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Lebanon crisis

Another battle to fight: Lebanon's environmental disaster

Published: Updated:

Lebanon saw tar wash up on its beaches in the southern part of its coastline over a week ago, as the Mediterranean currents pushed an oil spill that struck Israel days earlier, up the coast. The immediate impact will affect two marine reserves, and puts the wider environment at risk.

The situation is particularly distressing as the coastline on the southern part of Lebanon, is home to Tyre Beach, one of the “best beaches in the Middle East,” according to National Geographic. Over the years, it has attracted local and international tourists.

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Hassan Akbar, Senior Officer oil spill and control from ADNOC onshore, explained to Al Arabiya English that it is essential to understand the source of the spill. This determines the fingerprint of the oil, defining its specific gravity and viscosity which influences how it will behave in the water.

Akbar added that it is also important to address the characteristics of the affected beach: the depth of water; the movement of the current, and types of marine species and marine-based economic activity.

These factors determine the impact and helps find how best to deal with the oil itself and choose the proper equipment for clean-ups.

Lessons learned

A major oil spill washed up Lebanon’s shores in 2006 after Israeli jets bombed the Jiyeh power station. The strike created an environmental disaster, releasing over 30.000 tons of oil into the Mediterranean Sea. With various impacts on human health and its affected maritime ecosystem, it affected the habitats of the endangered green sea turtle, and the logger head sea turtle.

George Pantazakos, the Commercial Manager at New Naval Ltd, assisted Lebanon with the oil spill cleanup. He told Al Arabiya English that it is very unlikely traces of the pollutant will be found after the last clean-up project, completed in 2010.

Only 20% of the spilled oil from the Jiyeh power station attack that reached the shoreline was recovered, with the impact of the remaining spilled oil unknown. Pantazakos explained that it is known from previous spills that with time: part of the oil evaporates; a part burns; some disperses naturally or diluted; with some biodegraded, and a final quantity oxidized.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the estimated cost of clean-up efforts after the 2006 spill, up to 2007, exceeded $ 1,835,500.

A surfer cleans his tar covered surfboard from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (File photo: AP)
A surfer cleans his tar covered surfboard from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (File photo: AP)

Costs to marine the marine environment

Thouraya Dabbagh, a veterinary doctor, and owner of "the Vet" clinic in Beirut, told Al-Arabiya English that Lebanon had a rich marine life, and is home to a range of species, including fish, sea turtles, octopuses, shellfish, and marine birds. The area is also a pathway for migratory fish, such as sardines.

She explained that oil spills affect each species differently, whether living in the sea or in contact with the water surfaces.

For instance, seabirds, coming into contact with the sticky petroleum substance floating on the surfaces, get trapped. The oil sticks to their feathers, offsetting their ability to resist water and conserve heat, leading to hypothermia and potential death.

Fish, shrimp, octopus and other edible marine creatures are also contaminated. This then has an indirect impact on human health after the consumption of seafood.

Dr Dabbagh added that the sea turtles could be misled to think that the oil is a nutrient. Once consumed, it leads to their intoxication and even possibly death.

In this context, it is essential to highlight that the Tyre marine reserves are home to two species of endangered sea turtles listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Resources (IUCN).

Turtles lay their eggs on the sand, and any foreign chemical present affects their natural habitat and their ability to reproduce.

Volunteers from youth associations clean a contaminated beach in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre on February 27, 2021. (File photo: AFP)
Volunteers from youth associations clean a contaminated beach in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre on February 27, 2021. (File photo: AFP)

Moving forward

Already struggling with social, economic and health crises, Lebanon now has to deal with this environmental disaster.

“Prompt response could minimize the impact,” Akbar, explained. He added that control and protection measures should be implemented if there is oil in the sea to stop more tar from reaching the shore.

Akbar said that once tar deposits on the coastline, it was necessary to act quickly and assure the severe cleaning of the area to mitigate unwanted impacts and protect the beach reserve's unique ecosystem.

He also suggested that authorities should consider banning fishing, and selling, and purchasing seashells, because they are particularly prone to exposure from oil spills.

Lebanon has limited resources to deal with this issue. The help of non-profit organizations and donor countries seems inevitable. The Israeli ministry of health decided to bar the sale of seafood originating from the Mediterranean Sea, with the decision going immediately going into effect.

“Every sea nation should always be ready to respond to an oil spill,” Pantazakos said. “Stakeholders, private and governmental coastal and offshore facilities should have all the necessary means and preparedness systems in place to respond effectively to a spill.”

Pantazakos suggested that, ideally, neighboring countries could develop mutual aid agreements, or bilateral or regional agreements for oil and chemical spills, to contain the damage.

Read more:

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