You read that right. An outdoor water park in shadow of the Burj Al Arab*, featuring a heated/cooled wave pool, multiple water slides and two artificial surfing machines, has just been recognized for sustainable performance by one of the world’s most respected green certification programs for organizations within the travel and tourism industry. Following a recent sustainability audit, Wild Wadi is the first waterpark to be Green Globe certified.
The park opened its doors in 1999, featuring 30 rides and water-based attractions, including the once-largest water slide outside of North America (which was later removed during park remodeling). Another feature is a 59 foot high waterfall that activates every ten minutes. The park is themed around the tale of Juha, a charming rascal from Arabian folklore.
A press release stated that the water park achieved a compliance score of 84% against the Green Globe Standard for its “environmental efforts and sustainability management” which include use a special water filter that removes “up to 99.9% of all impurities and saves 25% of chemical consumption which leads to reduced energy and water consumption.” In addition, the park has replaced 85% of its lamps with LED bulbs which “have already resulted in significant cost and energy savings.”
Let’s step back for a moment and review this. This is a recreational water park, in the tropical desert city-state of Dubai, a place that averages less than 6 inches of rainfall per year and sources 98% of its water from desalination.
Viewed this way, is a waterpark a pinnacle of certifiable sustainability or an egregious eco-boondoggle?
Energy intensive desalination is a last resort in regions lacking natural freshwater sources. It is expensive to build and run and has tremendous negative impacts to habitat at water intake areas, and to water quality and seabed chemistry at brine outflow points. As stated, it’s a last resort for sustaining life in inhospitable climates.
In 2013 Dubai opened the largest desalination plant in the water-parched United Arab Emirates, a facility with a generation capacity of 2,060 MW that can produce 140 million imperial gallons (MIG) of desalinated water per day. The project was to provide for increased urbanization and rapid residential development. It’s not clear where water parks fit into the equation.
Last October, Mohammad Yousuf Al Midfa, executive director of Integrated Environmental Policy and Planning Sector at Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, warned that the UAE must eventually move away from its subsidized utilities regime, because low-tariffs encourages unbridled consumption of water and electricity. Abu Dhabi has the highest per capita water consumption in the world (around 550 liters) whereas in Dubai, consumption was reduced when subsidies were cut, he told Gulf News. When the environment agency recognizes the problem of unconstrained water consumption, how can projects that exploit the same be celebrated?
Green Globe Middle East Preferred Partner, Farnek Middle East LLC, independently verified the park’s sustainability ‘achievement’. Sandrine Le Biavant, Director of Farnek Consultancy, said, “In just one year, Wild Wadi has saved 9% on water consumption and reduced its carbon footprint by 7%, 10% on cooling and 5% on kitchen gas consumption, which is a remarkable performance.”
A remarkable performance, when gauged against what, exactly?
To be clear, Green Globe program is not a green building rating system, rather it recognizes and rewards sustainable practice and performance. To take part, an organization measures its baseline performance against an array of parameters, which is then audited by a third-party. It is a program of continual internal advancement, mandated as 3% annual improvement against prior audits to maintain certification.
Green Globe does not prescribe specific performance measures, nor does it benchmark organizational performance within a specific sector (as example, hotels of similar size cannot make comparisons between their respective approaches to sustainability, nor assess how successful those approaches are).
GGC can only be awarded to Green Globe Members that comply with at least 51% with all applicable Green Globe Standard indicators. These include implementing a sustainability management plan; community development, fair trade, and fair hiring; attention to cultural heritage; and lastly, environmental performance.
Wild Wadi, like all waterparks, has a voracious appetite for both energy and water. According to Green Globe criteria, the park should measure energy and water consumption, indicate sources, and adopt measures to decrease overall usage. Measuring and monitoring are best practices in any operation, effective ways to find areas that could be improved – for immediate reduction in utility use, and associated increases in profit. Does this call for special recognition as a sustainability standout?
Theme parks, golf courses, cruise ships, and almost every swank hotel and resort do need sensible metrics for improved environmental performance. It would be more effective to adopt rigorous building codes bespoke to this sector to make sure that sustainability is embedded from first planning, resulting in facilities that are maximally efficient from day one, and not leave them to aspire for incremental improvements over a lifetime. But this is the Middle East, where building codes are still maturing.
Making minor improvements to an operation that is, at its core, unsustainable, is positive action. It reduces operational costs and may result in measurable ecological benefits, but it doesn’t change that the operation is inherently environmentally negative.
What comes to mind is my teenage stint in a burger franchise, where I took an order from a very large woman who wanted everything super-sized, to be washed down with a diet Coke. Not much different from installing LED lights on a desert water slide.
High-performing projects that lead in best practices in energy, water, and environmental efficiency should be recognized for their excellence. Awarding mediocre performance likely encourages mediocrity, and feeds the perception of a cynical public that greenwashing is at play.
Wild Wadi Waterpark chose Juha as their iconic representative. He’s a rascal, a comic figure who loomed large in ancient Arab literature, appearing variously thief and honest man, judge and social critic, charlatan and jester. Bet he’s having the last laugh.
Correction: This article, as originally published, erroneously referenced Green Globes rating system instead of Green Globe international tourism certification program. The latter program recognizes and rewards sustainable practice and continual performance in the tourism sector, whereas Green Globes, operating under nonprofit organization Green Building Initiative, administers green building assessment and certification services.
Image of riotous Wild Water Wadi fun from Jumeirah Hotels website