Updated 13 September: As I posted in the microalgae article last month, “the last census of discharges into the sea was in 2009, and that a new one is currently being finalized: it will be published in November.” This morning, however, the Canarian Government’s Minister for Territorial Policy, Sustainability and Security, Nieves Lady Barreto, presented to the regional Parliament a preview of the data obtained. Barreto said that the analysis of discharges throughout the Canaries shows 355 direct to the sea, of which only 109 (31%) have the required authorization. Of the 246 lacking permission, 71 are processing an appplication for authorization, and 12 have expired authorization. Tenerife has the greatest number of discharges of all the islands, 146, of which 89 (61%) do not have authorization, 19 of them being in the application process.
The figures will be embarrassing for the Government, which has been at pains to play down any problem in the light of publicity over microalgae blooms, and Barreto herself said that the problem of sewage and waste water discharges is not of a day or even a decade, but a perennial one in these islands. She asked for cooperation and commitment from all administrations at all levels to find definitive solutions to deal with unauthorized discharges, but her explanation of the various authorizations required for water purification and discharges directly into the sea showed the Byzantine complexity of responsibilities divided between Ayuntamientos, Cabildos and the Government itself – within which the responsibility is divided between the Department of the Environment, that of Agricultura, Pesca, Alimentación, as well as the Department of Política Territorial, Sostenibilidad y Seguridad, and finally that of Costas.
The system could not have been better designed if the specific intention had been to allow each authority in turn to put the blame onto another. This is an issue that is not going to go away, and one that has no easy solution. Previous censuses have been carried out in 2003 and 2009, but the timing of this third census coincides with discharges coming to the forefront of public awareness because of the blooms of microalgae around the whole of these islands, even though the connection between the two issues is much disputed. It does seem, though, that the game of pass the buck is not going to wash for much longer.
Updated 14 August: Since the confirmation a few days ago from scientists and the Canarian Government’s own subdelegado Guillermo Díaz Guerra, himself a chemist, that there was a link between untreated sewage and microalgae blooms, a sort of war has broken out. Some parts of the Canarian Government have disowned Diaz Guerra’s statements as wrong, furious that he expressed the view because of the damage it could do to Tenerife’s tourism industry.
Many might well think that much damage has already been done, but outright denials and condemnation have followed the minister’s comments. So concerned are the tourism authorities, indeed, that Promotor – the Canarian Government’s tourism promotion body – has issued the following statement. I post it for the sake of completeness, though as I’ve suggested before, in an age where “expert” opinion and political reassurances are viewed with extreme cynicism, such doubling down by the authorities could backfire and make people even more convinced of the opposite.
PRESENCE OF MICROALGAE ON CANARY ISLANDS BEACHES
The presence of a microalgae bloom at a limited number of Canary Islands beaches is a rare event caused by a range of biological, environmental and climatological factors and is in no way connected to water pollution.
None of the beaches in the Canary Islands are closed due to the phenomenon and there have only been sporadic red flags on a few beaches. This is because even when the microalgae reaches a beach, driven by the wind, waves and currents, it tends to affect a small area of the shoreline and then only for a short period.
The only effect of the microalgae is skin irritation and the Canary Islands Health Authorities recommend that bathers avoid direct contact. The algae is easy to identify due to its characteristic colour and appearance. The Canary Islands Public Health System has not seen any change in the number of cases of reported skin irritation since the appearance of the microalgae.
98.2% of Canary Islands beaches are classed as having an excellent level of cleanliness by the Canary Islands Government Monitoring System for Beach Safety and Water Quality, which follows European regulations. Of the rest, 0.9% are rated as good and 0.9% are uncategorized. These figures are delivered annually by the Ministry of Health of the Kingdom of Spain to the European Commission’s European Environment Agency.
Despite this temporary situation, which only affects a small number of the beaches in the Canary Islands and then only prevents swimming in the limited areas directly affected, tourist activity goes on as normal in the Canary Islands. Our visitors are enjoying the swimming areas of the vast majority of beaches in tourist areas as they always have done.
Meanwhile … a Tenerife musician has composed a charming little song from the perspective of the microalgae itself …
Updated 11 August: In the face of overwhelming disgust on social media, unprecedented press interest and investigation, and pronouncements by senior scientists, the Canarian Government has had to cave in and admit a link between untreated sewage and the blooms of microalgae that have been seen around the islands’ coasts this summer. The link is that although the blooms are natural, being produced by warmer seas and calima-borne “nutrients” like iron, they are also nourished by untreated sewage further out to sea so as to produce a greater number of florations and in greater frequency.
This has been instinctively obvious to many for some time, but without a scientific background or access to independent professional analysis, most people are confined to expressing their feelings on social media. Now, however, following statements by Julio Muñiz Padilla, a retired Canarian environmental chemist that there is indeed a link between the blooms and untreated waste entering the sea, the Canarian Government has finally conceded “there is a link between sewage spills and the microalgae”. Reiterating what Muñiz Padilla had said – a standpoint that is clearly now irrefutable – the Canarian Government’s Guillermo Díaz Guerra, himself a chemist, has acknowledged that the spills are not the only cause of the microalgae around Canarian coasts, but that they are undoubtedly a linked and contributing factor.
And so, the microalgae itself is indeed intrinsically harmless, apart from the possibility of some minor skin irritations in some with a sensitivity, and the bacteria actually do a good job, like many fish, of breaking down untreated sewage without themselves becoming carriers of illnesses. None the less, the blooms are symptomatic of the underlying problem precisely because of the link that the authorities have until this moment tried to deny with increasingly doubled-down statements that beaches have not been closed because of algae, and that there have been no recorded instances of illnesses caused by the blooms. Now we know the truth, that the florations are visually symptomatic evidence of the sewage problem, and not just that, but that they are increasing in number and frequency because of it.
As the professor commented and Díaz Guerra has accepted, the issue of increasingly wild weather, stronger and more frequent heatwaves and calimas, and warmer oceans is settled science. There is no meaningful debate to be had any more as to whether it’s happening, but this is a planetary problem, and beyond the scope of national, or especially regional, authorities to cure. What the Canarian authorities can actually cure, however, is the problem of untreated sewage.
It is essential to stress that, despite all this, beaches here are safe, and independent scientific water analysis is carried out regularly and frequently. Beaches are indeed closed when a sewage problem arises, or E-coli or other harmful content is detected close to shore. And it is true that no beaches have been closed – nor needed to be closed – because of the microalgae itself. None the less, the effect on tourism from a perceived danger, and the negative impact of the horrendous images that have circulated of both sewage and blooms – indistinguishable in the minds of many – is potentially catastrophic. And this is why the Canarian Government must act. And fast.
Updated 9 August 2017: It’s nearly a year since I posted (below) about Podemos raising the question of whether Tenerife’s coastal waters are clean or not, and in that year things would seem to have gone from bad to worse. The Canarian Government’s Health Department has been adamant that the blooms of microalgae have nothing to do with any untreated waste going into the sea, and has also expressed in the strongest terms its rejection of British press claims that the algae has caused the closure of beaches.
Sanidad says, indeed, that not one beach has been closed because of the algae even though local authorities have had the power to close beaches should the blooms move too close into land. This is undeniably true, but it is a sophistic claim, because beaches have indeed been closed … just for different reasons. And those reasons are far less palatable than “microalgae” in terms of health, public relations, and in every other sense, because they involve E.Coli contamination that has seen beaches cordoned off the length of the east coast.
Such disingenuity on the part of the authorities does little to reassure a public increasingly cynical about “expert” or political assurances, and now at least one journalist is openly saying on social media that the problem of untreated sewage in Tenerife’s waters is close to destroying our habitat, our health and our tourism. Meanwhile, business leaders in south Tenerife are demanding action against sewage contamination, with the sector fearing a hit to tourism if beaches continue to be closed.
Some horrendous pictures have been made public showing uncontrolled sewage spewing into the sea, “spills” that are said to occur around the entire coast. The effects are all too visible even without beaches being closed, and it is this word of mouth element that the business associations fear most of all, as tourists report their findings on the like of Trip Advisor. It is against this background that the microalgae has arrived, and to some extent, it is irrelevant whether or not, or how, it is connected to the spills because with or without it, spills there clearly are, and apparently causing significant public health problems including gastroenteritis and hepatitis A, conditions far worse than the “skin irritation” attributed to the blooms.
The Cabildo has said it is investing some €50m over three years to improve the sewage network, and business leaders have called for these works to be expedited. Some, though, are not prepared to wait, nor to listen to what they consider to be more platitudes. They are calling for action now on what are claimed to be some 500 points of flow pipes carrying untreated sewage into the seas around the Canaries. One has started a petition on change.org calling for all waste pumped into the sea to be treated first. The petition will be delivered to the presidents of all the island Cabildos as well as the Canarian President himself, and has achieved over 15,000 signatures in just four days: it is HERE if you would like to add your own voice.
There has been much talk over recent months about the microalgae blooms but few are actually talking about the elephant in the room. It’s time to change this and acknowledge that the Canaries has a problem with sewage being pumped directly into the sea … and to demand that a solution is found.
Original post 14 September 2016: Are Tenerife’s coastal waters clean? Podemos says not, and insists that the problem that closed Troya beach recently was not an isolated incident, but part of a constant discharge from the south Tenerife sewage treatment plant. Podemos’ Cabildo councillor Julio Concepción says that initial enquiries into deficiencies in the Arona-Adeje water treatment plant and into this summer’s sewage spills have thrown up such worrying details that they are going to take the matter up in the next Comisión Insular de Sostenibilidad y Medio Ambiente. Among these findings is the suggestion that the spills are not occasional but constant, and that they are due “as much to problems with the functioning of the plant as to the treatment of the waste that is entering the sea”.
Concepción said that Podemos was obviously concerned for the public who use the beaches and swim in the sea, but also for the dolphins and pilot whales who swim in these waters, species that are protected and require a clean environment both for their own sake, and for the sake of the many economic benefits they bring to private and public companies because of the interest they generate among visitors.
And of course there is also the question of fish caught in these waters. We will all have seen the lights of the fishing boats not too far out to sea, and Concepción said that “we are facing a genuinely serious problem that is putting at risk the health of many people”, and which, he stressed, “ran the risk of sanctions being imposed by the EU for irresponsible sewage spillages that affect the whole coast”.
The councillor reiterated that “there is no water purification system worthy of the name between Las Américas and Santa Cruz, i.e. the whole of the south and south-east of the island, and practically none from Las Américas up to and including the municipality of Santiago del Teide”. He called on the Cabildo to make suitable investment in projects to make the water safe and free from pollution, and with reference to the Cabildo’s recent Hug a Brit campaign said that British visitors would prefer to know the water was fit for bathing. He has a point, surely?