Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Peace blogger

Even the Environment is Under Attack
Oil spill in Lebanon is the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the country

By Wael Hmaidan
GreenLine activist, coordinator of oil spill working group

The escalating Israeli attack on Lebanon did not only kill its civilians and destroy its infrastructure, but also it is heavily impacting its natural and urban environment. The different environmental impacts of this war vary from the uncontrolled burning of solid waste, which has been accumulating in some areas with no more waste collection, to the possible use of depleted uranium in the Israeli bombs and rockets.
Nevertheless, the worst environmental impact happened on the first and second day of the start of the war, when an Israeli raid on the Jiyeh electrical power plant has resulted in an oil spill into to sea of around 15,000 tons. This oil spill has hit more than 100km of Lebanese coast, and now it has reached Syria. This oil spill is not only one of the biggest environmental disasters in the history of Lebanon. It is also a regional catastrophe affecting the whole Eastern Med basin, and there is a possibility that it would reach other neighboring countries such as Cyprus, Turkey and Greece.

This spill will have a tremendous negative environmental, social and economical impact. The Eastern Mediterranean basin has one of the most important ecosystems in the Mediterranean sea. The oil spill has impacted sensitive fish spawning and nursery areas, as well as, valuable sea turtle nesting sites, especially the green turtle, which is endangered in the Mediterranean. The timing of the spill could not have been worse. In this period of the year, sea turtle eggs start to hatch, and make their way towards the sea. With the oil spill in their way, they will have no chance in making it. The air pollution resulting from the continuous burning for more than 3 weeks of the fuel in the Jiyeh power plant has been covering greater Beirut area, which on the longer term will lead to increased cancer cases from Dioxin, respiratory problems and other diseases.

This spill will also have a huge impact on tourism and other economical sectors. The Lebanese coast is an important tourist destination, which a big chunk of it has become useless, because it is covered with black oil. The total economical cost of this oil spill has been estimated to be more than 200 million dollars, which is more than the money needed for all the relief work.

What makes this spill more dangerous is the fact that after more than 3 weeks from the start of the incident, no clean up operations have started yet due to the Israeli siege and attack on Lebanon. Israel has targeted ambulances, aid trucks, and hospitals in this war. There is no guarantee that they will not target cleanup operations. The Israeli siege has also prevented us from carrying accurate assessment of the spill. Lebanon is not able to use boats or planes to properly monitor the oil spill.

This will make clean up operations much more difficult, and the damage will grow exponentially. Now the oil has settled deeper and deeper into the sand, and has been absorbed more and more into the rocks. As some of the oil evaporates its density increases, and some of it will settle into the seabed; clogging important rock openings that are usually used by fish for spawning and hiding from predators. Also, the longer the oil stays in the water, the more it breaks into its constituents and dissolves into the water. This will lead to build up of hydrocarbons and other impurities in the living tissues of marine life.

On the social level, some local fishermen, especially in Beirut and Jbeil, have not been able to fish for more than 20 days because their boats are stuck in oil. Very few of them have risked their equipment by venturing out to fish, because their families needed income to survive. When these fishermen return with their body and equipment covered with black dense oil, they use gasoline to clean the spots of their skin. Although they know the impact of such an act on their health, they say that they have no choice.

This oil spill will require more than six month to clean, and we will feel its impact for more than 5 years, and the more we delay the clean up the bigger the damage. Therefore, Lebanese environmental NGOs demands an immediate and final ceasefire, so that accurate assessment operations can be carried and cleanup operations can start as soon as possible. They also put the primary responsibility of this environmental crime on Israel. There was no need or excuse for Israel to target the fuel tanks in the Jiyeh electrical power plant.

Lebanese Environmental NGOs:GreenLine, Bahr Loubnan, Syndicate of Lebanese Professional Divers, Byblos Ecologia

Map of impacted coastal areas by oil spill in Lebanon