Innovation in Marine Development – Protecting the Thriving Coral Reef Systems of the Al Wajh Lagoon
To deliver a new, truly sustainable destination, an eco-friendly approach must be designed and built into it from the ground up. And for a giga-project in Saudi Arabia with ambitions to employ a regenerative approach to tourism, the impact of construction has been carefully considered from the outset, especially where it would typically have adverse effects on the thriving coral reef systems, potentially causing damage beyond repair.
The coral reef systems of the Al Wajh lagoon on the Red Sea, the world's fourth largest barrier reef system, are estimated to host approximately 210 species of hard corals and 120 species of soft corals. The reefs are surprisingly resilient, at a time when globally, these environments are under serious strain. Approximately one-quarter of coral reefs worldwide are already considered damaged beyond repair, while another two thirds are under serious threat from ocean warming which leads to coral bleaching events.
The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) is the developer behind the world’s most ambitious regenerative tourism project, located on the west coast of Saudi Arabia. The destination is home to these precious ecosystems and as such, protecting and actively enhancing them is central to the company ethos.
In fact, a regenerative approach is reflected in the projects concept master plan; TRSDC and partner King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) delivered a ground-breaking application of conservation and development planning across almost 1,300 square kilometers of pristine lagoon. As a result, the master plan now projects a net positive conservation benefit of up to 30% of current values over the next two decades.
The extremely ambitious sustainability targets set for the project require the development to have minimal impact on the environment during the construction phase, while ensuring that once completed, buildings are green in terms of carbon footprint and coexist with the surrounding natural habitats.
TRSDC has specified that all built assets are constructed to a minimum of LEED Gold and where possible, Platinum standard. This will be achieved by the use of sustainable materials such as green concrete and other types of durable, reusable or recyclable materials, ideally locally sourced, coupled with innovative construction methods like prefabrication and off-site manufacturing.
Moreover, the entire destination will be powered by renewable energy generated by solar panels and wind turbines. The battery storage facility, part of the PPP package awarded earlier this month, is set to be the largest in the world. Powering a project of this size solely without the use of fossil fuels has never been achieved on this scale anywhere in the world.
One key priority from the outset was managing the presence and activity in the lagoon during the construction phase. This is an extremely sensitive ecological environment with an abundance of wildlife, and there is an acute awareness of the responsibility to safeguard this natural environment. However, with that responsibility comes an array of challenges.
In order to ensure minimal disruption to marine habitats, TRSDC and their marine infrastructure partner Archirodon, adapted the marine construction techniques applied. Night-time working is strictly prohibited in order to preserve the extremely sensitive ecological environment comprising of coral, nesting birds and turtles, and other species. This helps to reduce noise and light disturbance above and below water to avoid confusing the wildlife. During daylight hours, employees maintain vigilant visual inspection in the water for turtles and other megafauna to avoid potential collisions.
Limiting work to the daytime has an impact on the schedule of construction, as does the routes selected for deliveries of manpower and machinery to the islands identified for development in phase one. It takes a minimum of five hours and a maximum of 16 hours to sail a loaded rock barge from the mainland jetties to the island development sites, because the routes cannot cut through the lagoon.
These routes were not selected for their speed, but to minimize impact on the environment. To save time elsewhere, the teams must be extremely efficient with the loading, sailing full, offloading and sailing empty cycle with little room for errors or breakdowns.
Through the adoption of innovative construction techniques, materials and approaches, damage to the natural environment can be minimised and even completely prevented in some cases. For this new Red Sea destination, embracing new trends in construction coupled with commitments to clean energy, smart design and sustainable operations, is key to setting a new standard in regenerative tourism. Not just in the Kingdom, but worldwide.