Lebanon News

Deadly lack of beach safety in spotlight after drownings

Men look on as Civil Defense members search for the body of a missing child near Saadiyat, Lebanon, July 14, 2019. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

BEIRUT: The body of an 8-year-old boy who went missing over the weekend while swimming off the coast of the Chouf washed up on the shore of Beirut’s Ramlet al-Baida Monday.

He wasn’t the only one to drown over the weekend. Despite the best efforts of the Civil Defense’s marine unit, the sea claimed the lives of three of his family members. The body of his 29-year-old cousin who was swimming with him was retrieved Sunday by the Civil Defense.

The cousin’s 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son had also gone swimming. The maritime unit had rescued them from the water the day before, but they died Sunday.

The Civil Defense had called on seagoers Saturday to stay out of the water, noting the strong currents and waves, as well as a large presence of jellyfish.

“Waves this past weekend reached over 2.5 meters,” Samir Yazbeck, the head of the Civil Defense’s marine rescue unit, told The Daily Star.

Videos on social media showed dozens of jellyfish washing up on the shores of Beirut.

“We’ve been telling people to stay out of the water for the past three days. ... A lot of people go swimming in unmonitored locations because it’s free,” Yazbeck said.

The incident over the weekend wasn’t an isolated one. “Every year there are 110 to 115 drowning incidents. Almost 90 of these cases are Syrians,” Yazbeck said.

Lt. Michel Murr, the chief of the marine unit at the Beirut Fire Department, confirmed the main problem was people going to unregulated locations because they couldn’t afford the alternatives.

Except for public beaches like the one in Tyre, lifeguards are mainly found in hotels and resorts that monopolize access to Lebanon’s beaches at exorbitant prices. This renders them inaccessible to much of the public, pushing people to locations that have little protection or none whatsoever.

Swimmers reluctant to pay expensive entry fees can be seen jumping off the rocks all along Beirut’s Corniche down to Raouche.

Murr said Beirut hadn’t seen any fatalities since last year, but that people frequently needed to be rescued. He said there were three such cases just this past weekend, and 10 the weekend before that.

The Beirut Fire Department’s lifeguards make rotations regularly on the weekends, as this is when beaches are populated most, Murr said.

But no patrols happen during the weekdays, unless there is extreme weather. “We try to take precautions right away if the waves are high, we make sure no one is in the water,” Murr said.

In locations like Batroun and Tyre, seagoers can drop off their belongings for the day at restaurants and beach shacks that have direct access to the water. These locations very rarely have lifeguards.

At one location in Batroun Saturday, one of the days when the waves were strongest, people were swimming without supervision and jumping off high rocks.

Rocky locations have strong currents that are particularly dangerous for swimmers, who might unexpectedly slam into the shore.

There is also limited supervision in Jiyyeh, despite it being a popular beach for locals and surfers for its waves. “Lifeguards should be provided. It’s a public beach, and right now the surfers are the ones who are telling people when and where to swim,” said Ali Elamine, the owner of Surf Lebanon, a surf shop and school in Jiyyeh.

“It’s a strange thing in Lebanon. There is a lack of water education. ... Why isn’t the government stepping in, why is no one regulating it?” he added.

When asked what should be done about the problem, Yazbeck said the marine rescue unit did everything in its power to notify people of dangerous conditions, putting out advisories on television, radio and the Civil Defense’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

Yazbeck said that five years ago, the unit tried to put up signs in Nahr Ibrahim - a location where he said people frequently drowned - telling people not to swim, but that the signs were gone after two weeks.

While the marine rescue unit has centers in Jiyyeh, Jounieh, Batroun and Tyre, Yazbeck said it could do only so much to prevent people from swimming in dangerous conditions in unregulated locations.

“We can’t go to every camp and every house and tell them that it’s not safe. The government can’t put lifeguards on every shore,” Yazbeck said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 16, 2019, on page 3.

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