x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Toxic lakes threaten groundwater

Three giant wastewater lagoons, created by years of sanctioned industrial dumping, are creating an environmental hazard in Kuwait.

Thousand of tankers come to the lagoons 24 hours a day.
Thousand of tankers come to the lagoons 24 hours a day.

KUWAIT CITY // Water in the desert is often a welcome find, but three giant lagoons in the south of Kuwait are so putrid that any thirsty traveller who happened to come across them might wish they had been a mirage. The back pools near Wafra have been created over years by tens of thousands of tankers emptying loads of industrial, chemical and domestic waste into the pools bordered by piled-up sand. The result is 400-metre-long, noxious lagoons that environmentalists say are slowly seeping into the ground and polluting the country's groundwater.

This week, 160 containers discharged in a single day. "My load comes from Kuwait Oil Company," one driver, who asked to remain anonymous, said. Waste spewed from the back of his tanker, forming a putrid stream that weaved its way into the lagoon at the bottom of the bank. "I come here twice a day." "They've been doing this for around three years," said a worker at the site, who also declined to give his name. "We used to get around 400 trucks daily. Now there is less, but the deliveries still arrive 24 hours a day."

The containers all have official permission to unload at the site, which the government opened to prevent waste water from being discharged at unregulated venues elsewhere. The government has opened a new water-treatment facility 25km from the lagoons in an attempt to stop further dumping at the lagoons. Kamal Banoub, a US consultant engineer to the council of ministers' Security Decision Follow-up Committee, which runs the facility, said it officially opened last week and was operating at about 40 per cent of its planned capacity. By the end of July, the facility will be capable of receiving 7,500 cubic metres of industrial waste water every day, or about 400 trucks, he said.

The plant can extract oil and sand from the water, clean it with chemicals and analyse the finished product in a laboratory. Scientists say the recycled water produced at the site will be pure enough for irrigation, but not drinking. "This problem has been in Kuwait for the past 40 years. Before it was dumped in the desert, but we have a suspicion that this would contaminate the groundwater," Mr Banoub said. "This is the main reason this site has opened."

The lagoons and the new treatment station are intended to handle water from industrial and chemical waste from factories only, but some lorries have taken advantage of lax regulations to dump domestic waste, too. Mr Banoub said the new facility would enforce stricter rules to eliminate the practice because domestic waste can be treated more cheaply elsewhere. When the plant is fully operational, the follow-up committee plans to drain the rancid lagoons for treatment in the new station, clean the contaminated soil and build a public park. Mr Banoub said: "We have to calculate the amount and see if we need pre-treatment; we are talking not less than two years."

The consultant said the new treatment station was the first in the Gulf to receive waste from all types of industries. "In Europe, all industries recycle their water and use it again - on site in the factory." The "long-term target" is for Kuwaiti factories to treat waste water themselves. Ahmed al Shrea, an environmental campaigner with the Voluntary Environmental Committee, an organisation based in the residential area of Ali Sabah al Salem City, 30km north-east of the lagoons, said the new facility had taken too long to open. He said a plant that only grows near sewage has been found 7km away from the lagoons, indicating that the groundwater is already contaminated.

"Last June, the minister of defence opened this station and said 'this treatment unit will take care of all the polluted water in Kuwait'," Mr al Shrea said. When the environmental committee monitored the performance of the facility, they found it was taking just 10 per cent of the capacity that the minister, Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al Sabah, promised, he claimed. The head of the Environment Public Authority, Saleh al Mudhhi, said it was still "under commissioning", and would reach full capacity in the future. "But what does 'the future' mean? It could be five or 10 years. It took eight years to build this station, so it should be 100 per cent online by now.

"We have a lot of money, but still the decision-makers are not solving the environmental problems in Kuwait," he said. The authority was not available for comment about the water treatment facility. Mr al Shrea's committee has videos of the tankers loading white, blue, red and yellow liquids from factories in the West Shuaiba Industrial Area, Mr al Shrea said, adding that one of those factories uses formaldehyde, "which is poisonous, and causes cancer".

Mr Banoub said even though hazardous materials have been dumped into the lagoons, a plan is being put in place to ensure they are pre-treated before leaving the factories. Despite the enormity of the putrid pools, Mr al Shrea said that with the right amount of investment they can be turned into a place where families could someday go for a picnic. "It's an easy thing to do in engineering. If you have a lot of money you can hire the expertise to do it. But we don't believe what these people say, we don't trust them anymore."

@Email:jcalderwood@thenational.ae