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Lebanon: Oil Spill Causing Ecological Crisis

By Richard Solash Dead fish lie on the popular Ramlet el-Baida beach (White Beach) in Beirut (epa) The nearly month-long crisis in Lebanon has produced what experts say is the worst environmental crisis in Lebanon’s history.

PRAGUE, August 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On the beaches of Lebanon, there are no tourists in sight. Nor are there any fishermen. But fear of bombings is not the only reason why they are staying away.

A reason can be seen on the beach. Oil lies black and thick on the sand and water that was once blue and clear is now clogged and toxic. The oil spill now covers more than 90 kilometers of the country’s coast.

"No one will swim here," says a coastguard. "Even the fish and all the animals at sea are dead."

"During the morning and the afternoon, you can find a gray, brown, and dark haze of dust covering the city...This will have a humongous impact on the health of the population here."

Satellite images show that that the spill has also reached the waters off of Syria, and experts warn that the oil may reach as far as Turkey, Cyprus, and even Greece.

The source of the spill is the Jiyyeh power plant, located 30 kilometers south of the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Bombed between July 13 and 15 during the ongoing Israel-Lebanon conflict, the power plant has since leaked 15,000 tons of oil into the sea.

"This is the worst environmental problem in the history of the country, and it is unique [among] environmental problems globally, [because] after three weeks of the spill, no clean-up has started," says Wael Hmaidan, the coordinator of a group formed by Lebanese NGOs to respond to the crisis. "Usually, when an oil spill happens, clean-up starts directly. The reason why the clean-up has not started [is] because of the security situation in the country."

Lebanon has issued an international call for help in dealing with the spill, and has already received equipment from Kuwait. Additionally, a number of European countries, including France, Italy, and Spain, have pledged their support.

However, according to Basma Badran of Greenpeace International, the continuing conflict is preventing the clean-up work from beginning.

"The immediate thing to do now is to have an immediate cease-fire and a lift of the blockade, so that all the entities on the ground can work freely to first limit the damages, make a quick stop to the spill, and start with the cleaning up procedures," she says.

Badran estimates that the total cost of a clean-up could total $50-250 million.

The Damage That May Be Done

Until the fighting stops, it seems, the Mediterranean environment will continue to suffer.

Endangered sea turtles, which hatch their eggs on the beaches of Lebanon, will be extremely hard-hit by the oil spill. So too will stocks of fish, whose populations are already reduced due to overfishing.

NGO working group coordinator Hmaidan says that, along with the oil that has spilled into the sea, thousands more tons have burned, creating severe air pollution.

"All of this air pollution has been spreading towards Beirut, because the winds are going northward, toward Beirut," he says. "During the morning and the afternoon, you can find a gray, brown, and dark haze of dust covering the city. This is from the burning of fuel oil in the Jiyyeh parkland. This will have a humongous impact on the health of the population here."

And the oil spill is not the only adverse environmental consequence of the conflict. The World Conservation Union reports that the Al-Shouf Reserve, home to many of Lebanon’s famous cedar trees, is also under threat -- both from bombs and from refugees that may attempt to take shelter there. A bird sanctuary near Tyre is also directly in the line of fire.

The Middle East Crisis

The Middle East Crisis
Israeli tanks poised on the border with Lebanon on August 2 (epa)

CLASH OF ARMS: Since mid-July, Israel has been battling Hizballah guerrillas in southern Lebanon and carrying out punishing air strikes throughout the country. International efforts to broker a cease-fire have met with one obstacle after another, as civilian casualties mount and a humanitarian crisis unfolds. Since Hizballah is closely supported by Syria and Iran, the conflict threatens constantly to develop into a regional conflagration.... (more)


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