The sea off the coast of Jiyyeh gleams azure blue in the late summer sun, inviting war-weary Lebanese to dip in and forget their troubles. But hidden beneath the shimmering surface is another deadly legacy of Israel’s war with the Lebanese Shi’a group Hizbollah, a layer of toxic fuel oil smothering the seabed.
Two Israeli bombardments on the Jiyyeh power plant perched at the end of this sandy bay in the opening days of the month-long war sent 10,000-15,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil pouring into the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanese Environment Minister Yacoub Sarraf has described it as the biggest ecological catastrophe in Lebanon’s history. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has compared it with the 13,000-tonne Erika oil tanker spill off the Atlantic coast of France in 1999.
Yet with the war that began on 12 July raging and an Israeli air and sea blockade hampering any clean-up efforts, the oil was left to drift and disperse, carried by a southwesterly breeze from the Jiyyeh plant almost 30 kilometres south of Beirut, to pollute around 150 kilometres of Lebanese coastline and even reach neighbouring Syria.
In fisherboat wharfs around Beirut and Byblos, the oil has been trapped and sits in a black layer several centimetres deep on top of the water, but in most places it has spread and dispersed, raising fears among ecologists that it will do lasting damage to marine life.
Besides the economic damage suffered by fishers, local ecologists say the oil spill could damage fish spawning areas and may have prevented baby turtles, which hatch around July, from reaching the deep water safely.
The Environment Ministry says that even where the sea looks clean, the oil can cause skin irritation for swimmers, while fish caught in seemingly pristine waters may be contaminated with oil and cause digestive problems for those who eat them. Fortunately, the oil spill happened at the end of the migratory season, reducing the impact on sea birds, which can get trapped in the oil.
UNEP and environment ministers from the Mediterranean agreed around the end of the war in mid-August on a $64 million programme to clean up the oil slick. Local ecological groups and foreign experts have also been conducting small clean-up projects along the coast. These, however, may prove to be too little too late, since they came largely after the war ended on 14 August and Israel lifted its blockade three weeks later. Ecologists say around two per cent of the oil has probably evaporated during the first few weeks after the spill. In those first days the acrid fumes of fuel oil hung heavy over the coast, stinging the eyes and throats of those who approached.
Greenpeace dispatched its flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, to Lebanon on 17 September to help local and international ecologists survey the extent of underwater damage and provide a platform from which to analyze the impact of the oil on marine life – two months after the spill and still no full-scale environmental assessment had been done.
‘Even in ideal conditions, with all the equipment and experts deployed immediately, never can more than 15-20 per cent of the original oil spilt be recovered. Most of it will end up either on the shore, which requires mechanical removal, or settle on the seabed,’ said Greenpeace Communications Officer in Lebanon, Omer El-Naiem.
‘No precise time frame can be given regarding such a catastrophe. The initial estimates predict 6-12 months of physical recovery,’ he said, though the impact of the oil could move through the food chain and take much longer to shake off.