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'Smelly sewage' threatens Dubai's clean image

The city's beautiful beaches marred by illegal dumping

Dubai's beautiful beaches have been in the news for all kinds of reasons, but none quite as smelly as the recent nuisance that has washed up on the trendy shores of the tourist hotspot.

For several weeks some of the emirate's magical beaches have been covered with the stinking contents of septic tanks as Dubai suffers the consequences of its frantic and poorly controlled development.

The foul effluent not only threatens to damage Dubai's image as a beautiful and clean city but also threatens its rapidly expanding population with various diseases, due to what local press reported was poor warning signs.

Tallest tower vs sewage system

The sewage issue highlights one of the paradoxes of the emirates -- it can build the world's tallest tower and six-star hotels but has not constructed the sewage works it needs.

New apartment blocks and neighborhoods are rising everywhere at a record pace, but infrastructure is dragging behind.

For example, the city still has no main drainage system, hence the need for tankers to collect the contents of septic tanks and transport the waste to the emirate's only sewage treatment works at Al-Awir, out in open desert.

A second plant is under construction but will not be in use until next year.

For the moment, the existing site is operating at full capacity and the queue of tankers awaiting their turn to unload snakes out of site amid a miasma of nauseating fumes.

"The wait can be more than 10 hours. It is hard to bear, especially when it is hot," Ijaz Mohammed, a tanker driver from Pakistan, told AFP.

Drivers are paid by the journey and in September some of them got fed up with the long queues and started offloading into the ditches intended as run-offs for the rare showers of rain.

Dubai officially had 1.3 million inhabitants at the end of 2006 but its population is ballooning.

Fashionable beaches

The dumped effluent first runs into the sea, then drifts onto beaches, in particular those of the fashionable Jumeirah district, home to some of Dubai's swankiest hotels.

"This pollution is accidental and results from the practices of certain drivers," Mohammed Abdulrahman Hasan, head of the city council's environmental services department, told AFP.

Punishment is heavy for illegal offloading of waste, with the employer of any driver caught in the act being liable for a fine of up to 100,000 dirhams (27,200 dollars). The vehicle can also be impounded.

The local authority has decided to encourage informers after 55 drivers in one week were spotted while dumping their loads.

It has set up a public free phone number with the incentive of a 2,000 dirham (about 545 dollars) reward if the offence is confirmed.

However, the illegal unloading goes on, and not just into watercourses leading to the sea.

A British man driving a 4X4 vehicle in sand near the port of Jebel Ali, west of Dubai, was surprised to come across a lake of excrement, local newspapers reported.

Yes, I heard about that and it worries me. I am going to spend more time shopping, at the pool and sunbathing.

A Dubai tourist

Catching diseases

Doctors have warned of a heightened risk of catching diseases such as typhoid or hepatitis but adults and children continue to bathe in contaminated waters.

Last month, local press reported that the seemingly careless attitude of swimmers was due to poor warning signs and said not enough was being done to stop swimmers from entering the sea.

A small temporary fence has been put up to prevent people from accessing the beach with signs that merely say: “Sorry for inconvenience - coastal management section,” the daily 7Days reported.

People are oblivious to why the fence and signs have been put up, and continue to risk their health by swimming in water infected with raw sewage and E-coli, the paper added.

The situation is starting to worry some tourists, such as "Anna", a young Russian encountered outside a grand hotel.

"Yes, I've heard about that and it worries me. I am going to spend more time shopping, at the pool and sunbathing," she told AFP.

Tourism is the motor of the local economy and the problem could have serious consequences if it starts to affect Dubai's image as a clean city, something it prides itself on.

This is why the city council tries to be reassuring.

"Pollution is only affecting an area of beach and all tests prove that bathing is risk free," insists Hasan, the environment chief.

Pollution is only affecting an area of beach and all tests prove that bathing is risk free.

The environment chief