Davos Agenda

What I learned about conservation while kayaking in the Gulf

The marine environment of the Arabian Sea is under threat from rapid development, overfishing and pollution. Image: Bashar Al Huneidi

Bashar Al Huneidi
Founder, Kayak4Kuwait
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: Virtual Ocean Dialogues

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  • Award-winning documentary A Voyage Against Time follows three kayakers across the Gulf to spotlight the urgent need for a sustainable strategy that protects those whose livelihoods depend on it.
  • The marine environment of the Arabian Sea is under threat from rapid development, overfishing and pollution.
  • We must change our mode of consumption with a view to leaving a viable, healthy planet for future generations.

Pulling my kayak to shore, I had to push past gas canisters, plastic bottles, flotsam and jetsam just to find my footing. After paddling all morning past ancient sea-worn cliffs and admiring the flight of ospreys above me, this was a discouraging reminder of our impact on the natural habitat. How did I find myself here, surrounded by humanity’s rubbish?

After representing my country in the skiing world championships in Austria (2001) and Switzerland (2003), life led me back to Kuwait. There, my focus shifted to the environment as I walked by a sea that smelled of rancid sewage and chemicals. As an athlete in touch with nature and far from the crystalline air of my days spent skiing and mountaineering, I knew that I had to take action.

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Changing perspective: a view of the land from the sea

In 2013, I started Kayak4Kuwait with the aim of raising awareness of the rich biodiversity of the sea and the threat it faces from pollution, overfishing and human development.

In November 2016, Mansour Al Safran, Colin Wong and I undertook a three-month expedition through the waters of six countries via the Gulf from Kuwait to Oman, a journey of more than 2,300 km, under the theme 'Connect to Protect': you have to connect to nature to protect it – a challenge in a region where the idea of protecting nature is often overlooked.

Three months of paddling 11 hours a day gave us a different perspective – a view from the sea back towards the land. We witnessed pristine habitats along the route, such as a breeding ground for cormorants – whose colonies hold thousands of birds – and swam among dugongs, the shy “sea cow” mistaken by sailors in the old days for mermaids despite their grey, torpedo-like appearance.

Image: John Cameron/Unsplash

But we also came across shocking, widespread pollution – beaches strewn with empty gas canisters, plastic and all manner of human waste.

The contrast with the beauty we had witnessed along the route was jarring, and reminded us that humans have left an indelible footprint on the planet that can mean the end to other living organisms simply through our carelessness and lack of understanding.

There were multiple components to this trek: spiritual, physical, ecological and social. Each component fed the other and was a strong driving force to keep us going through storms, accidents and illness.

Our goal was to show to the people of the region that its treasures are at risk, and time is running out to save them from irreversible loss. Seeking sponsors to help us achieve this goal became a priority.

Agility, a global logistics company headquartered in Kuwait, was the first to take up the sponsorship challenge. With their reputation as leaders in the move towards sustainable supply chains, this support drew the attention of the Kuwait Environment Public Authority and resulted in a presentation to environment ministers of the GCC, who are seeking a means of promoting positive change in their own countries and across the region.

This acceptance allowed us to cross borders via kayak, including passing through immigration points that are normally closed – in some cases, it was an historic first. It also allowed us to seek a film crew to record this momentous first-of-its-kind expedition, resulting in a six-part series and documentary, “A Voyage Against Time”.

The end result was not just an award-winning documentary, but also a deep change in our awareness of the urgency to protect the rich biodiversity of the marine environment. It is a treasure worth saving.

Seven lessons towards healing our environment

1. We cannot live without the planet, but it can certainly survive without us. We humans are the weakest link of life on Earth. Other animals live in a symbiotic relationship. Humans, on the other hand, have unbalanced the relationship through abuse and overconsumption of our limited resources. The sea is the source of life: we need to protect it for future generations, and this can only be done by changing our outlook and habits now. Unless we shift our focus away from unsustainable consumption, there will be no future for our grandchildren.

2. The fundamental cause of over-consumption is uncontrolled greed at the personal, business and government levels. If controlled and channelled, it can result in progress; without accountability, greed can result in non-regenerative use of our limited resources, leading eventually to a desert of both land and sea.

3. Choose to reuse: On my journey, even a paper tissue was rinsed, dried and repurposed since a kayak can hold only so much material. When choosing between items, think about how they could be reused after their primary purpose is finished and select only those that can be reused or repurposed. Change your mode of consumption, and be aware that your choices will amplify the good – or to the detriment of our planet.

4. You’re not the only one. Consider how much waste you create, multiply it by 7.5 billion people and consider the magnitude of the abuse to our planet, and change your habits accordingly. Marketing has brainwashed the consumer into believing that they need the latest style, the most convenient snack, the newest car… Ask yourself: Do I need it?

5. Market competition often results in choices made solely for cost savings, regardless of the environmental hazards those choices could create. Corporate boards need to refocus their goals with the long term in mind and away from short-term profit seeking. Without a viable planet, there will be no future customers. Perhaps it is time to move to a post-consumer circular economy that is no longer reliant on short-term returns on investment and where resources are properly valued.

6. Governments need to be held to account, too: Conscious decisions must be made to eliminate unsustainable projects and hold those violating environmental standards accountable through punitive measures. At the intergovernmental level, we need a fair, impartial watchdog that can set international rules for products that are sustainable, and consider creating a labelling system with which consumers can make informed choices. This includes educating citizens from a young age to recognize and prioritize sustainable goods and to use them wisely.

7. Leadership matters: Imagine the captain of a ship crossing through one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world without being able to read the map. Each crew member depends on the guidance and insight of the captain to navigate using the tools at hand to avoid the treacherous shoals. It’s the same in life: we count on our leaders to use all the means at hand to achieve our long-term goals, to set the course for land and to safely deliver us there. Without knowledgeable, committed leaders in business and government, our ship risks running aground or sinking, taking our future down with it.


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