Wednesday , October 18 2017

KUWAIT TO OMAN

Nancy Papathanasopoulou

The marine area of the Arabian Gulf is not the most exciting for a world traveler or a scuba enthusiast. Much of its northern color is chocolate brown. Most of it is relatively shallow. It often suffers oil spills or other, less visible but much more serious pollution levels, and very often, along with its fish, dolphins and turtles swim “ornaments” of our civilization such as plastic bottles and bags, against which little seems to be done by citizens, residents, or authorities, given the size of their numbers, sometimes too overwhelming for many to address.

I sit under the pier of Qaru Island contemplating the beauty of the place I have the blessing to be in, surrounded by turquoise water, reef fish and the first nests of hawksbill turtles this season. Migratory birds fly above my head and an owl somehow found itself here, too, resting her wings on its way to somewhere else.

As I sit I feel relieved because recently I was blessed to witness the most extraordinary event of environmental defense and awareness in the Gulf region. It arose from a Kuwaiti athlete and businessman, in favor of the sea I’m staring at and all others it connects to. His name is Bashar Al-Hunaidi, and he is Kuwaiti.

A world championships athlete of the giant slalom (the only official international FIS skier of the GCC from 1996 until today) and with the vibrant spirit of a citizen of the world, along with his dynamic spouse Sundus Hussein and their two beautiful daughters, Bashar is today settled in Kuwait, his homeland. He took up kayaking 30 years ago, while in university. With his gifted personality he made interesting friends from several nationalities who joined his kayaking ventures, soon to be a group of this sport’s enthusiasts named kayak4kuwait. For years they paddled Kuwaiti waters and soon became aware of all their length and width, their character, their beauty, and along with these … the threats to their preservation in a pristine state for future generations to enjoy.

Action was taken in a structured way, and with the support of businesses, professionals, volunteers, scientists and government agencies throughout the region an expedition was organized, during which Bashar and his comrades kayaked Arabian waters from Kuwait to Oman. Over the next several weeks, they faced hundreds of challenges including, as can be imagined, adverse weather, organizational issues, two support boats which ran aground, in one case uncooperative borders, and inevitable tensions within the team. But sailing expertly through difficulties and challenges, Bashar and his equally motivated, sea-loving friends, focused on the warm welcome of populations originating from all Arabic nations of the Gulf as they expected them on their shores. The kayakers spoke each time in favor of maintaining the sea they love so much in as pristine a state as possible.

They pointed out incessantly, day after day, week after week, in front of cameras, or in private talks, how understanding its beauty and the great importance of its ecosystems for life and progress of the countries it embraces, is a great emergency, given the adverse odds of its survival. With heart and passion they defended the element they got to know intimately through their favorite sport and the proximity of their kayaks to it.  Decision-makers, scientists, journalists, schoolchildren and anyone present where the so-called K2O (Kuwait to Oman) team landed, had the chance of experiencing, for the first time in the Gulf, an integrated approach of conservation discourse through a non-motorized, physically demanding sport as is kayaking. The team got to transmit their love for the sea and the sport, to advocate for marine conservation, to point out specific threats to the sea such as pollution, land-reclamation, overfishing and, most of all, lack of awareness among Gulf populations with regards to serious environmental issues, let alone lack of action against most of them from the civil society. At the same time the team inspired many to take up this great sport.

With the voice of the informed and deeply involved citizen-scientists, Bashar, Mansour, Matt and Colin kayaked incessantly from country to country, from November 2016 to February 2017, from port to port and beyond borders for 90 days and 2,000 kilometers in order to make sure that the region knows the risks of indifference to their sea’s environmental problems. As part of the expedition, it was ensured that the course of the quest was filmed by professional, specialized filmmakers who became an intrinsic part of K2O from the beginning till the end and are soon to produce a documentary depicting this titanic, pioneering venture. The documentary is destined at reaching the international media to broadcast the beauty of Arabian Gulf waters, the people who united for their survival beyond borders in their kayaks, their supporting friends and the measures proposed to take action for environmental awareness. A powerful message of conservation sent by a booming voice of civil society.

In the comfortable shade of the pier of Qaru, the tide now close to my sandaled toes, I smile contemplating the future of a country small in size but giving birth to gifted and giving people like Bashar, who team up with others interested in preserving nature for future generations beyond the greed that mostly stems from ignorance. I smile as I recall my first meeting with Bashar, when I had the honor and privilege of listening to his idea of kayaking the Gulf to speak out about the need of its conservation despite rapid industrial growth and population explosion. “There will be difficulties but we will manage”. As an environmental professional of the region, I remember being certain, at that meeting, that there was no chance in a million that the person I had just met wouldn’t succeed in his mission.

In my time in the region I was blessed with several friends and colleagues, among who several are nationals of the countries I lived and worked in. We spoke many times of the need of such visibility and activism and many a time we tried to organize something which, however, never went beyond a particular border. Every effort is, no doubt, immensely important and useful. But when it additionally manages to demonstrate the global nature of environmental problems, the need for close cooperation among regions, and when this demonstration is made by sincere, knowledgeable, dynamic people who take environmental activism to a level beyond usual, then everyone wins, especially nature.

As I listen to the soft waves under the pier of Qaru, my heart is full of hope that the region is listening to K2O’s message for always keeping it as it is today for our children to enjoy for many years to come.

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