Dumping untreated sewage into the sea, a serious health hazard

beirut lebanon sea pollution sewage
Aerial view of Beirut says it all. © Nasa Earth Observatory

Although the beaches of the Lebanese coastal city of Jounieh are a popular destination for relaxation and water sports in the bay, the bacteria levels in the water acts as potential health hazard. Bacteria levels in the waters are more than 100 times the amount that would prompt the closure of a public beach in New York, United States.

The proportions are such that the raw sewage flowing out into the Mediterranean sea from Ouzai, a seaside neighborhood of the Lebanese capital, is clearly visible on Google Maps.

“The smell can kill you,” said a 10-year-old boy from the neighborhood.

He went on to add, “We swim over there, instead of here,” pointing to the health hazard, an inlet adjacent to the one where the sewage enters the sea.

The sea waters near the beaches of Ouzai and Jounieh are a grim example of the challenges Lebanon faces for its waste disposal and ever-worsening pollution.

“The government must declare a state of emergency for water quality in Lebanon,” said Michel Afram, head of the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute

According to the environmental body, high concentrations of heavy metals pose a health hazard to not only humans but to marine life as well. The research institute is now in the process of carrying out a study on the fish caught in the country’s waters.

“Ninety per cent of Lebanon’s wastewater goes untreated to the sea,” says Ziad Abichaker, an environmental engineer who specializes in waste management.

The risk of health hazard from the toxic waters are high at Ouzai and Jounieh: meters away from the murky brown and opaque sewage that is let out into the sea, men catch fish from the sea. Many of the once pristine beaches are now strewn with garbage and have even turned black in places.

“It’s been like this for years,” said a resident.

An improved waste management system could mitigate many of the issues and significantly reduce the health hazard related and water crisis related issues that are in the forefront of Lebanon’s burning topics.

Lebanon management of its solid waste has added to the problem. While seaside landfills leach directly into the water in and around Beirut, the recent ban on burning rubbish has increased the pressure on the government to find better ways to manage its trash.

Untreated dumping of sewage has turned most of Lebanon’s rivers into health hazard magnets and their pollution levels are far more than the waters surrounding the beaches.

Four kilometers north of Ouzai, lies Beirut’s only public beach, Ramlet Al Baida. Its full of swimmers.

“We know the water is not clean, but the state doesn’t do anything,” said Hussein Bazzi, who lives in Beirut. Since his salary is not sufficient to be able to afford the entrance fees to a private beach, where the waters pose less of a health hazard, he brings his 5-year old son to this beach.

“People can’t afford to go anywhere else. We only have this place,” said Bazzi. “We only stayed in the water for half an hour.”

In recent years, pollution levels have contributed to a growing health hazard, including a reported rise in cancer rates, which have taken a toll on public health.

“There is always something more important,” said Afram. “But I feel my life is more threatened by pollution than security or what is happening in Syria.”