It’s been three months since a massive oil spill off the coast of Israel left beaches across South Lebanon contaminated with waves of adhesive, toxic tar.
As efforts continue to clean up the affected coastline – the result of a leaking tanker back in early February - NGOs and local volunteers have been working around the clock for weeks, attempting to mitigate the damage done to Lebanon’s coastal towns and cities.
“When I saw the oil appear on the shore, it was like a catastrophe,” Tyre resident and local activist Hussein Ghaddar tells Al Arabiya English. “I started in the beginning with two or three volunteers, just my family and friends. I wanted to do an initiative in order to help. Now, we have reached maybe 30 volunteers.
“We are coming to the summer, and in the summer many people come to visit Tyre,” he continues. “The city is famous for its sea. If we have contaminated shores, we will not be able to have visitors.”
In years past, Tyre has boasted some of the cleanest beaches and waters in Lebanon which, in addition to its many historical and archeological sites, attracted many visitors. The city is also home to one of Lebanon's major ports.
With travel largely halted due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Lebanon’s own ever-deepening financial woes, the local economy – which the government is hoping will recover as tourism picks up again – has suffered greatly. For many Lebanese, this latest environmental disaster is yet another example of how their government has failed their country, as nothing has been done to help those affected.
“We have almost a failed state,” explains Hisham Younes, head of Green Southerners, a local environmental NGO running clean up teams at nearby beaches in al-Bakbook and Aadloun. “It is usually down to the initiative of civic society to act. Some are NGOs, but others are just groups of people trying to do whatever they can do. When it comes to any crisis that this country faces, the response [from the government] is slow and faltering.”
Among the worst affected have been Lebanon’s struggling fishing communities. With over 55 percent of the country's population struggling for bare necessities, fresh fish was already a luxury that few could afford. Now, the lingering presence of tar in coastal waters is scaring what few potential buyers that remained away.
“I am certain that there has been an impact on the natural environment, and that will affect the fisheries and the local communities,” says Younes.
“In Tyre, we have more than 500 families that are making their living by hunting fish,” explains Ghaddar. “Whenever they find contaminated fish, they cannot sell them. This is going to have a serious impact on their incomes.”
Fish shoals are far from the only marine life that continues to be threatened by the spill. The sea around Southern Lebanon is home to a variety of other species, including sharks, dolphins and critically endangered Mediterranean monk seals. Several beaches are important nesting sites for both loggerhead and green sea turtles.
This month, female sea turtles start coming to the beaches to lay their eggs, but there are serious concerns that the dangerous materials left behind by the spill may affect these crucial spawning grounds.
“We can’t tell what the full damage is and how it will affect [the turtles’] behavior,” Younes says. “The hatchlings only deal with the surface. [When they] come out, they might get stuck to the tar and die of dehydration. The females will be digging. If they encounter any tar, their activities will be disturbed and they may abandon the area entirely.”
Following the discovery of the first clumps of tar on Lebanon’s shores, PM-Designate Hassan Diab requested that the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS) make an assessment of the ecological damage and devise contingency plans. The initial report has been widely criticized as vague, ill-informed and lacking hard data.
Without any solid information to act upon, the recovery effort is stalling.
“We aim to remove the pollutants so that nature can repair itself, but we need first to know where the tar is still located. We can’t leave any of the spills,” says Younes. “The more it decays and fragments, the more challenging it is to remove. Alternatively, if it gets washed away by the tide or the rain, it can show up again in another location and contaminate that as well.”
While tar balls can be removed from the sand by hand or gathered up using shovels, rakes and sieves, albeit laboriously, it takes specialized equipment and washing agents to remove the oil from the surfaces of rocks.
Without easy access to tools or reliable information, there’s only so much that volunteers and NGOs can do. Despite extensive efforts by locals to clear away the oil and tar from their shores, there is simply no way to know exactly how much more is still waiting to be deposited on Lebanon’s embattled shores.
As government support continues to prove illusive, it’s up to ordinary people using whatever they can find locally to salvage their lives and businesses as best as they can.
“I’m angry,” Ghaddar said. “I’m frightened, because I don’t want this to come to our country again. Lebanon is facing so many traumatic incidents right now, politically and economically. I want the government to do more. The impact isn’t restricted to Tyre. It affects the whole of Lebanon.”