I invite you to insert the coordinates 25º 13′ 00″ N, 55º 09′ 00″ E in Google Earth. What you can find on your screen may be a ridiculous image or something surprising, but if you like maps, it will not leave you indifferent: they are the World Islands.
The appearance of the World Islands
The World Islands are one of the projects of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) located on the coast of Dubai, which began in 2003. It is the creation of 300 artificial islands in the Persian Gulf to house numerous resorts, hotels and luxury shopping centers, which at the same time represent the world map.
To achieve this, the company in charge of the project, Nakheel Properties, began the construction of the islands that would be put up for sale worth between 15 and 45 million dollars.
The initial idea was to represent each continent as a single island, but before the works began, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al Maktoum thought that such large islands would not be sold easily, and therefore decided to split the design of the world map so it remained recognizable.
As a result, an archipelago of 3.9 km² (55 km² if maritime space is included, almost as large as Manhattan Island) created with rocks and sand would increase Dubai beach by 112 km and make it one of the most luxurious tourist centers on the planet.
From the point of view of its creator, Sheikh Al Maktum, it was a magnificent idea. However, some problems in the viability of the design would soon begin to arise.
Since the islands would be formed by rock and sand, their vulnerability to erosion due to the exposure of the waves required the construction of a gigantic 25 km long breakwater.
This breakwater could not exceed 2 meters above sea level, so that the residents of the islands could find a clear horizon to contemplate the waters of the Persian Gulf. That is why the engineers designed a tiered system from the base of the breakwater to reduce the energy of the waves until they reached the surface.
To add more pressure, one of the critical points in the construction phase is the shamal (means ‘north’ in Arabic), a strong northwest wind that hits the waters of the Gulf especially during the warmer months. For this reason, the works had to be executed very quickly, in order to avoid the strong swell that this wind brings and protect the islands.
Lack of sand
Incredible but true. Dubai is surrounded by sand, and not only Dubai, but the entire Arabian Peninsula. So where is the problem?
Simply the seabed and desert sand are not the same. Desert sand is usually more uniform (between 0.1 and 1 mm) than that of the seabed, which includes particles of animal and/or plant origin. The sand of the seabed is necessary for the compaction of the islands.
At first the dredgers collected the sand in the vicinity of the coast of Dubai, facilitating its transport to the World Islands, just 4 km away. But after a year, the raw material began to be scarce and they had to go deeper and deeper into the Persian Gulf, thus increasing the time and fuel used for this phase of the project.
One of the consequences of encircling the archipelago was the decrease in the flow of sea currents and, therefore, the stagnation of water. This would cause serious and irrecoverable damage to underwater ecology.
The density of the islands is such that the water is not renewed with the expected frequency of 4 days, but they need 8, especially in the center of the archipelago, where the grouping is greater.
The offer of the paradise islands surrounded by crystalline water would not be possible unless a solution was found. Fortunately, this problem had already occurred in previous artificial island construction projects, precisely in Dubai: the Palm Islands.
The design team found that making the canals that run between the islands deeper would accelerate water circulation and reduce the time it takes to completely renew, as confirmed by their simulations.
But it was also necessary to open another gap in the breakwater that surrounds the archipelago, specifically on the northwest side, the side that faced the storms and where the concern for the shamal was greater. To prevent waves from breaking through this new gap, engineers overlaped the breakwater in front of the opening, which allowed the archipelago’s water to be renewed in two days.
The logistical nightmare
Once the creation of the World Islands was completed, the mystery of the supply of luxury properties would have to be resolved. Aspects such as drinking water, electricity, and transportation became a headache for promoters.
A group of Irish investors, including Andrew Brett and Raymond Norton, had the amiable idea, if not crazy, of recreating the typical places of Ireland on their namesake island: green meadows with winding hills, streets, pubs and traditional buildings, and even replicating the Giant’s Causeway on a small scale. Nothing money can’t get, they must have thought.
However, the connection of the islands with the city of Dubai was more worrisome.
Four ferry routes were designed that connected with different parts of the archipelago (Japan, Iceland, Acapulco-Panama and the South Pole), which in turn would serve as transport nodes from which to deploy several shuttles to the different islands.
(Here you have a link to see the full map with all the names of the islands).
It was also estimated that 400 water taxis and 20 ferries would be necessary, not including private boats, which added more complications to the project and drove investors away.
Finally, in 2009 the developer Nakheel Properties went into financial difficulties and the work was suspended indefinitely until today. Meanwhile, time passes and according to some photographs taken the islands are sinking.
An artificial reef
Despite all the difficulties and the paralysis of the project, a positive reading can still be made.
The initial concern about the conservation of the marine environment led to the construction materials of the islands being as natural as possible, and that is why the Sheikh ordered that only rocks and sand be used. No concrete and steel.
Surprisingly, the construction of the breakwater with rock blocks in a place where the seabed was a sandy esplanade, favored the settlement of new animal species in a more stable habitat. Cracks, caves, and openings provide a place of protection for many living things.
In this way, what was originally erected as a protective barrier to prevent erosion of the islands also became an artificial reef where marine life could thrive.