Lebanon News

Coast pollution ‘critical, not hopeless’

Seagulls feed by a sewage disposal on the Mediterranean shores of Dbayeh, north of Beirut on November 17, 2017. AFP / JOSEPH EID

BEIRUT: Just under one fifth of Lebanon’s coastal areas surveyed by the National Council for Scientific Research were found to be polluted and unsuitable for swimming, the CNRS’s Secretary-General Mouin Hamza said Thursday. “The situation is critical, but not hopeless,” he told The Daily Star.

Four of the 25 areas surveyed for bacterial pollution were described as very contaminated and not fit for swimming. A further five were deemed average and 16 good, Hamza said, after the CNRS published a detailed 30-page report on coastal pollution.

Hamza noted the survey had not included samples of water from the many river estuaries along the shore, because these are contaminated and “do not require analysis,” nor did the survey cover areas near industrial or sewage dumps. “We did the tests away from polluted areas, in places that are important to people and are also representative, from north to south,” Hamza said.

Among the areas unfit for swimming, are “the catastrophic” Ramlet al-Baida, Beirut’s only public beach, as well as Antelias, Manara in Beirut and Tripoli’s public beach.

Areas with average pollution include Akkar’s sand-and-pebble beach near Qleiaat airport, Abdel-Wahab Island in Minyeh, Sidon’s public beach and Deir al Mkhalles beach, and Sarafand’s public beach in the southern district of Tyre.

Hamza said each area’s pollution designation was based on an average of more than 30 measurements taken over roughly three years.

He could not recommend swimming at the beaches marked average. “They could be fine, but we were surprised that some days there [would be] sewage, and some days not. One day you find it beautiful, the next day it’s full of excrement and plastics.”

The study had not tested for heavy metals in the water because, Hamza said, the concentrations were normally tiny, except in areas near known pollution sites such as a sewer in Batroun’s Selaata – which has very high phosphorous levels - or near Beirut’s port.

Studies of heavy metal concentration in fish caught commercially at a distance of 200-500 meters off the coast came up completely fine, he said. “I’m not speaking here about the people who fish straight out of the sewers on Ain al-Mreisseh, who are lying to themselves [that the fish are safe to eat],” Hamza added.

Thursday’s announcement in part contradicts previous reports that almost all of Lebanon’s coast is unfit for swimming.

“In 2016, we ran tests across the country, in different areas along the coast. The results were bad,” Director-General of the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute Michel Afram told The Daily Star previously. “In 2017, we ran the same tests along the entire coast and everything came back dangerously contaminated. The sea along Lebanon’s coast is extremely polluted. This is nothing new, but it is surely getting worse.”

“We answer this with our results,” Hamza said when asked of those reports. With the expansion of coastal landfilling as a “solution” to Lebanon’s ongoing waste crisis, including at the controversial Burj Hammoud landfill, which Hamza described as “an environmental crime,” it could be easy to write off the sea as a no-go zone.

Hamza said social media campaigns and some media reports had added to the public sentiment that “the sea in Lebanon is a lost cause.”

He added, however, solutions to the coastal pollution issue could be quite straightforward.

“Stop [channeling] the sewers [into the ocean] and stop the [coastal] solid waste dumps, and our sea will become like [that of] Italy or Spain in three months. Don’t forget that the sea has extraordinary power – the salt and sun kills all the bacteria in two days, though, of course, plastic will take years.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 20, 2018, on page 3.

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