With untreated sewage in the water and garbage piled on the sand, pollution on Tripoli’s Mediterranean coast is preventing residents of the war-torn Libyan capital from escaping.
The Environment Ministry last month ordered the closure of a number of beaches along the 30-kilometer coastline of Greater Tripoli, despite the scorching summer heat.
“The situation is catastrophic,” said Abdelbasset al-Miri, the head of the ministry responsible for monitoring the coast.
“We need quick solutions to this problem because it damages the environment as much as it damages people,” he told AFP.
The daily discharge of untreated wastewater by the two million inhabitants of the capital makes it the most polluted section of the 1,770 kilometers of coastline of the North African country.
Cans, plastic bags and bottles flood the water and the shore.
On a beach, near a large hotel, open streams channel untreated sewage into the sea, where a few young men brave the contaminated water in search of freshness.
Libya’s infrastructure has been devastated by a decade of conflict, state collapse and neglect.
As a result, all of Tripoli’s wastewater goes directly into the Mediterranean.
“Huge amounts of sewage are dumped into the sea every day,” said Sara al-Naami of the Tripoli City Council.
Laboratory tests found “a high concentration of bacteria, 500 percent more than normal”, including E. Coli, at five sites along the coastline of the capital, she added.
“We have raised the issue of seawater pollution in Tripoli with the previous and current governments, and underlined the urgent need for sanitation,” Naami said.
But, she said, in the absence of such infrastructure, “temporary solutions” are needed, such as settling ponds to filter the wastewater before it reaches the sea.
A hard-won ceasefire last year led to the installation of a UN-backed government several months ago, with elections slated for December.
But day to day, Libyans continue to face power cuts, a cash crunch and biting inflation.
And for a country of seven million people where leisure facilities are almost non-existent, swimming is an essential way to relax and cool off.
Some take the plunge despite the risks.
But store owner Walid al-Muldi doesn’t want to risk getting sick.
“It got worse over the years. During heat waves the smell becomes disgusting,” said the 39-year-old, sitting on a plastic seat a few steps from the shore.
“You have to go more than 100 kilometers east of Tripoli to find a little cleaner water.”
His friend, Mohammed al-Kabir, agreed.
Due to coronavirus restrictions and unsanitary sea water, “Libyans are living in a summer prison,” he said.