Do not swim: Coastal wa­ter pol­lu­tion get­ting worse

Con­tam­i­na­tion due to dan­ger­ous chem­i­cal, hu­man waste pos­ing risk to pub­lic health

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Vic­to­ria Yan

BEIRUT: As Le­banon heads into the hot sum­mer months, res­i­dents and tourists are flock­ing to the Mediter­ranean Sea – only to swim in wa­ter con­tam­i­nated with toxic lev­els of met­als, chem­i­cals and bac­te­ria, stud­ies show.

Some are start­ing to take no­tice. In early June, lo­cal daily Al-Akhbar pub­lished an ar­ti­cle with the alarm­ing head­line, “No re­gion in Le­banon is free of pol­lu­tion: Farewell to swim­ming.” Cit­ing a 2015 study by Le­banon’s Na­tional Cen­ter for Ma­rine Sciences, which re­ported high pol­lu­tion of sea space near land­fills, the ar­ti­cle said the sit­u­a­tion has likely be­come worse since then.

Speak­ing with The Daily Star Tues­day, Di­rec­tor-Gen­eral of the Le­banese Agri­cul­tural Re­search In­sti­tute Michel Afram con­firmed that yes, Le­banon’s mar­itime pol­lu­tion has got­ten worse. Not only has wa­ter pol­lu­tion in­creased, but a 2017 LARI study found ev­ery sin­gle wa­ter source in the coun­try – in­clud­ing rivers and drink­ing wa­ter sources – to be con­tam­i­nated to some de­gree.

Met­als found at alarm­ing lev­els in coastal wa­ters in­clude mer­cury, lead, cad­mium, cop­per and zinc. All five el­e­ments eas­ily lead to metal poi­son­ing when in­gested in ex­cess. Se­vere cases can re­sult in can­cer or painful death as a re­sult of or­gan fail­ure.

LARI has just be­gun test­ing the coun­try’s wa­ters for its up­com­ing 2018 re­port. Afram pre­dicts that the re­sults will look sim­i­lar, but with even higher lev­els of con­tam­i­na­tion. The chem­i­cals found in Le­banon’s wa­ters are man­i­fold, Afram said, with most of this chem­i­cal waste a re­sult of in­dus­trial and agri­cul­tural dump­ing. As for bac­te­ria, our very own un­treated ex­cre­ment is the main cul­prit.

“In 2016, we ran tests across the coun­try, in dif­fer­ent ar­eas along the coast. The re­sults were bad,” Afram said. “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.”

Ac­cord­ing to the 2017 LARI re­port, the worst cases of con­tam­i­na­tion were in Beirut’s Ram­let alBaida and south Le­banon’s Sidon – two ar­eas close to sea­side land­fills.

This came as no sur­prise to Afram, who has long spo­ken out against the gov­ern­ment’s haz­ardous waste-man­age­ment prac­tices. North Le­banon’s Ab­deh and Tripoli, south Le­banon’s Tyre and Metn’s Dbayeh and Jounieh were all ranked “highly” con­tam­i­nated. Fol­low­ing be­hind, north Le­banon’s Chekka was ranked as hav­ing “medium” lev­els of con­tam­i­nants while Ba­troun, Jbeil, Jiyyeh, Damour and Naqoura tested for the least amount of pol­lu­tants.

Don’t be fooled though, Afram warned. He ad­vised against swim­ming any­where along Le­banon’s coast­line. “Just be­cause some of th­ese places have the least amount of con­tam­i­nants, it doesn’t make the wa­ter safe to swim in,” Afram said.

“I stopped swim­ming in Le­banon’s wa­ter long ago. We go to the sea to clean our­selves, to feel happy, but in Le­banon, we go to the sea just to be cov­ered in our own [sewage].”

Paul Abi Rached, founder of lo­cal NGO T.E.R.R.E. Liban and a can­di­date in the 2018 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, said he was not at all sur­prised by LARI’s find­ings.

“It’s only log­i­cal that our en­tire coast has been pol­luted,” Abi Rached said. “Sea cur­rents are con­stantly bring­ing wa­ter from south to north. If you have pol­lu­tion in Jounieh, then the cur­rent will bring it to By­b­los. Log­i­cally speak­ing, the Costa Brava land­fill will af­fect Ba­troun, and the Burj Ham­moud land­fill will af­fect Tripoli. It’s 100 per­cent log­i­cal.”

Em­pha­siz­ing the dan­gers of un­treated waste leak­ing into the ocean, Abi Rached called the leachate pro­duced from or­ganic waste in a land­fill “100 times more pol­lut­ing” than sewage on its own.

Last sum­mer, lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy NGO Re­cy­cle Le­banon re­ported mul­ti­ple cases of in­di­vid­u­als who de­vel­oped rashes and skin ir­ri­ta­tion shortly after swim­ming in Le­banon’s coastal wa­ters.

While no stud­ies have shed light on di­rect links be­tween Le­banon’s sea pol­lu­tion and dis­tinct health is­sues, Afram ex­pressed to­tal con­fi­dence that swim­ming along the coast poses a health risk. “Any­one with an open wound should not go swim­ming in any of Le­banon’s bod­ies of wa­ter. See­ing the kinds of bac­te­ria that live in it, I can­not ad­vise any­one to swim in it, wounded or not.”

Le­banon’s en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis goes far be­yond its wa­ters. In the past decade, the coun­try’s moun­tains have been eaten away by min­ing, its trees stricken with dis­ease and its earth flooded with con­tam­i­nants – all due to hu­man ac­tiv­ity.

“There is some­thing very weird go­ing on in Le­banon and the de­struc­tion of its en­vi­ron­ment,” Abi Rached said. “Every­one is stay­ing silent and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity con­tin­ues to spend money on bad projects.”

Afram and Abi Rached be­lieve it is in­cum­bent upon the gov­ern­ment to cre­ate and en­force poli­cies to pre­serve the en­vi­ron­ment.

But Afram pointed out that the pub­lic must also com­mit to chang­ing their be­hav­ior: “We can’t put all of the blame on the gov­ern­ment when the peo­ple are also re­spon­si­ble for Le­banon’s pol­lu­tion.”

A sewage stream flows into the sea in Ram­let al-Baida. Ac­cord­ing to the 2017 re­port, the worst cases of con­tam­i­na­tion were in Ram­let al-Baida and Sidon.

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