x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Mountain of litter at Hatta beauty spot

Day tripping litterbugs are putting tourism revenues at risk but clean-up efforts are being hampered by a lack of resources on the Omani side.

Thousands of people visit Hatta each year, but a lack of waste facilities means that many leave their rubbish behind.
Thousands of people visit Hatta each year, but a lack of waste facilities means that many leave their rubbish behind.

HATTA // They come in their thousands to this tranquil mountain retreat, to gaze at ancient hilltop forts, spectacular craggy peaks, waterfalls and welcoming pools. But many leave unimpressed, having been confronted instead by mountains of rubbish, in riverbeds and at picnic areas.

The town, as a result, is struggling to maintain its reputation as one of the emirate's most idyllic beauty spots, and its economy is suffering. Attempts to reform the daytripping litterbugs have largely fallen on deaf ears. A lack of cross-border collaboration over who should clear the mess up has not helped, either. Yesterday, volunteers from the local community, including municipality officers and school pupils, teamed up to tackle the rubbish.

Such was the size of their task, though, that, to keep on top of the problem, the clean-up may have to become a weekly rather than an annual event. Sergio Magnaldi, the general manager of the Hatta Fort Hotel, said a lack of co-ordination between Oman and the UAE had caused the site to become an eyesore. "The Hatta Pools area is something of a no-man's-land," he said. "There has been a historical disagreement over who has responsibility to maintain them. It is vitally important to the local economy as a tourist attraction, but many tour operators have stopped visiting because of the piles of rubbish."

The pools, which once attracted groups brought by 100 Dubai and Sharjah-based tour operators, are several kilometres into Oman, allowing Dubai no jurisdiction over their upkeep. Although Dubai Municipality has a local headquarters in Hatta, its role is limited to promoting tidiness through the annual clean-up. "We have a lot more volunteers than last year," said Idris Fadon, the event supervisor for the municipality. "Our objective is to clean the area, but also to raise awareness of the environment and teach people about waste minimisation.

"We involve local schools because positive and responsible attitudes should be instilled at a young age." The loss of tourism revenue is affecting the community, but it is not the locals who are making the mess. Visitors can number up to 3,000 a day in peak season. With no bins or supervision, rubbish accumulates quickly. Plastic bottles, food containers and nappies are strewn across rocks and float in shallow streams.

At one popular spot, one of the few pools deep enough to swim in, 50 volunteers collected 30 sacks of rubbish in a 50-metre stretch. Ahmed al Qasmi, an official for Omani Modha District Municipality, who attended the clean-up, said a lack of resources and manpower limited the amount of cleaning that could be done. Cross-border collaboration could make a difference, he added. "There are only eight cleaning personnel to cover a vast, mountainous area. We have a weekly timetable, but to increase cleaning we would need to have more vehicles, personnel and bins," said Mr al Qasmi.

Although the area is classed as a high-priority tourist site by Dubai, it is further down the agenda in Oman. Few Omanis visit the remote, sparsely populated Modha district, far away from the country's major cities and attractions. No collaborative solutions have been put forward to combat the accumulation of rubbish. "There are no plans for a joint team to patrol the area, although it would be useful," said Mr al Qasmi.

"We do not have the resources to clean all areas regularly and lack the equipment to tackle water pollution." The Hatta Fort Hotel relies heavily on custom passing through en route to the pools. It has lobbied for bins at the site, especially in parking areas and at camping spots, but has not succeeded. "We have notified the Oman authorities that bins are needed at the pools but nothing has changed," said Nitin Dyappa, a tour guide at the hotel. "The only option we have to keep it clean is to send out our own hotel staff to do litter picks."

Although a joint solution has not been discussed, the first step may be imminent after Oman committed to put up signs asking people to take their rubbish home. There was no sign of jurisdictional tensions at the clean-up yesterday as public sector officials, the staff of local companies and children joined in to clean up. Reem al Kaabi, a teacher at Nowras Kindergarten, who was in charge of 40 four-year-old children, said: "The children have been very excited about the clean-up. We have made it the focus of a project at the school.

"We feel it is important they learn to care for their environment." Hatta is not the only town to benefit from a clean-up. In December, a nationwide campaign will see 25,000 volunteers clean 50 UAE litter hot spots, from beach promenades to industrial estates. The Emirates Environmental Group, a voluntary, non-government organisation, will use the event to promote environmental responsibility and recycling.

tbrooks@thenational.ae