UN Assesses War Damage to Lebanon's Environment

BEIRUT, Lebanon, October 3, 2006 (ENS) - The United Nations has sent an international team of experts to Lebanon to assess the environmental damage caused by the recent conflict with Israel. The team will work with Lebanese authorities to examine several sites around the war-torn nation, including the massive oil spill that has contaminated some 80 miles of Lebanon's coast.

"There is an urgent need to assess the environmental legacy of the recent conflict and put in place a comprehensive clean-up of polluted and health-hazardous sites," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

The Lebanese government requested the assistance from UNEP, which has carried out similar work in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq and Liberia

The potential list of sites to be visited and sampled is based on research by UNEP supplemented by remote-sensing data and recommendations made by Lebanon's environment minister.

spill

Edde Beach, north of Beirut. The official sign, aimed at the tourists, ironically reads: "The beach is your's - protect it" (Photo courtesy FOE)

Some 10,000 to 30,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil was released into the Mediterranean Sea when Israeli warplanes bombed the Jiyyeh power plant, some 17 miles south of Beirut, in mid-July.

The spill has fouled nearly two-thirds of Lebanon's coast, as well as some beaches in Syria, and is widely considered the worst environmental catastrophe in the small nation's history.

Lebanese authorities say the damage is severe and will take several months to clean up. It could take a decade for the environment to fully recover.

Norway, Kuwait and Spain have sent boats and equipment to help contain the oil slick, and the effort is now focusing on the difficult work of cleaning the coastal areas affected by the spill.

The economic impacts could be devastating for Lebanon, which had a vibrant beach-based tourism industry prior to the conflict. In addition to impacts on human health and tourism, the spill is having adverse affects on an important marine area that includes critical nesting areas for endangered green turtles.

"Work is ongoing to deal with the oil spill on the Lebanese coast," Steiner said. "We must now look at the wider impacts as they relate to issues such as underground and surface water supplies, coastal contamination and the health and fertility of the land."

The UNEP team will also assess the environmental impacts at the Beirut International Airport, where fuel tanks were set alight as a result of repeated bombing, and the Maliban glass factory in the Bekaa Valley destroyed by an air raid in July.

spill

Oil rings the Lebanese shoreline near the city of Tripoli. (Photo courtesy FOE)

Other sites expected to be assessed by the UNEP-led team and national experts include some of the estimated 22 country-wide petrol stations that were damaged or destroyed and locations where there is thought to be unexploded ordnance.

Environmentalists have raised concerns that some Israeli ammunition fired in southern Lebanon was made with depleted uranium.

The team also plans to assess pollution risks at several hospitals and at damaged drinking water and sewage treatment plants. In addition, they will investigate damaged power transformers, collapsed buildings and ruptured oil lines that may have leaked or discharged hazardous substances and materials- such as asbestos and chlorinated compounds.

Steiner said the team expects to have a comprehensive report on sites and locations in need of decontamination and clean-up before the end of the year.

"Once the hard facts are known and the hot spots pin pointed, I would urge the international community to back the findings as part of the reconstruction effort for Lebanon and its people," Steiner said.

Funding for the assessment is being provided by Norway and Switzerland.