, a resilience valuation is critical in light of the anticipated toll that climate change will take on reefs around the world; these corals could be a potential source of restoring coral populations outside of the Persian Gulf. The Arabian Gulf corals have already experienced a high frequency of temperature-related bleaching events in 1996, 1998, 2002. Riegl[5] noted that Acropora species suffered the heaviest bleaching in 1996 and 1998, but in the 2002 event, bleached less than all other corals. This suggests that the Acropora species in this region had undergone a phenotypic adaptation to handle high temperature variability. Sheppard et al.[6] found that Arabian Gulf corals survive the highest annual temperature variability known worldwide. Research and development into the resilient nature of these corals will prove highly essential in the face of rapid climate change.

The resiliency of the seagrass beds and mudflats, which host networks of algal mats, have been widely noted, especially after the intentional Gulf Spill in 1991, resulting in the release of 2.5-4.0 million barrels in the already highly stressed Gulf.[7] Researchers were astounded when they discovered that a large portion of the Gulf was able to rebound from this catastrophic event back to pre-1991 water quality levels. Fayad and Overton[8] explored the unique biodegradation pattern of the oil spilled and attributed the fast degradation rates of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons to naturally occurring micro-organisms in the Arabian Gulf. Cohen[9] found that the oxygenic photosynthesis of cyanobacteria found in marine microbial mats supplied molecular oxygen for efficient aerobic metabolism of organisms such as Marinobacter sp., which acts as an agent of bioremediation. The ability of this ecosystem to rebound from a catastrophic exogenous event like that of an oil spill reduces the likelihood of high cost clean up and lost revenues from damaged coastal industries, proving highly valuable to the Saudi Arabian economy.

The true resilience value in Saudi Arabian waters has yet to be determined, but is critical to an area with large exogenous anthropogenic pressures. The distance to the threshold has been determined to be significant, as we have seen the Gulf and Red Sea rebound from devastating events such as warming episodes and massive oil spills. Saudi Arabia is a country in a unique situation where it has been made incredibly rich through access to one natural resource, crude oil. As oil is undoubtedly a finite resource and the global community faces an energy crisis, it is important for the Saudi Arabian people to look toward more sustainable approaches to development.

Value is a constantly changing measure that cannot be read off of a thermometer or the weight of a scale. It is susceptible to changes in human perception of the goods and services, the increased knowledge and research of the goods and services, and to the passing of time. Therefore, any attempt to value goods and services provided by ecosystems is sure to fall short of comprehensive. It is clear, though, that we as humankind can no longer afford to view the goods and services provided by ecosystems as “public goods” that are infinite and free of charge. By incorporating an understanding of the intricate ecological relationships into economic decision-making, there is hope that humankind can move forward in a more sustainable development regime.


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  9. Y. Cohen, Bioremediation of oil by marine microbial mats, Int. Microbiol. 132, pp. 239–246, 2009.