Working with an American university, I am charged from time to time with the organization of a task hallowed by the wisdom of untold school teachers: the field trip. Exploring Abu Dhabi for educational purposes, we in the educational sphere seek out what has not yet been made obvious in guidebooks, not yet sacked and developed as a site just for tourists. Science classes are often particularly lucky — it’s easier to put your hands on hydroponically grown lettuce than it is on, say, Gilgamesh. One eye-opening day this term, I chaperoned students to two sites I had explored: a little-known, natural wetlands, home to thousands of birds in the middle of the desert; and, an endless, gushing river of human excrement.
At the Wathba Wetlands Reserve, I heard for the first time in the UAE frog sounds that were not the sound of someone’s iPhone ringing. Things were alive. The class gathered on a sandy promontory overlooking the vast (for the middle of a desert) network of shallow lakes and resilient shrubbery. All throughout the 5 square kilometers, birds gathered in stark contrast to the only other thing happening in the area — the Abu Dhabi–Al Ain Truck Road, where thousands of trucks chug single-file from the capital to the desert oasis. Visible from this, one of the busiest highways in the whole country, the Wathba Wetlands are still one of Abu Dhabi’s best kept secrets. It’s probably because seeing still isn’t believing; any water off the coast is usually a mirage, any lush hangout for thousands of colorful birds — that’s usually a hallucination.
When the neighboring Wastewater Treatment Plant opened in 1981, fresh water runoff collected in the depressed space between the plant’s hill and the slightly raised level of the truck road. Heavily salted by the sandy soil, the Wetlands are now ten times more saline than the ocean, but still a welcome pitstop for the mostly migrant bird population (just like the UAE’s people population). Thousands of light pink flamingo were in the lakes the day of our visit, tallied by Abdulkareem, an ebullient Sudanese man who counts from seven viewpoints every single morning.
“How many are there today?” I asked.
The wetlands scientists have started tagging some of them to study their migratory patterns. Some flamingos followed cycles all the way from Russia down through Azerbaijan to the UAE, and on to the Shiraz region of Iran (all without visas). Other species, an inspiration to those of us with full-year contracts, spend all twelve months in Abu Dhabi.
From there, we traced the history of the Wetlands back to the treatment plant that accidentally gave it birth. Perched on top of a hill in the most industrial of the city’s outskirts, the Mafraq Wastewater Treatment Works are not high on most travelers’ hit lists. It might be because of the smell (tours are best given inside a bus). It might be because no one gives a shit.
Truth is, we all do — even if we don’t realize it. The engineers explained the entire process, flush to sparkle, through the multiple phases of operation. Despite terms like “suspended organic solids” (“I’m sorry, do you mean ‘floating pieces of shit’?), students were told how the plant produces the millions of gallons of clean recycled water used to irrigate Abu Dhabi’s long stretches of highway dividers. Just like Los Angeles, we’d have hardly one leaf without everyone giving a shit. And that’s why this education business just might make it.
Below, some possible new slogans for the Mafraq Wastewater Treatment Works.
And a picture or two if you can take it.