A sea of garbage

Lebanon’s polluted paradise

by Charlie Darwich-Houssami

As Lebanon’s summer season gets underway—off to a sleepy start thanks to Ramadan and atypical June weather—local media reports suggesting a drastic decline in the cleanliness of the country’s coastal waters have tempered the country’s beach mania.

Michel Afram, the director-general of the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI), issued a warning in June that Lebanon had crossed the threshold in terms of environmental degradation. “The sea along Lebanon’s coast is extremely polluted,” Afram told The Daily Star. “This is nothing new, but it is surely getting worse.”

Wasting away

While a 2017 LARI study found that no water source in Lebanon was free of contamination—in results that harmonized with 2011 findings by the World Bank on several fresh water sources—Afram told The Daily Star that a 2018 study was underway, and would likely find even higher levels of toxic water contamination.

A June headline from local paper Al-Akhbar summed up the mood: “No region in Lebanon is free of pollution: Farewell to swimming.” Beirut.com followed, with: “Lebanese waters: Up to 100% pollution everywhere.”

A little dramatic, perhaps, but the severity of Lebanon’s coastal pollution is, without doubt, alarming.

The country’s coastline suffers from negligent littering, poor industrial waste disposal practices, and an extremely problematic national solid waste management plan. Greenpeace’s Julien Jreissati tells Executive that Lebanon generates around 2.5 million tons of solid waste per year, between 11 to 13 percent of which is plastic. Around 700 to 830 tons of plastic is disposed of in the country every day, much of it turning up on Lebanon’s beaches.

Lebanon’s landfills make an outsized contribution to coastal pollution, given that  the country’s three major, overworked dumps—Costa Brava, Bourj Hammoud, and Naameh—are right by the sea. Despite the lack of official case studies or government documentation, local media reports and eyewitness accounts suggest that garbage is being swept directly from these coastal landfills into the sea, particularly during periods of heavy rainfall. 

“What you see on the shores and floating on the surface of the water is only a small part of it,” Jreissati tells Executive. “Almost 90 percent of the waste goes under the seabed. These become microplastics eventually, since plastic decomposes into microplastic after hundreds of years but it never biodegrades—it is persistent in nature.”

Activists have consistently pointed to the environmental costs of such solid waste pollution, arguing that  leachate from garbage negatively affects the country’s marine life.

A toxic mix

The country’s waterways contain traces of heavy metals, with mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, and zinc all found in varying concentrations, according to The Daily Star. In 2011, an environment ministry report produced in partnership with UNDP found that the level of the chemical nitrate varied drastically between different coastal areas, with low levels recorded in Jbeil, but much higher quantities in Ramlet el-Baida. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that accidentally drinking water containing high levels of nitrate can lead to blue baby syndrome, symptoms of which include shortness of breath and blue-tinted skin, and which—as the name implies—primarily affects infants. 

Sewage, too, has long been a major factor in the cleanliness of Lebanon’s coastal waters, although—given the variations in sewage treatment and disposal infrastructure in different areas—the level of water contamination are not uniform along the coast.

One way to determine this contamination level is to examine the levels of Escherichia coli—commonly known as E. coli—a type of bacteria that lives within the intestines of people and animals, strains of which can cause infections. According to the EPA, water containing over 126 E. coli colonies per 100 milliliters is considered dangerous to swim in, due to its potential negative health impacts. 

 A 2013 American University of Beirut study of water samples  from different Lebanese coastal regions found the cleanest sections to be Batroun, Jbeil, and Sour, based on the E.coli concentration, while the most polluted areas were Tripoli and Ramlet el-Baida. In Sour, only four E.coli colonies were present per 100 milliliters of water; in Ramlet el-Baida, Beirut’s last public beach, there were over 1,000.

The LARI 2017 study confirmed that Batroun’s waters host some of the country’s lowest levels of aerobic germs, while the sea off areas such as Tripoli and Ramlet al-Baida contains high levels of coliform bacteria (organisms found in fecal matter and used as a measure of sanitary quality). This is unsurprising, given that the latter is polluted by two sewage outfalls.

Despite the variations in contamination levels along Lebanon’s coast, Afram told The Daily Star that swimming in the sea from anywhere in the country posed a risk. “Just because some of these places have the least amount of contaminants, it doesn’t make the water safe to swim in,” he said, cautioning particularly against swimming with an open wound.

While the potential health impacts of Lebanon’s polluted coastal waters are hard to assess precisely, beachgoers over the past few years have anecdotally reported emerging from a refreshing swim only to develop rashes across their exposed skin.

Take a dip, if you dare.

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Charlie Darwich-Houssami

Charlie Darwich-Houssami is an undergraduate economics student at SOAS University, London. He is currently participating in the Executive summer internship program for business journalism.

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