Sea pollution in Lebanon approaching dangerous levels

Several popular beaches, especially in Beirut and Tripoli, are unsafe for swimming.
Sunday 12/08/2018
At critical levels. Seagulls search for food near a sewage discharge area next to piles of plastic bottles washed away by the water on the seaside of Ouzai in southern Beirut, on July 19.                                (AFP)
At critical levels. Seagulls search for food near a sewage discharge area next to piles of plastic bottles washed away by the water on the seaside of Ouzai in southern Beirut, on July 19. (AFP)

BEIRUT - With a 225km coast line on the Mediterranean, the beach is where the people in Lebanon often head when the summer heat intensifies. However, rampant pollution from illegal dumpsites near the coast and sewage pipelines flowing into the sea have deprived many of the relief of dipping into the water.

Reports on social media warned beachgoers that the Lebanese coast was 100% polluted. The comments were refuted as “fake news” and “unjustified exaggeration” by the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS) and its affiliated National Centre for Marine Sciences.

“Not the whole sea in Lebanon is polluted. The situation is very critical but it is not hopeless,” said CNRS Secretary-General Mouin Hamze.

“Today, we are at a crossroads. There are areas that are still acceptable within the minimum level and easy to remedy but this does not mean there are no areas in a hopeless state. The sea is suffering and unless it is protected from the sources of pollution, we will inevitably reach a disastrous situation,” Hamze said as he revealed the results of the latest sea-water monitoring study by the National Centre for Marine Studies.

The study selected 25 spots along the coast from which samples were taken regularly over 30 months at depths of 2-50 metres. The results indicated that 16 spots were not polluted and suitable for swimming, four were fairly acceptable within the norms of the World Health Organisation guidelines and five were extremely polluted.

The study, which examined the harmful streptococci and coliforms bacteria, said several popular beaches, especially in Beirut and Tripoli, were unsafe for swimming. It did not include areas adjacent to factories, dump sites and sewage pipes.

“These areas were left out because it is common knowledge that they are highly polluted,” Hamze said.

The main sources of bacterial pollution in Lebanon are organic waste and sewage and the sources of chemical pollution are factories and power plants adjacent to the coast or near rivers into which industrial waste is dumped and much of which ends up in the sea.

Paul Abi Rached, founder of TERRE Liban and president of the Lebanon Eco Movement, said the study was incomplete because it did not include the polluted areas, especially near dumpsites, which produce leachate, a toxin liquid from decomposed waste that is 100% more dangerous than the sewers.

“We need to have a comprehensive scanning of the whole coast. Testing the water in 25 spots is not sufficient,” Abi Rached said. “Besides, it is crucial to examine the extent of pollution in the areas where we have sewage pipes and garbage dumps like Bourj Hammoud dumpsite for instance.”

“The government should allocate a special budget for regular scanning of the seawater. We cannot have a study every three years, especially after the garbage crisis. The situation should be updated regularly and on a weekly basis. Otherwise the country will be heading to a slow death,” he added.

The 2015 9-month waste crisis involving uncollected rubbish piled up on the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon had deteriorating effects, leading to hundreds of illegal dump sites in the country.

Effat Idriss, president of Operation Big Blue, which aims to clean and preserve coastal and marine zones, said there are better methods to test sea pollution.

“For instance, heavy metals and chemicals in the water can only be tested from the sediments at the sea bottom,” she said. “If we really want to have a more accurate and detailed analysis of the Lebanese seawater, samples should be taken three times a day, at different hours, different depths, taking into consideration the various sea currents.

“I doubt that the whole Lebanese coast is polluted. It is a very complicated matter that needs a thorough analysis. What we can say is that the sea of Lebanon is polluted in certain areas and not polluted in other areas.”

Idriss contended that the “solution is very easy” but it needs a “political will.”

“We have 14 wastewater treatment plants but none of them is operating because the garbage is being used for reclaiming land and making profit… The source of Lebanon’s pollution and environmental problems is the corruption of the ruling class more than anything else,” she said.

Reports about the pollution of Lebanon’s sea create a backlash on the tourism sector, said Jean Beiruti, president of the syndicate of seaside resort operators. “We registered up to 5% cancellations in recent weeks, notably by Lebanese expatriates living in the United States and Canada who cancelled their trips to Lebanon after reading the reports,” Beiruti said.

Abi Rached called for declaring a nationwide “environmental state of emergency.”

“The sea needs intensive and urgent care, it cannot wait,” he said. “We demand the formation of an environmentalist government where the main criteria for ministers should be environment-friendly.”