Friday, July 29, 2016

Another summer swimming among scum and rubbish

Rubbish appears in and out of the water on beaches along the Costa del Sol due to anti-social habits and a lack of adequate sewage treatment


Another summer swimming among scum and rubbish
Rubbish left on the beach in Pedregalejo. (Fernando González)
The Costa del Sol is a tourist destination par excellence. It attracts millions of visitors every year, mainly due to its beaches . However, at any point along Malaga’s 161 kilometres of coastline, if people were asked whether they have ever encountered scum or something even more unpleasant in the sea while swimming, the beaches would be filled with upraised hands.
This summer is no exception, and it is really negative for the Costa del Sol brand. This endemic problem is the result of the anti-social behaviour of those who flush wet-wipes, sanitary pads, cotton buds and condoms down the lavatory without realising, or caring, that this type of rubbish blocks the sewage pipes. These items are normally removed, but when there is heavy rain or when the population increases in the summer the pipes can’t always cope; they overflow and release all their contents, including solid waste. Once that happens, the currents move the floating rubbish around for months.
Some people also have a habit of throwing used frying oil down the sink or the toilet. Approximately eight out of every ten litres end up down the drain. In the best of cases, if the oil is channelled to a treatment plant, 10 per cent of the fats end their journey in the sea. What happens in places where the waste is not treated is easy to deduce.
“Many people still think anything can be thrown down the toilet, you just flush the loo and that’s that, but even though there are numerous treatment plants in this province, there are still some places where the waste isn’t treated, and then the sea currents spread it all along the coast,” warns Jorge Gil, who works for Acosol, the company which manages water supplies on the western Costa del Sol.
Pablo Temboury, the director of industrial facilities at Emasa, the water company for Malaga city, places special emphasis on the damage caused by wet wipes. “They are advertised as being biodegradable, but they’re not. Anyone can test that at home, by leaving one in a glass of water for several days. They will see that it just stays there, because it is cotton. Toilet paper is different, it changes consistency,” he says.
Guadalhorce river
Some people’s behaviour leaves much to be desired, but so does the attitude of the authorities when it comes to sorting out once and for all something which has been a major problem for tourism on the Costa del Sol for four decades.
In the inland region of Malaga province there are still about 30 small municipalities whose sewage ends up in rivers or streams with no previous filtering, but there are two black spots in particular. The most visible is Nerja, which still holds the unfortunate distinction of being the only large coastal town where the sewage is not treated. In 2014 work began on the construction of a sewage plant, but there have been several delays and now it is due to come into operation in mid-2017. When fully operative, it will treat the sewage of the 125,000 people who reside in the area in the summer.
There is a second black spot of which fewer people are aware because it is not by the sea, but it is just as damaging for the environment, if not more so: the Guadalhorce river, which has become the dump for the waste generated by 100,000 people, before it flows into the sea.
Two treatment plants were planned for this area over a decade ago but have never been built: one for Coín, Pizarra and Álora, and another to treat much of the sewage from the metropolitan area, including Alhaurín el Grande and Cártama.
Juan Jesús Martín, a biologist at the Aula del Mar, makes it clear: “Untreated waste from numerous rural areas goes into the Guadalhorce river. That contravenes European regulations and affects not only tourism but also marine life, especially plastic residues and wet wipes, because they don’t dissolve,” he explains.
In addition to the seemingly never-ending task of providing effective sewage treatment for the whole province, there is a need to expand the capacity of the collectors to ensure that they can cope at peak periods and, above all, to improve the marine outfalls, most of which have deteriorated due to storms and the passage of time and some of which are almost 40 years old.
These are the pipes which take the sewage out to the point at which it is released into the sea, sufficiently far away from the coast. The distance is usually between 850 metres and two kilometres. More important than the distance, however, is the fact that the treated waste has to be correctly diluted by the salt water, a process which depends on the type of treatment process and the depth of the underwater pipes (the further down, the better the dilution).
Another problem altogether is the scum, because there are several factors which cause this including the characteristics of the Alboran Sea, which is enclosed and makes it difficult for its waters to be refreshed.
“It is difficult to tackle the problem of the scum because we don’t know exactly what causes it. The only thing we have been able to ascertain is that it is mainly formed by sand. Whether it is due to a lack of waste treatment, ships, used oil or even swimmers themselves is difficult to determine,” says Antolín de Benito, of Axaragua, the company responsible for the water in La Axarquía region. Sometimes, the cause is natural, from the action of waves on the fine sand and sediment on the sea bed, but hydrocarbons from ships have also been detected and, of course, contamination from sewage.
Juan Jesús Martín explains that there is a human cause, which is when people throw used frying oil down the drain, because ten per cent of this escapes treatment. “From about 12 or one o’clock the fats emulsify because the water temperature rises close to the shore,” he says.
There is another problem, too. As José Carlos Báez, biologist and researcher at the Oceanography Centre in Malaga explains, there are large areas of the Mediterranean where plastic accumulates and enters the food chain of turtles and tuna. This then passes into the human food chain and is a cause of cancer.
“Plastic in the sea is a serious problem, but we don’t take any notice of it unless it affects us directly,” he says.

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