For over a month now the headlines in the local press have been all about illegal sewage dumping on Dubai’s beaches and the risks to swimmers. Illegal dumping is nothing new in the Emirates and when it occurred in the desert, nobody seemed to take notice or care. But now that the beaches in the upscale neighborhood of Jumeirah are contaminated, the alarm bells are sounding. Jumeirah is not only home to luxury villas and trendy shops, but this beach front is also known for its five-star hotels, most notably the world famous Burj al-Arab.
The levels of sewage have become so high in the sea that the municipality has put up barricades and posted numerous signs warning of the dangers. Many beaches along the stretch are affected. Recently, an international sailing regatta had to be canceled at the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club, one of the hardest hit areas. Tests of the affected sea water have shown levels of human feces three times higher than normal and traces of the e-coli bacteria which can cause everything from ear infections to Typhoid fever and Hepatitis A.
Dubai’s rapid growth has not always been friendly on the environment. It seems that every few weeks we hear of another ecological disaster in the works. One week there is a campaign to get rid of plastic bags because they are killing camels in the desert; the next week the ruler issues a decree to plant more trees in order to purify the air. However, the sewage problem seems to be hitting a particularly raw nerve in a city that prides itself on its modernity and glamour.
Any visitor to the UAE can see that the country’s infrastructure is not equipped to handle the throngs of people who continued to move here seeking better opportunities. The massive traffic gridlocks are the most blatant example of this overload. Another problem, which has been brewing underground, may be less apparent but no less critical. In the past, sewage water tankers made their rounds in the city picking up waste water from septic tanks and delivered it to the sewage treatment plant. Up until around five years ago everything went relatively smooth. Then Dubai embarked on a number of mega projects, including the Burj Dubai, which is the tallest structure in the world. Overnight the demand for guest laborers rose and so did temporary accommodations and other facilities like portable toilets, showers and containers to hold liquid waste. Work camps began sprouting up as fast as building sites and before anyone could take notice, Dubai’s already fragile sewer system was on the verge of imploding.
To confront the sudden increase in waste water, sewage water tankers were rerouted to labor camps. Realizing there were not enough sewage water tankers to pick up both the city’s and the labor camp’s waste, more were added to the fleet, but this only created additional congestion and longer lines at Dubai’s only treatment center. Suddenly, the wait time jumped from one to two hours, to a day. What aggravated the drivers even more than waiting was the fact that they only got paid per load of waste they carried. The more loads they picked up, the more money they earned — simple mathematics.
As a way to avoid the long lines and increase their runs, truckers began driving out on empty roads and dumping the waste water in the desert. However, as more empty areas, in and around Dubai, were turned into to construction sites, truckers were forced to either drive further out into the desert or look for an alternative solution. Enter Dubai’s storm drains.
During the winter months Dubai sees only a little rain, but each time there is a downpour the effects are felt for weeks if not months afterwards. Water in this desert environment does not run off but rather just sits in puddles and small shallow lakes until it eventually evaporates or is pumped out by machines. Storm drains were dug at strategic places throughout the emirates to divert some of the rain water back into the sea. The storm drains may be needed only twice a year but their role is essential in keeping Dubai and the other emirates from sinking in flood water.
As a way to avoid long lines or driving way out into the desert, sewage waste tanker drivers began dumping their waste water in storm trains. In the beginning there were only a few culprits but over time other drivers caught on.
In a way to combat this illegal practice, the authorities have imposed a series of measures, which includes fines of 100,000 Dirham ($27,250), confiscation of the tankers for a period of time and suspension of the trade license of sewage waste transporting companies.
Recently, a reader submitted a photo to one of the local papers showing a group of men swimming in the sea just off Jumeirah Beach. In the background one can see a yellow barricade which stretches along the shore and a sign which reads “Sorry for Inconvenience.” This barrier, supposedly put up to prevent people from swimming, did not seem to have the desired effect. It may be that the men decided to ignore the dangers or they simply misunderstood the sign thinking instead that it was an apology for having to step over the barricade.
Norbert schiller is a Dubai-based photo-journalist and writer