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Lebanon oil spill cleanup continues over one year after catastrophe

Published: Updated:

Last year, a tanker leak caused by an accident off the coast of Israel unleashed massive waves of oil, tars, and other toxic contaminants across the southern shores of already crisis-stricken Lebanon.

Fearing an environmental disaster, residents and NGOs immediately began to mobilize to identify and clean up the affected areas in a concerted effort to minimize the damage.

“Our main concern was the intermediate, toxic effects a spill could have on the ecosystem,” Dr. Hisham Younes, Head of environmental NGO Green Southerners, told Al Arabiya English. “There was also concern about tar smothering endangered species since the spill hit many of their natural habitats.”

“Despite the limited resources and capabilities,” he continued, “the voluntary civic engagement in the coastal towns and cities of the South showed a growing sense of environmental awareness among local communities and their ability to take action.”

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Initially, then PM-Designate Hassan Diab was quick to request an assessment of the ecological damage from the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS). Their findings would form the basis of the government’s response.

“Overall, the government’s response to the oil spill disaster was inconsistent, disproportionate, and weak,” Younes lamented. “Upon learning of the spill, we implemented a plan to limit its spread in the hope that the government would act almost immediately. However, this did not transpire.”

No governmental contingency plans emerged until two weeks after the spill. These directives were widely decried as insufficient and vague, based on a superficial CNRS report severely lacking in hard data. Without access to clear information or necessary equipment, municipalities could not act effectively against the encroaching environmental threat.

After more and more delays, the Lebanese government ultimately handed over responsibility for the cleanup to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). By that time, the toxic materials had become more deeply entrenched.

A man displays a dead turtle on a beach in the aftermath of an oil spill that drenched much of the Mediterranean shoreline in Tyre nature reserve, Lebanon February 27, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
A man displays a dead turtle on a beach in the aftermath of an oil spill that drenched much of the Mediterranean shoreline in Tyre nature reserve, Lebanon February 27, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

“[They] cleaned up the beach six months after the contamination,” Youssef Jundi, an instructor and marine photographer with the Lebanese Diving Center, explained. “This delay caused quantities [of tar] to be buried under the sand. Today, new quantities [are still being] detected on Adloun Beach.”

Official findings on the damages the spill has caused are still not comprehensive enough to assess the harm done accurately. Many concerns remain about the long-term ecological impact on marine life due to the disruption of food chains and breeding grounds.

Populations of sea turtles are particularly adversely affected by the contamination of the beaches they use as nesting sites. Females digging to bury their eggs are exposed to toxic materials beneath the surface of the sand, which also makes the process of digging more difficult.

Hatchlings can also become covered in the same sticky oil residue when they emerge from their nests, impeding their ability to move. It leaves them vulnerable to predators – which then ingest toxic materials themselves – or simply drying out and dying in the sun before they can reach the sea.

Local businesses, such as fishing operations and seaside resorts, have also faced ongoing difficulties. Already suffering due to the loss of tourism revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis, many coastal communities have been left devastated.

“We remain concerned about the long-term consequences of the spill,” said Younes. “We could not determine the [full] impact of the spill on fisheries and local fishing operations that were adversely impacted.”

“For beach-goers and swimming enthusiasts, there [has been] suffering at the public and free beaches,” Jundi explained. “The beaches are still not clean. Families that went into the sea had their feet and belongings contaminated.”

People clean a beach in the aftermath of an oil spill that drenched much of the Mediterranean shoreline in Tyre nature reserve, Lebanon February 27, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)
People clean a beach in the aftermath of an oil spill that drenched much of the Mediterranean shoreline in Tyre nature reserve, Lebanon February 27, 2021. (File photo: Reuters)

This lack of decisiveness on the part of the Lebanese state when it comes to environmental protection is an endemic problem for the country. In 2019, a series of forest fires decimated parts of Mount Lebanon due to the government’s failure to maintain its firefighting helicopters.

Much of the country’s waste is sent directly to landfills that have long since exceeded their specified capacities. In some areas, waste management is so lacking that garbage is not removed for weeks or even months at a time, resulting in illegal dumping and severe environmental pollution.

Since the onset of Lebanon’s ongoing financial meltdown, particularly in the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion in 2020, the lack of political will to tackle these issues has become even more problematic. Despite this, many Lebanese are becoming increasingly aware of the need to preserve their country’s precious natural resources.

“The level of environmental awareness is increasing, well ahead of government performance,” said Younes. “We need to reform and establish new laws to protect Lebanese wildlife species. These laws should determine the critical conservation status of species that are threatened, both in terrestrial ecosystems and marine ecosystems.”

With the official classification of three new nature reserves last year, located at Mount Harmon, Nmayriyeh, and Abbasieh, the Lebanese government has made overtures towards a greater level of environmental stewardship.

For the time being, it falls to the people of Lebanon, along with NGOs and international agencies, to take responsibility for its environmental health and biodiversity.

“Because of the bad economic situation, the environment is in danger,” said Jundi. “People know very well the importance and necessity of preserving the environment [but] the government cannot do anything without foreign aid because, unfortunately, it does not have the money.”

The Lebanese Ministry of Environment has been contacted.

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