Beaches in Dubai had long been a magnet for travellers seeking sea, sun and sand. But beachgoers in the Gulf emirate recently got more than they bargained for — stinking sewage.
Now an environmental lobby group wants to clean up the image not only of Dubai’s beaches but of those all along the coastline of the United Arab Emirates, by awarding blue flags for sparkling waters.
“Tourists would like to come to Blue Flag-labelled beaches because (the award) is a sign of safety and care for the environment,” says Maisoun al-Sharif, programme coordinator for the Emirates Wildlife Society (EWS).
“Those beaches will be receiving more tourists and they will look better,” he adds.
Under the Blue Flag Programme launched by the EWS in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund, managers of public or private beaches and marinas can apply to be awarded the top rating, provided they meet internationally-set standards that guarantee water cleanliness and quality.
Six months ago Dubai was hit by the foul whiff of a scandal when it was found that a stretch of Jumeirah beach lining the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club area was sullied by raw sewage spewing out of a pipeline extending from an inland industrial zone.
The discovery forced the closure of the part of the beach for a month and a half as officials sought to get to the bottom of the problem.
Eventually the Dubai municipality found that drivers of trucks carrying the waste were emptying the slops into the pipeline that opens into the sea instead of waiting for long hours at the city’s only sewage treatment plant.
Although some truck drivers have been arrested and fined by the government, the coastline is still suffering from the discharged chemicals, oil and rubbish, according to Keith Mutch, head of the Sailing Club.
Tests conducted at the end of January showed that the water was still contaminated, Mutch says, lamenting that the authorities have not launched a suitable clean-up programme.
“This is black and that’s blue,” Mutch says as he points to the difference between the water in the club’s marina, where dozens of boats lie, and the open sea beyond.
“Although the water is one million percent better than it was one month ago, I estimate that this beach will take five to seven years to recover to how it was a year ago,” he adds.
Mutch is all for the planned beach rating programme.
“The Blue Flag grading system will by default force beach monitoring, just as five-star hotels monitor themselves. It will be very good for Dubai. If beaches in Dubai are ranked, then international tourists will come. I hope the beaches do apply to get the ratings as Dubai really needs the tourists,” he says.
The once-booming emirate of Dubai, particularly its tourism sector, has been hit hard by the financial crisis.
Promoters of the Blue Flag initiative believe that if beaches are rated, those who oversee them will engage in constant monitoring and testing of the water to ensure standards are maintained.
“I expect there will be a positive (response) from beaches and marinas because … it is possible for them to reach international standards,” says Sharif of EWS.
The problem runs far deeper, however, as infrastructure has lagged behind the rapid urban expansion of Dubai, which over the past six years witnessed a real estate boom, including the launch of dozens of mega-projects, and a consequent population explosion.
Though the global financial crisis has put the brakes on the boom, the problem remains — not only in Dubai but in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi as well as other emirates where housing projects have outstripped the building of infrastructure.
“The problem is linked to the sewage system,” says Mohammed Abdul Rahman Hassan, head of marine environment and wildlife section at Dubai municipality.
Because of the pressure on the sewage treatment plant, he says, “so many tankers resort to (dumping) to avoid being in a long queue.”
The federal and municipal authorities have stepped up efforts to police and regulate the beaches in a bid to save the ailing tourism industry, a lifeline not only for Dubai but for the entire country.
The department has tasked 10 full-time inspectors with patrolling the beaches and taking samples of the water and sand for testing at any of the emirate’s 30 water testing stations, Hassan said.
The department also conducts quarterly checks of water quality.
Fines for those found dumping waste, including bags or empty containers, range from 500 dirhams (1,835 dollars) up to 270,000 dirhams (990,900 dollars), according to Hassan.
Meanwhile, the EWS is coordinating with the various role players, including the government’s environment authorities and hotel operators, and expects to receive the first blue flag applications before the end of the year, Sharif says.
The group, he adds, is also busy assessing the conditions of all UAE beaches, he adds.
But the sailing club’s Mutch believes more must be done to tackle the problem of beach pollution.
“There are still things that are being dumped and we don’t know what they’re dumping. The only way to tackle this problem is to shut down the pipeline,” he says.