Offshore sand supply is running out

Back in January 2001, reports began to emerge about plans to build a palm tree-shaped island in Dubai out of sand reclaimed from the sea. Nothing like it had been attempted before and it wasn’t long before developer Nakheel had followed it up with a second palm island. Nearly six years on, the offshore island craze has swept the Gulf, but it may have finally come to an end in the place it all started, for one reason: There’s no more sand left. Sean Cronin reports.

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By  Sean Cronin Published  September 30, 2006

Every day the Ham 318 dredger sails from the coast of Dubai to a constantly extending location more than 25km offshore, where it sucks up 23,000m3 of sand from the seabed, before returning to deposit it on the site of Palm Deira. It is a process that has been duplicated up and down the coast of Dubai since the launch of the original Palm island five years ago. Today, dredgers like the Ham 318 are removing more than one million m3 of sand from the seabed of the emirate’s coastal waters every week – and the process is likely to continue for the next five years, when the reclamation of the Dubai Waterfront project is due to complete. But after that point, there will not be enough sand left within the territorial waters of Dubai to allow for any more island building, according to dredging companies who have spoken to Construction Week. Already, a major proportion of the world’s dredging fleet is at work off the coast of Dubai – feeding sand to projects including the three Palm islands, Dubai Waterfront, The World, Dubai Maritime City and the Jebel Ali Container Terminal. Contractors Van Oord and Jan De Nul are two of the largest dredging outfits in the world and both have extensive dredging fleets at work in Dubai. While Van Oord is busy building Palm Deira (the largest single reclamation project in the world), Jan De Nul recently picked up the US $200 million (AED735 million) dredging contract for Dubai Waterfront. Both companies have undertaken extensive surveys exploring the availability of sand off the coast of Dubai. In interviews conducted with CW over the last year, directors of both companies have raised doubts over the possibility of any more reclamation projects being launched in the emirate because of dwindling offshore sand reserves. Both firms have also confirmed that there is a back-up plan to use sand excavated from the proposed Arabian Canal to finish Dubai Waterfront should there not be the sand available offshore to finish the project. Dubai Waterfront has been billed as the largest-of-its-kind waterfront development in the world. It is envisaged that the project will serve as the gateway to the Arabian Canal – a 75km waterway to be excavated from the desert around Dubai. But the plan to use some of the sand from this massive excavation may not be as straightforward as it first appears – because of the very different characteristics of marine and land sand. Speaking to CW in January, Van Oord director, Jan Schaart explained: “They could look at excavating the Arabian Canal although you cannot use desert sand for reclamation. “If you put desert sand in water, then it won’t settle. The reason is that it is very fine and it’s completely rounded as a result of the action of the wind.” A senior manager at the Delft Institute in the Netherlands agrees that the use of land sand for reclamation purposes is extremely problematic. “It is quite well known that you can make quite a few mistakes if you just pick up onshore material, partly because of the shape of the grains and partly because it’s contaminated with other land materials like vegetation, clay and silt. It’s settlement profile and capacity to bear loads would be very different.” Delft has worked with Nakheel on its offshore developments in Dubai and is also a consultant on the Dubai Waterfront project. Marwan Al Qamzi, head of procurement and contracts at Nakheel, confirmed that the use of excavated sand from the Arabian Canal was an option under study when interviewed by CW in May. He added that he was confident that there would be enough sand available to complete the project. “It is premature to say all the sand has been consumed. I believe there will not be any shortage,” he said. But it has now emerged that the option to use sand from the Arabian Canal has indeed been incorporated into Jan De Nul’s contract on Dubai Waterfront. While Jan De Nul also maintains that there are sufficient sand reserves offshore to complete the reclamation of Dubai Waterfront, there is a clause within the company’s contract, which allows it to use onshore sand excavated from the yet-to-be-built Arabian Canal if it is required. “That is indeed an option we have incorporated into our contract. We still believe that there is just enough sand without using those resources, but it might be more economical to introduce part of the excavations of the Arabian Canal into the Waterfront,” said Filip Morobe, area manager, Jan de Nul. However, Dubai Waterfront told CW this week that the Arabian Canal sand would be used only for best levelling and grading work. Whether they are forced to adopt this approach or not, it is now clear that the era of offshore reclamation in Dubai is drawing to a close. As the Ham 318 and vessels like it gradually move further and further away from the coast of Dubai in their search for desperately needed sand, they move closer and closer to the start of international waters. And that is where the search must end.

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