Feb. 1, 2009 -- Some time ago, a friend living on Dubai's ritzy Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island shaped like a palm tree, told me she had stopped letting her son swim in the water. Call it a mother's overactive worry, but she'd heard the ocean water was contaminated with E. Coli. Rumor had it the germs were coming from raw sewage illegally dumped along Dubai's coastline – a million-dollar beachfront, undone by human waste.
In the months that followed our conversation, the government isolated the problem: truck drivers with septic cargo were dumping it into storm drains, rather than queue for the long, reportedly 12-16 hour wait required to make a deposit at the city's single sewage treatment plant (Dubai has approximately 1.4 million residents).
The drains empty out onto Dubai's soft sandy beaches, one of the hallmarks of emirate's tourism economy.
Today the Times Online reported on closings at the upscale Jumeirah Beach, which was found to be too contaminated for human bathers.
"It's a cesspool. Our tests show too many E. coli to count. It's like swimming in a toilet," Keith Mutch, manager of the Offshore Sailing Club, told the British newspaper.
It's not the first such closure. In November, sections of that beach reopened after being shut down for weeks. An independent water quality test had found three times the legal amounts of fecal coliform bateria and E. Coli, according to The National newspaper.
The same local paper chronicled the spread of "red tide," a debilitating algae that colors the coastline an opaque reddish-brown. The algae feed on nitrogen and phosphorous, found in pollution and fecal matter. The "bloom" harms the fishing and diving industries and could even shut down desalination plants -- the source of most of the UAE's potable water for domestic use -- along the coast.
Along with being gross and a health hazard, the sewage problem advertises a city that has grown faster than its infrastructure. As Dubai's population has boomed and its skyline expanded on a tremendous scale at great speed, some basic city needs suffer apparent neglect.
Dr. Mohammad Raouf, an environmental economist based in Dubai, confirmed the Times Online report. He says the sewage dumping does happen and that it is a problem of capacity.
"Here is the main problem I believe: we grow very fast without taking into consideration all possible negative impacts," he told me, adding that the mega-real estate projects along the waterfront don't help.
The good news, says Raouf, is that Dubai tests water quality with one of the best monitoring systems in the region. But that's little comfort – and far from an encouragement to dive in.