9 - 15 September 1999
Issue No. 446
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Treading water on safetyAlexandria remains a top holiday destination, but when it came to checking out the safety of the beaches, Mariz Tadros received a few unpleasant surprises
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11.55am, Friday 3 September, Assafra beach, west of Alexandria: a young man is pulled out of the water drowned. His body covered with a white sheet and his family grief-stricken, the crowds gather around dumbstruck, waiting solemnly for the ambulance which arrives about 10 minutes later. The doctor confirms that the man is dead but refuses to remove the body until the police arrive.
12.40pm, an armed-forces beach next to Assafra: I am looking for the lifeguards to discover what has happened to the man at the adjacent beach. A lifeguard is telling me about the unbelievable number of young men who have drowned on the beaches this year, when suddenly he runs off towards the water, discards his T-shirt, and dives into the swell. He and another lifeguard pull a pale floating body to the shore. "Is he okay?" is the question on everyone's lips. "He's dead, it looks like he must have drowned at least one day ago," mutters the lifeguard.
Deadly silence on the beach; time seems to have stopped. Some stare glazedly, others get up and shout at their children not to swim further out. A crowd follows the lifeguards carrying the dead youth away to yet another ambulance. A distressed man cries out: "This is unbelievable, two dead in one hour. May God have mercy on us." Another white sheet covers another body. "What are you all looking at? Go away. Go," shouts a distraught man. The crowd shuffle away.
12.55pm: The ambulance arrives. The lifeguard is right, the young man had been dead for 24 hours.
Such a tragic day at the beach is no longer exceptional. Incidents of drowning have increased drastically this year on many beaches in Alexandria, especially in the last two months. Some estimate that more than 250 people have drowned on its beaches from May to the beginning of August.
Dr Fathi Anwar, head of the Ambulance Department in Alexandria, argues that while the actual number of people drowning may have increased, it remains stable in relative terms, due to the growth in numbers of tourists to Alexandria. Others believe that poor safety measures on the beaches, exacerbated by the increase in visitors, has caused the percentage figure for drownings to skyrocket.
Residents of Alexandria point out that the well-publicised efforts to renovate the beaches and give the city a makeover has made it a top destination for holiday-makers. It is estimated that during peak season up to half a million tourists enter Alexandria every day from all over Egypt.
In front of Assafra beach, at noon on Friday, a microbus from Menufiya drops off families laden with children, chairs and food for a day at the beach. The trend for daytrips has put further pressure on the beaches. The popular joke is that you can no longer see the sand for the crowds.
Given that the governor has taken so much trouble to make Alexandria one of the most attractive holiday destinations in Egypt, surely the necessary measures would have been taken to ensure that the beaches -- especially public ones -- could cope with such a large number of people without compromising on safety?
At Al-Mandara, a popular and crowded beach situated between Assafra and Sheraton Al-Montazah's private beach, Mohamed Sayed El-Zouki, a lifeguard in his mid-40s, said he was overworked and fed up: "There are only two lifeguards provided by the governorate -- me and another diver. How can we cope with this vast number of people? It is just impossible." His wife illustrated the situation: "Just last Friday, seven got into trouble right here on the beach, one died. With families screaming and wailing, it felt like we were in a cemetery and not on a beach."
El-Zouki remembers that there used to be a dozen lifeguards at the beach, but the numbers have gradually dwindled. "Most of them have retired now, and new ones are not being brought in." The governorate itself, according to El-Zouki, is suffering from a shortage of trained lifeguards. The salary on offer perhaps accounts for this. A full-time lifeguard like Mohamed El-Zouki works from sunrise to sunset and earns LE120 a month. To provide emergency cover when the beach is very crowded, El-Zouki employs a young swimmer to help whom he pays LE5 a day. "I have a family to feed, and yet I am obliged to hire someone from my own money because I just can't cope on my own."
El-Zouki's financial sacrifice may be driven by an altruistic concern for the safety of holiday-makers, but in all likelihood, it is a wise strategy. If lives are lost to the sea, he is more likely than not to be summoned by the police for questioning. "Just the other day, a man from the provinces was stabbed to death in the water. I was called into the police station where I was interrogated from 3pm until midnight."
photos: Essam Shukry
As a lifeguard, El-Zouki pointed out, his job is supposed to be to get a drowning person out of the water and onto the shore where the emergency services and a doctor could take over. "But since the governor widened the corniche this year, and took away the emergency unit, we have taken over the role of doctor as well."
Ambulance chief Dr Fathi said that the governorate planned to have mobile ambulances on every beach to replace the emergency units, and insists that where a unit has been removed, it has been replaced by an ambulance on stand-by.
But not on Assafra, or Al-Mandara either for that matter. Since the emergency unit was pulled down last April, El-Zouki says, there has been no replacement. With the corniche's extension, the police station, as well as the beach officer's room, had to go, but this does not explain why the coloured barrels marking the extent of safe swimming were also removed. "It has been seven or eight years since I last saw these barrels. I don't know why they went, I suppose as safety on the beach became more lax, they were done away with," he explained.
It has become increasingly difficult to maintain any order on the beach. "Look at these," he said, pointing to the line of bedsheets hung from parasols to give shade. "How can I see what is going on in the water when the view is blocked by these bedsheets? Can I tell them to take them down? No way! They would tell me to get lost, if not worse." To make his point, El-Zouki took me to the parasol with the sheet closest to us.
"Could you please remove this sheet, sir?" he asked a man.
"Why?" he answered in shock.
"Because it is not a pleasant sight, and because it is preventing us from seeing what is happening in the water."
"What about all these people. When they remove their sheets, I'll remove mine," he said.
As we went from parasol to parasol, it was always the same story. "Sometimes I see someone who is swimming too far away or approaching a danger zone and I go and tell them. They shrug me off, and tell me they are excellent swimmers and can look after themselves."
At this point, an anxious-looking man rushes up. He is looking for any officer on the beach. The man, Abdallah Hassanein, an engineer from Cairo, had come on a daytrip with his family. "You have to put up a sign warning people of the whirlpools over there," he says, pointing to a calm patch of water. Hassanein tells us that just half an hour before, he had to dive in to rescue two girls and a boy who despite their resistance were being drawn into the whirlpool. Just a few minutes ago, he continued, he pulled out a relative who had almost drowned. Still in a state of shock, Hassanein pointed out that as a visitor to the beach, there was no way for him or for the mass of visitors to know that this was a danger zone. "Also, if something happens, I don't know who to go to, I don't even know what the ambulance number is."
The absence of any supervision on the beach at night increases the likelihood of accidents. Some holiday-makers prefer to swim at night when the water is warm and when women can swim without feeling embarrassed. Most victims however are young men aged 20-30. The body of someone who drowned at night is likely to appear only the next day, and possibly at a neighbouring beach.
Another complaint of lifeguards and holiday-makers alike is the upright concrete blocks in the sea. These act as wavebreaks and protect the beaches from erosion. Part of the governor's beautification policy, they have the opposite effect and simply make the beaches uglier. They also represent a serious hazard to swimmers and divers. Nagy, a photographer who claims to have been working on Al-Mandara beach for 35 years, believes that these blocks have destroyed the beauty of the beach altogether: "It just looks vile, these concrete blocks in the middle of the water. The contractors didn't even clean up after they had finished, so you find all this left over material at the bottom. Now these blocks are used by some people to dump their rubbish and are used by drug addicts and illicit couples at night."
The problem, suggested Harby Mohamed Yunis, a lifeguard on the other side of Al-Mandara, is that there is a thick sand bed around these blocks which is difficult to see. "Just two weeks ago one young man was standing on this block. Thinking that the water was deep, he jumped off and hit the ground hard on his spine." The 27-year-old is still paralysed in hospital.
Yunis said that ever since wavebreaks were put in place this year, he has witnessed several accidents. He blames this on the fact that they were not made long enough, and were not positioned horizontally which causes the waves to crash against them and create dangerous conditions. "I have witnessed too many accidents here, but who will listen to me?" he said despairingly. Yunis stressed that in all of these cases an ambulance had arrived within ten minutes. However, "ten minutes may make the difference between life and death, so it was far better when we had an emergency unit on the beach."
"We need a speed boat. I can't go in when the waves are high and the sea is rough. It is too dangerous, and I could end up drowning myself. Also, sometimes it takes too long to reach someone far out," Yunis complains.
The question of how quickly a drowning person can be identified, rescued, and brought back to shore is a tricky one. Theoretically, the coastguard will intervene in situations beyond the abilities of the lifeguards. However, many people, including an anonymous source at the Health Department in Alexandria, accused the coastguard of not being sufficiently active.
While lifeguards like Yunis and El-Zouki are employed by the governorate, there are many others employed by private contractors who have leased beache, according to one man who spoke on condition of anonymity. He pointed out that some beaches have long been leased to contractors, who manage the kiosks, parasols and all vending activities. This year the governorate has added the responsibility for hiring lifeguards as well. Naturally, added the source, the contractor's top priority is to maximise profits rather than hiring a well-qualified and capable lifeguard.
Safety on the beach is a luxury for the fortunate few -- those who can afford admission to private beaches. The relatively small armed-forces beach next to Assafra, for example, has a lifeguard on the look out from a high chair plus two others. Marker barrels are visible at a quarter kilometre, and no swimmer is allowed to go beyond this limit.
Dr Fathi Anwar deemed the main cause of the high incidence of drowning to be the behaviour of visitors and their lack of awareness, especially those not from Alexandria. "People do not respect the signs. If they have come a long way, say from Kafr Al-Dawar for example, to enjoy a good swim on the beach, they will pay no regard whether the colour of the flag is black or red," he asserted. Ambulance crews are often held to blame for a death, but they often arrive when the person has been dead for a few hours. "They think that we haven't done our job properly but there is nothing we can do if the person drowned 24 hours ago. We can try to save someone through resuscitation and oxygen. But it depends on how much water has entered his lungs and his general state of health," he added.
While the ambulance service cannot be made a scapegoat for the high incidence of drowning this year, neither can the blame simply be ascribed to a lack of awareness on the public's part, especially in the absence of noticeboards or sufficient lifeguards. Certain beaches are inherently unsafe because of strong currents, whirlpools and rocks. These are often public beaches open to all free of charge, and as a result very crowded. The revamped corniche may be great for a stroll, but not at the cost of public safety in the absence of emergency units and the beach police.
1.05pm: the ambulance is gone. Two bodies covered with white sheets are still lying on the corniche at Assafra beach. The crowds have more or less dispersed, grieving family members are still waiting for the police to arrive so that the bodies can be taken to the mortuary.