A remote coastal valley on the outskirts of Umm al Qaiwain should be teeming with wildlife. Instead, it has become an uncontrolled dump for foul-smelling liquids and other waste material, while a properly controlled landfill site in the emirate sits unused. Vesela Todorova reports UMM AL QAIWAIN // On the outskirts of this northern emirate lies a stretch of low-lying coast, its light blue waters dotted with green mangrove trees. Across Ittihad Road, which runs along the coastline, is a small desert valley, flanked by rolling sand dunes and ghaf trees.
A stream, its banks lined with tall reeds, is the first and most obvious indication that something is awry. There is nothing natural about the colour of its waters: black with an occasional purple sheen. If you stick around long enough, you will see why: tanker trucks discharging loads of foul-smelling liquid waste directly into it. Experts contacted about the dump said there was good reason to believe it posed a threat to environmental and public health.
"This situation appears to be an example of a classical municipal and industrial dump with apparently no control of the situation," said Dr Fred Lee, a former environmental engineering lecturer and principal of G Fred Lee & Associates, a US-based consultancy firm. "These kinds of dumps existed in western developed countries 50 to 60 or more years ago. Dumps such as those typically cause severe adverse impacts to those within several miles of the dump and can lead to severe groundwater pollution."
Habiba al Marashi, the founder and chairperson of the Emirates Environmental Group, elaborated further, explaining the pollution risk: hazardous substances such as oils, acids and chemicals will seep into the ground, contaminating the soil and groundwater for decades. "The landfill will also affect the wildlife in the area, driving away natural wildlife and attracting the scavengers," said Mrs al Marashi. "Litter may also be caught up in winds and travel great distances away from the site affecting other areas of natural beauty and causing harm to wildlife. Consequently, containment is an important issue for all landfills, they should be covered and capped once an area is full."
Until a survey is carried out to identify the kinds of waste, it is not known what substances or chemicals could be leaking out into the soil. Technically, the trucks and their operators are not doing anything wrong as the stream is within an area officially set aside to hold Umm al Qaiwain's waste material. The emirate does have a proper landfill, designed to environmental specifications, built on the border between Umm al Qaiwain and Ras al Khaimah at least five years ago. But it has not been put into use. Officials from Umm al Qaiwain Municipality were not available for comment as to why .
Besides tankers, trucks carrying household rubbish, building materials and other rubbish can be seen passing through the facility's two entrances every day. The area is approximately 20 kilometres away from Umm al Qaiwain city and just a short drive from new public buildings housing the Ministry of Culture and Youth and the Ministry of Interior's Traffic and Licensing Department. Next door to the dumping ground sits a fenced-off area intended for a leisure park.
In a properly designed and managed landfill, pollutants cannot seep into the ground. Landfill cells are usually lined with thick sheets of plastic so as to prevent pollutants escaping. The liquid produced as waste rots is also collected and treated and the waste at landfill is compacted to reduce its volume as well as the risk of fire, and covered with soil. This puts off scavengers, such as rats, and prevents the wind from stirring up any of the waste.
None of these precautions is available at the Umm al Qaiwain dump. "If the landfill is not lined properly, or at all, then the environmental hazards are massive," said Mrs al Marashi. The dumping of liquid waste is further aggravating the situation, "since it adds moisture that can promote and enhance pollutant transport", said Dr Lee. Dr Lee and Mrs al Marashi suspect the dump is also leaking into the sea, which is only a few hundred metres away. "If the ground waters are polluted then this could, in turn, affect the quality of the water supply, and the quality of water entering streams and the sea," said Mrs al Marashi.
"To some extent ground water is filtered naturally as it passes through the ground and aquifers but it is likely this would not remove all pollution." However, further study would be required to properly evaluate the dump. "A site-specific study of the hydrogeologic characteristics of the area would be needed to evaluate the adverse public health and environmental quality impacts that can be anticipated to be caused by this activity," said Dr Lee.