Do not swim: Coastal water pollution getting worse
Contamination due to dangerous chemical, human waste posing risk to public health
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.