August 22, 2006
By Hugh Sykes
The conflict in Lebanon has caused devastating damage to the local economy and environment of the ancient port of Byblos.
Byblos was not bombed, but it has been deeply damaged by the Israel-Hezbollah war.
The harbour and the rocks and the beaches of Byblos are disfigured with oil.
It spread up the coast in a thick slick after the Israelis attacked storage tanks at the Jiyyeh power station south of Beirut.
Berj Hatjian, the senior civil servant at the environment ministry, tested the slick as it slurped against the harbour wall.
He measured it. It was more than 2cm thick. You can smell it in the air.
Removing it from the harbour will be a dirty, but straightforward mechanical job – using pumps to suck the oil off the water.
But the oil on rocks and beaches along Lebanon’s coast north of Beirut is seeping into the sand and the stone, and it may be impossible to remove it.
Delay is making it more difficult to deal with the oil. Mr Hatjian told me the wait was unavoidable – he did not want to risk taking trucks and teams of cleaners onto the beaches during the conflict.
Next to the slick in Byblos Harbour, there is a shoal of tiny, freshly-hatched whitebait fish. Thousands of them. They like to feed in shady water.
The shade beneath the slick is enticing the fish into danger. The whitebait will absorb some of the poisons in the oil, which will then pass up the food chain when the fish are eaten – by birds, other marine life, or by human beings.
The prevailing current along the Lebanese coast is from the south. The slick has already been reported in the Syrian port, Latakia.
Marine biologists fear the oil could reach Cyprus and even some of the Aegean islands.
Byblos town council has cleared one of its beaches – using bulldozers to shift the oily sand to one side. The beach is fine, and the water is clear, with waves high enough for body surfing.
And now that there is a ceasefire, officials hope the tourists will come back.
Byblos-sur-Mer hotel has beds for 75. When I stayed the night, I was the only guest.
The Crusader castle and the Roman ruins generally have between 500 and 1,000 visitors a day during the summer months. When I walked round, I was the first customer in more than two weeks.
Byblos music festival – featuring US soprano Barbara Hendricks – was abandoned.
And near the old souk, the smart cafes of the town centre were open, and mostly deserted.
Berj Hatjian wants to know why Israel attacked oil storage tanks right by the sea.
He thinks they must have known what the effect would be, that it would punish whole communities that had nothing to do with the conflict.
“It has nothing to do with Hezbollah,” he said. “It is just hitting the economy of Lebanon – of ancient Phoenicia.”
UN agrees Med oil spill plan
08.22.2006 | BBC News
UN officials have drawn up an action plan to tackle a huge oil spill along the Lebanese and Syrian coastline.
Experts estimate that the initial clear-up will cost 50m euros (£34m), with more funds required next year.
The plan calls for immediate aerial surveys to assess the extent of the damage and a workforce of 300 people to tackle the worst-affected sites.
The measures were agreed at a meeting in Greece attended by Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Turkey and the EU.
The executive director of the environment programme at the United Nations, Achim Steiner, said it was a sad fact that the environment was a victim of the conflict.
“Now the bombs have stopped and the guns have been silenced we have a chance to rapidly assess the true magnitude of the problem and finally mobilise the support for an oil clean-up and a restoration of the coastline,” he said in a statement.
“The experts are on standby and today the international community have agreed on an action plan.
“I sincerely hope we have secured the financial backing to swiftly and comprehensively deliver on this promise to the Lebanese people, on this request to the UN for assistance from the Lebanese authorities.”
Up to 15,000 tonnes of oil poured into the Mediterranean Sea last month after Israeli forces bombed a power station.
Marine experts were unable to visit the worst affected areas while the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah continued, but Monday’s ceasefire allowed them to begin on-the-ground assessments.
Local environmental and conservation groups said that some of the oil had settled on the sea floor, threatening areas where tuna spawn.
They also voiced concern that slicks on beaches would prevent young green turtles, an endangered species, from reaching the sea after they had hatched.
The meeting in Piraeus, which was hosted by the Greek Maritime Minister Manolis Kefaloyannis, agreed on measures to tackle pollution affecting shorelines in Lebanon and Syria.
The talks were co-chaired by UN Environment Programme (Unep) executive director Achim Steiner and Efthimios Mitropoulos, secretary general of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
Mr Mitropoulos said the action plan set the stage for wide-ranging assistance needed by the Lebanese and Syrian authorities.
“I sincerely hope that the damage to the environment is contained to the current level and that other Mediterranean Sea countries do not suffer as a result of the oil spill, also that we can all learn a lot from this tragic incident and take these lessons forward so we are better prepared in the future,” he said.
Computer models suggest that about 20% of the oil has probably evaporated, with almost 80% now on the coastline, and around 0.25%, or some 40 tonnes, remaining at sea.
However, satellite images suggest that far larger amounts may remain afloat, with the potential to spread much further a field.