Sewage 'miracle' fools thousands

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The Independent Online

Thousands of people ignored repeated pleas from officials and swarmed over one of India's most toxic beaches after rumours spread that the sea water had turned sweet and could cure illnesses.

Traffic came to a standstill as crowds rushed to the Mahim beach in Bombay and drank water from cupped hands before taking it home in bottles, jars and makeshift containers.

Many saw it as a blessing from Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, a 13th-century Sufi saint.

But this is not a healthy place. The sandy beach marks the point at which the Mithi River, an unofficial dump for the untreated sewage and industrial waste of Bombay, flows out of India's financial and entertainment capital into the Arabian sea.

Children regularly dive into the toxic waters off the Mahim beach to search for coins or anything of value that may have been thrown away.

Health officials warned that high quantities of nitrate had been found in the water. One said: "This water is not safe for drinking. We have assigned guards to ensure people do not drink water and we are going to distribute medi-cines in hospitals."

Scientists have speculated the phenomenon could be due to heavy rains in the area. Rainwater, lighter than seawater, drains into the sea and floats to the surface, tasting relatively sweet.

The beach was considered strategically important by the British in the 17th century. In 1669, when British forces were seeking a foothold in Bombay, Governor Gerald Augler claimed it was the prettiest beach he had ever seen. Slum-dwellers now use the old British fort as an open-air toilet.

"All sewage goes into Mithi River and from there to the sea and the waves bring the waste back to the shore," one local said.

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