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Swimmers and divers appalled by Xatt l-Aħmar sewage

Effluent choking the bay

Divers met a not-so-natural river while preparing for a dive. Photos: Tom Steiner

Divers met a not-so-natural river while preparing for a dive. Photos: Tom Steiner

As the evening colours danced in the sky and planet Earth was casting its shadow on the red moon on the last Friday of July, another not-so-natural phenomenon was occurring at ix-Xatt l-Aħmar – the Red Bay – outside Għajnsielem, Gozo.

Gurgling down the hills nearby and cascading directly into the sea of the bay was sewage with an unbearable pong.

The horrific ‘man-made’ stream was only a couple of metres away from the stargazers who were taking pictures of the total eclipse of the moon. Moments before, parents had been enjoying a sunset dip with their infants while divers were blissfully exploring the crystal clear waters. The source of the spillage is the fields located in the buffer zone circling the bay

The colour of the water suddenly changed to murky brown while the foreshore and rocks just below the shore became choked with effluent. The leak ran on for most of the night, according to one eyewitness.

The following day, swimmers and divers faced another disturbing scene a few metres away along the coastline, where the muck was flowing into the sea. It was like trying to stop water gushing out of one hole only for it to pop up from another.

Ix-Xatt l-Aħmar is the pristine bay lying under the watchful eye of Fort Chambray. It is considered as one of the jewels in Gozo’s crown of beaches. A seasoned foreign diver, who preferred not to be named, described the water here as offering divers scenes as idyllic as one saw in postcards.

“I’ve dived in several corners of the world including the Caribbean, Hawaii and Sri Lanka, but the clarity of the water at Xatt l-Aħmar is unique,” he said.

For a long time, however, this natural gem has been the victim of sewage leaks, with reports of it going as far back as 2002.

The source of the spillage is the fields located in the buffer zone circling the bay. This is common knowledge among people who live in the neighbourhood, as can be seen by the number of manholes in the fields.

Underground is a series of tunnels, some of which date back to before the war. Additional tunnels have been dug along the years. Sewage water snaking through these tunnels is meant to make it to the sewage treatment facility at Ras il-Ħobż, which is a 10 to 15-minute walk away from Xatt l-Aħmar.

From time to time reports surface that this kind of discharge leaks into the sea from that facility as well.

A cloud-like shape was forming at the surface due to the leak.A cloud-like shape was forming at the surface due to the leak.

Audrey Cudel, a French diving instructor who has lived on Gozo for seven years, described Xatt l-Aħmar as the ideal training ground for first-time divers. But she said that when sewage touches the sea it is a light for mosquitoes on a humid summer’s night. Marine life sees sewage matter as food. And once fish consume such matter it becomes part of the food chain.Sewage flowing directly into the bay. Why not feature such ‘calendar’ events in tourist brochures? It’s such a colourful sight

Swimmers who frequent the bay said they had lost all hope that such exasperating occurrences would one day be no more.

“We’ve long been reporting to the authorities about this abysmal failure but it seems we’re talking to the wall. The stomach-churning overflow is becoming the norm,” one local said.

Marcella Xuereb, a regular swimmer at this spot, said: “We’re being expelled from swimming at this beach because I seriously fear the health hazards from such contamination.”

Another bather was more sarcastic: “This is a ‘bonus attraction’ at Xatt l-Aħmar. Sewage flowing directly into the bay. Why not feature such ‘calendar’ events in tourist brochures? It’s such a colourful sight.”

The Għajnsielem local council made it clear in a statement that it was not within its remit to see to such matters. The council said the only thing it could do was put pressure on the authorities to solve this vexatious problem once and for all.

Last week the Water Services Corporation said that such incidents were most likely caused by illegal discharge into the system. 

READ: Undersea WSC pipeline to be replaced

Gozo’s ‘trophies cabinet’ is packed with numerous international awards paying testimony to how this rock is a destination for unique diving spots. Paul Bray in The Telegraph described Gozo as the perfect place for a diving experience: “Clear visibility and warm sea temperatures mean that diving is possible all year round.”

It would, however, be useless promoting the Gozo coastline as having the best diving spots if such overflows keep occurring, divers pointed out.

As a Maltese visitor to Gozo said: “What’s the use of spending bagfuls money on billboards trying to lure visitors to the sister isle, urging them to go the extra mile, if this is the ‘treasure’ they step on once they get here?”

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