Fires of Fujairah take their toll on residents

Municipalities dump their waste behind the closest mountain between Dibba Fujairah and Masafi, just a few hundred metres from residential areas, and burn it.

FUJAIRAH // Down a dirt track off the Dibba highway, municipality lorries disappear into the mountains. Plumes of smoke rise into the air. Almost invisible from the highway, the track leads to a scorched landscape, with pools of sewage and pits of smouldering household waste. Orange flames flicker from black pits of charred rubbish. Every half hour, the lorries dump another load onto the pile.

The scene is not unique. At least four similar areas can be found between Dibba Fujairah and Masafi, sites a half-hour apart where municipalities dump their waste behind the closest mountain and burn it. Often, this is just a few hundred metres from residential areas and farms. Dr Sultan al Moadhen, a Federal National Council member from Fujairah, has campaigned for years against the burning of waste in the emirate.

"They burn at night because nobody can see the smoke," he said. "The sky's full of smoke over the whole area, for maybe 10 or 15 kilometres. "Twenty-four hours a day you will see this," he said, pointing to smoking piles of rubbish in the landfill. Closer to the road, burnt waste was covered with industrial waste. "They tell companies to put it here to cover what's underneath," Dr al Moadhen said.

"There are houses that are four kilometres away. Every hour, you see them dumping. In summer it's worse because of the heat. You can feel it until the next morning, when we go to the mosque to pray. "I've heard for many years that they will bring a company to take care of it, but they don't." Fatma Abdulla, the principal at Al Maasa School in Dibba Fujairah, said the situation had not changed in more than seven years.

"The municipality promised us they would solve this problem, she said. "It's not good for the people's breathing, especially people who have asthma." Khawla al Mehrezi, 21, a student from Masafi, said people did not complain because they also burned waste on their farms. "The smell comes and bothers us very much but I think in Masafi nobody complains because all of them do this," she said. "Many of them are old people who don't search for alternatives."

In Al Ghub, a village a few kilometres from the Dibba dumping site, residents say the burning must stop. "Burning is half the problem," said a mother of five. "All the children have problems breathing. My baby, Abadi, he has asthma." "And me too," said her sister, Nabila al Shehhi, 24, a mathematics graduate from UAE University. Three of their brother's five children have asthma. "Here, the ministry does not take care, because our village is very far from the city," said Ms al Shehhi.

Burnt household waste releases particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, lead and mercury, and is linked to asthma, emphysema and other respiratory illnesses. It can damage the kidneys, the nervous system, the reproductive system and the liver. The sewage that was dumped could contaminate the water supply, said Christophe Tourenq, the sciences and research manager of Emirates Wildlife Society, which works with the World Wide Fund for Nature.

"If you have an accumulation of these sites the area of impact depends on the wind and it can have an impact on populated areas. "We are more and more aware that our individual actions, accumulated with others, has an impact on others and climate change," he said. The situation has deteriorated as residential areas have grown. Dibba has seen a building boom on the outskirts of the city towards the dump.

As the population increases, more rubbish piles up and more smoke fills the air. In 2009, the Sheikh Zayed Housing Programme offered 3,530 housing grants and loans in Fujairah. There had been just 759 in 2008 and 555 from 2005 to 2007. "When this village comes here it will be a big problem," said Umm Ahmed al Yamahi, 35, a mother of four who lives near the Dibba dump. "People will see it in their house. "There's a big problem with asthma now. A lot of people suffer from this pollution, there's so much. When the season changes, we are all coughing."

A solution to Fujairah's need to burn rubbish on dumps is in sight. The municipality announced this week that it was finalising plans to build a new disposal centre. The contract is likely to be awarded to a German company, and the new facility would open in about 18 months. It would take waste from across the emirate, including Dibba, Al Tawain, Siji and Fujairah city. The plant, to be built in Masafi, would use the heat generated by incinerating waste, a cleaner burning process, to power steam turbines that generate electricity. This should help to address Fujairah's chronic power shortage, which has led to frequent blackouts and brownouts, especially in the summer months. "This has been my project since I've been the director," said Mohamed al Afkham, the general manager of Fujairah Municipality. "Things slowed down due to the recession but we are moving ahead." Rubbish at the current dumping sites will be cleared. "We are trying to control it, to fence it off and not allow anybody to go near it because of the smoke," said Mr al Afkham. "These areas will be very clean so they can be used for something else."