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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Asia’s beaches and the raw sewage problem

For the past thirty years, tourists have been flocking to Asian beaches. Back in the day, delighted locals started rampant construction of beach bars and bungalows to accommodate the hordes. Today, the damage to the environment is showing. There are many examples across Asia:

  • Boracay, Philippines: closed for 6 months in 2018 to address worsening sewage conditions
  • Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi, Thailand: made famous in the film The Beach, they received 5,000 tourists and 200 boats per day. The beach is now closed indefinitely because of the environmental damage
  • Patong Beach, Phuket Thailand: untreated wastewater flowing into the bay

Dangers of swimming in raw sewage

Untreated sewage released into the water can expose swimmers to harmful microorganisms called “pathogens.” Children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk in contaminated water.

The most common illness casued by swimming in contaminated water is gastroenteritis. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, stomachache, diarrhea, headaches or fever. Other common illnesses associated with swimming in foul water include ear, eye, nose and throat infections.

Raw sewage problems in Sihanoukville

In 2015, Planet Asia visited the beaches of Sihanoukville and found paradise on an island off the coast called Ko Rong Samloem.

In recent years, rampant Chinese development of casinos and resorts has steamrolled this sleepy beach town into a bustling cacophony of neon and construction.

In 2018 we returned to Ko Rong Samloem. It was more developed than we had remembered, but the sugar sand bays remained intact. However, after a few days of chilling out, we noticed something spooky: nobody was going in the water.

Ko Rong Samloem beach
The beach was beautiful but no one went in the water

Mother Nature Cambodia water analysis

Mother Nature Cambodia is a local organization committed to spreading awareness of the sewage problems in Cambodia. In this video, they revealed their findings from Sihanoukville’s Ochheuteal Beach.

Sihanoukville sewage overview
The red markers indicate pipes pumping raw sewage into the water

In the video, after identifying the sewage pipes, they collected water samples for analysis at the Pasteur Institute, a clinic in Phnom Penh. The samples did indeed contain high amounts of raw sewage:

Sihanoukville water is contaminated
Tests confirmed raw sewage in the water

The tests revealed a high level of e-coli, trichomonas intestinalis and ammonia, all of which are present in feces and urine.

Wastewater treatment on Asian beaches

The Mother Nature Cambodia team’s findings confirm the damage in Cambodia, but there are plenty of signs across Asia of similar problems. For example, Ko Samui island in Thailand draws several hundred thousand tourists per year. However, they have a massive sewage problem, which they ‘plan’ to address in the future.

As another example, Pattaya (another world famous beach destination) is also suffering from resorts pumping raw sewage into the sea.


The romantic notion of an exotic beach getaway in Asia is fading into memory. Tourist hordes bring with them piles of trash and tons of raw sewage. Most of that sewage gets pumped back into the waters that attracted people to the beach in the first place. Thus we conclude with three points:

  1. Beach tourism is not sustainable
  2. Sewage treatment technology is too often an afterthought
  3. There are too many people in the world, but not enough resources to support their hedonism

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