Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dubai beach safety debate

The English language newspapers here are making a fuss, well, to the extent they ever make a fuss here for fear of upsetting someone, about beach safety in Dubai after three people drowned off Jumeirah Beach nine days ago. 

Beach safety here presents many problems, some of them unique to Dubai.  There is a tendancy for the hotels to cordon off parts of the beaches and anyone not staying at the hotel has to pay a fee to use the stretch of beach.  They provide lifeguards, although if their swimming skills are anything like those of the lifeguards that look after the pools here at our block of flats, I wouldn't rely on them to rescue me.

There are also beach parks patrolled by lifeguards for which you have to pay a small fee that also have changing rooms, a restaurant and parking.

Two of the drownings happened at the stretch near Jumeirah Beach Residence, a group of tower blocks housing 15,000 people near the beach front, and Jumeirah Hilton stretch of beach.  There have been various rumblings that the lifeguards' response was inadequate and the authorities have been careful to point out that the Jumeirah Beach Residence stretch is not a beach park and therefore does not have lifeguards.

The conditions were freakishly rough on the day of the drownings with talk of 4.3m high waves.  The waters off the Dubai coast are normally like the Mediterranean, smooth as a lake with a few tiny waves at the water's edge, although there is usually a strong current that drags you along if you're not paying attention.
I won't speculate too much on why people were swimming on such a rough day, but as a Dubai resident, it wasn't a day you would have bothered going to the beach as it was overcast and windy.  Perhaps for the tourist who doesn't get a chance to swim on a warm beach every day, plunging into the waves was irresistible.

Several arguments have been raised since the incident on how to improve beach safety.  Some want all beaches to be turned into beach parks with lifeguards but that would deprive poor migrant workers who don't live in blocks with swimming pools and don't have the spare cash to pay the fee of their only opportunity to swim.  Some have said they want more signs warning of the dangers of the currents, and again, someone has spoken up on behalf of the migrant workers who can't read English or Arabic. 

There is a surfing association in Dubai that is starting a volunteer lifeguards organisation which is ironic in the sense that it wasn't long ago that the authoritieswere trying to ban them for being a danger to swimmers. The central problem here is that no one is really accountable as no one pays tax to a Government to provide beach safety services.  It will be interesting to see how the surfers manage the lifeguarding and what support they get from the authorities.   

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