What the government is not telling you about the beaches

Batroun coast last weekend. These shores along with others in the North and South are still swimmable.
As beach season approaches, many would assume Lebanese citizens have a right to know what is in the water. But government health officials who have been testing the coastline for decades beg to differ, offering conflicting excuses for not making water sanitation information transparent and publicly available. See what they have to say for themselves–and where it is still safe to swim– in a piece I wrote on the topic a few months back. 
Our Beaches: A Mix Of Beauty And Filth

First published in the August 2013 issue of Bold Magazine
By Habib Battah  


Are Lebanon’s beaches safe for swimming? The official answer to this question is about as murky as the waters. 


Earlier this month, an article published in The Daily Star dubbed the country’s coastline a “giant toilet bowl,” and quoted the president of Lebanon’s Green Party describing the situation as “an emergency.” 

“People should not be swimming at Lebanese beaches,” Nada Zaarour told the Beirut-based daily, in comments that could bankrupt dozens of resorts nationwide. 

But that was only half the truth. According to tests commissioned by Environment and Development Magazine, on which the Daily Star article was based, about half the country’s beach resort locations were actually listed as “good.” These include beaches in Batroun, Chekka, Jbeil and Amsheet in the North and Jiyye, Damour, Remeil, Tyr and Naqoura in the south – home to some of the country’s most celebrated beach clubs and public swimming areas. 

The danger, the study said, was posed by unregulated sewage dumping in highly urbanized regions, including the entire greater Beirut and Keserwan seaboard stretching all the way from the capital to Tabarja as well as Tripoli. Though many older beach condos exist in these areas, they typically offer little beach access and mainly rely on pools. 

However, this doesn’t mean that no one swims in the water, representing a serious risk to public health for those who cannot afford the more luxurious resorts in the North and South or transportation to get to public beaches there. According to Raghida Haddad, executive editor of Environment and Development Magazine, exposure to sewage infested waters can cause diarrhea, dysentery and exposure to diseases. 

Among the worst results were those collected from Beirut’s only free beach, Ramlet el Baida, which is crowded with thousands of citizens on summer weekends. 

The deceptively beautiful sands of Ramlet el Baida are fine for lounging but the state has failed to warn citizens not to swim there. 

So what is the government going to do about it? Surprisingly the sewage 
findings are not new; the state-run National Council for Scientific Research is well aware of the problem as it has been testing the water for decades. 

“It’s good that they do that,” Haddad says. “The problem is they do nothing with the results.” 

“If you ask they won’t give them to you.” 

Haddad suggested that government bodies, such as the Environment and Public Health Ministries, publish a weekly bulletin on water safety to alert citizens. But a senior source at the Public Health ministry shrugged off the results, saying: “Yes the beaches are polluted. Do you want me to tell you they are clean?” 

The source, who described himself only as “an employee in the ministry,” was not immediately familiar with the study, but suggested citizens needed no warning from the government. 

“The citizens know where it’s clean.” 

The source suggested journalists take on this task of informing the public: “Why don’t you journalists warn people? That would be good if you did that.” 

However in a subsequent phone call, Health Ministry Director Walid Ammar, acknowledged that the country faced “a sewage problem” but insisted that test results were available to the public online from the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS), whose duty he said was to warn municipalities and relevant ministries. 

“Please call them, go to their website and have a look. Ok,” Ammar said, before abruptly ending the five-minute call. 

But the most current data that could be found on the CNRS website was a three-year-old highly technical journal, largely in French and covering topics such as “entomophogenic nematodes in North Lebanon.” There were no titles on beach safety. 

Contrary to the public health ministry’s claim, CNRS director Gaby Khalaf confirmed that no studies on beach safety were published on the body’s website, though he said it has been taking monthly samples for “around 40 years.” 

“We don’t give (the test results) to anyone,” said Khalaf when reached by phone. 

Asked how average citizens would be informed about possibly-diseased waters, Khalaf said results were “sometimes” discussed in TV interviews. However releasing documents to the press had once led to “misinterpretation” and “people were attacking us.” 

Khalaf explained the CNRS was working on making figures accessible on their website, but “not now, not this year.” Like the Health ministry director, he insisted that data were being shared with relevant municipalities and ministries. 

Yet an official at the Environment Ministry’s communications office who was familiar with recent awareness campaigns, said there were no public announcements about beach safety this year. 

The official, who was not authorized to speak to the press, said recent campaigns included TV spots, documentaries and conferences covering topics such as UV rays and protection of sea turtles. But the official could not remember when or if any campaigns covered the sewage in which many citizens are currently swimming. 

Another official said the ministry was more focused on abiding by “EU conventions” than testing beach water. 

Multiple calls to the Ministry of Tourism were not returned. 

Several clean beaches can be found in the South, including the coast near Mansouri, which offers a rare virgin sand beach.
See map below to locate reportedly clean beaches. Blue is safe, Red is not. Green is ‘borderline’

Source: Environment and Development Magazine


English map available here.