Lebanon’s environmental woes begin

At first sight, the peaceful scene at a west Beirut fishing harbour seems far removed from the conflict that has raged in Lebanon for the past five weeks.

    Lebanon's beaches used to welcome tourists

    Small boats line the side of the rocky quay, fishermen relax drinking coffee under parasols and stray cats lounge in the hot sun.


    But take a step closer to the water and you realise that something is very wrong. A thick coat of oily sludge covers the sea’s surface and there is a noxious smell caused by the fumes that make your eyes water. 


    The sludge is just a small part of the largest oil spill ever seen in the Mediterranean caused by Israeli air strikes on the fuel tanks at Jiyeh power station south of Beirut in the first week of the war.


    As Lebanon takes stock of the damage that has been inflicted on the country, there is increasing evidence that the conflict will leave greater long-term legacies in addition to the huge loss of life and material damage.  


    Toxic spray


    Environmentalists say they are concerned by the possible use of depleted uranium, air pollution caused by fires and the destruction of houses and factories as well as the long term effects of war on rural communities’ interaction with their environment.


    Environmental damage has been
    unleashed by the conflict

    The most serious issue is the oil spill. According to the UN, the spill has created a toxic spray containing class 1 carcinogens that will affect the long-term health of as many as three million people who live on Lebanon’s coast.


    The conflict has delayed the clean-up operation meaning the oil has already started to degrade, making the consequences much worse. 


    Wael Hmaidan, a coordinator with the Lebanese environmental NGO Green Line told Aljazeera: "All these impurities and chemicals will go into the marine life … They are going to go into to the food chain and they are going to build up for years and years.


    "It's going to affect seafood restaurants, fisherman, fisheries and tourism. We are going to suffer a lot from this. It's going to be a hard and tough few years in terms of marine environment."




    The spill has already reached Turkey and Cyprus and according to environmentalists will have a huge impact on the biodiversity of the eastern Mediterranean. Beaches that are used as nesting grounds for the endangered green turtle and spawning waters of the blue fin tuna will be affected by the spill.


    "The combinations of toxic fumes that [have been] spreading for the past five weeks are great sources of contamination that people have inhaled and are already in their bodies so that for me is another environmental disaster"

    Zeina al-Hajj, Greenpeace campaigner

    The oil spill is the most visible aspect of the environmental problems caused by the war but environmentalists warn of other unseen dangers that threaten the health of Lebanon’s people and nature.


    For five weeks the Israeli air force flew around 9000 missions destroying 10500 houses and 900 private sector buildings. Many of Lebanon’s largest factories were hit resulting in large fires.


    The fuel depots at Beirut airport (which were hit at the beginning of the conflict) and the bombing of the Jiyeh power station, ignited fires that burned for three weeks sending plumes of smoke that could be seen from 60kilometres away.


    For several days many parts of Lebanon were covered by thick clouds of smoke, a rare sight in the middle of summer and this smoke is filled with chemicals that can cause cancer, hormonal problems and respiratory difficulties, experts say.


    Zeina al-Hajj, a Greenpeace campaigner, said: "The combinations of toxic fumes that [have been] spreading for the past five weeks are great sources of contamination that people have inhaled and are already in their bodies so that for me is another environmental disaster.


    "These are chemicals that are bio-accumulative and persistent so when you inhale them they stay in your body and they do cause cancer."


    Farming communities destroyed


    As well as the direct consequences of the war, activists say that there will also be side-effects caused by the destruction of farming communities.


    Assad Serhal, head of the society for the protection of nature in Lebanon, said:

    Destruction caused thick smoke  

    "It’s not only the destruction which has been incredible but the farmland, the agriculture land and the forest, and the marine life."


    Serhal said he was concerned that many people who had lost their homes would take stone and wood from the surrounding countryside in an uncontrolled manner causing huge damage to the environment.


    He said: "When people need to rebuild they are looking for survival. They don’t think long term. They want to know how they are going to survive this winter. I think we are going to witness the real effect of this war now."


    Photos by Christian Henderson

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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