Damage to Lebanon’s ecology and agriculture due to the war with Israel amounts to over $400 million, according to research by Lebanon’s Ministry of Environment (MoE) and a recently published survey by the World Food Organization (FAO).
Following the bombing of the Jiyeh power plant in July, an estimated 12 to 15 million tons of heavy fuel poured into the Lebanese coast. Today, according to the MoE, the ongoing post-war clean-up operation has cost some $150 million.
Extensive clean-up operation
“Lebanon’s oil spill differs from all other spills known so far,” said Ghada Mitri, the ministry’s oil spill communications officer. “Most oil spills occur at sea. The Lebanese spill occurred on land after the Jieh storage tanks were bombed. The fuel oil then leaked into the sea, was carried by water and wind north of the site and then washed up all along the Lebanese coast.”
Some 150 kilometers of mainly Lebanese coastline have been affected and according to Mitri, the ongoing clean-up has so far recovered some 1,145 cubic meters of liquid oil and 5,434 cubic meters of polluted debris. It is difficult to estimate the spill’s long term damage, as this still needs further monitoring and research.
“No two spills are the same and habitats and ecosystems react differently,” said Mitri. “For example, the USA is still carrying out monitoring activities along its shores 17 years after the Exxon Valdez disaster.”
In March 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck a reef off the Alaska coast and spilled an estimated 50,000 to 150,000 cubic meters of crude oil into the pristine wilderness. Some 250,000 sea birds, 3,000 sea otters, 300 seals, 250 eagles, as well as billions of salmon and other fish eggs were killed. Having been found guilty of negligence, Exxon, settled a lawsuit by paying $1.1 billion in damages.
Even in 2001, researchers in Alaska found oil traces at 58% of the 91 sites they surveyed. They warned that buried oil is especially dangerous as it remains toxic. Surface oil, on the other hand, weathers and becomes a kind of natural asphalt layer preventing toxic elements from spreading.
According to Mitri, as most of the oil washed up on the shore, swimming along Lebanon’s coast will most likely not pose any health hazards. However, it is not known to what extent fish stocks have been affected.
According to the FAO, overall damage and losses to Lebanon’s agricultural sector, fisheries and forestry amount to an estimated $280 million. The organization stressed that hostilities not only directly affected crops, livestock and equipment, but also indirectly hit the sector as market opportunities and jobs were lost. Agriculture accounts for almost 70% of household income in south Lebanon and many farmers were left with crippling debts.
Farmers hit hard
“With the loss of income from harvests and lost animal produce, many farmers have become indebted, as they usually repay their debts during the May to October harvest period to secure credit for the following season,” said Anne Bauer, director of the FAO’s emergency operations and rehabilitation division. “This year, their ability to repay was reduced to a minimum, making it impossible to start the new cropping cycle .”
According to the FAO, the biggest economic losses were attributed to the lack of access to fields during the conflict – which coincided with the fruit and vegetable harvest – many crops perished. An estimated 25% of all farm land in the south will remain inaccessible until all unexploded ammunition and cluster bombs are removed.
The total loss due to damaged or lost harvests amounts to some $94 million, while the overall damage related to crop production is estimated at $232 million. In addition, some 3,000 dairy cows, 1,250 bulls, 15,000 goats and sheep, 18,000 beehives and over 60,000 broilers were lost. The FAO estimates financial losses to the livestock sector at nearly $22 million.
In the fishing sector, destruction of boats, infrastructure and equipment cost roughly $3 million, while trout farms in the Bekaa Valley lost 300 tons of fish. The overall loss to the sector amounts to $9.7 million. Finally, the estimated damage to forestry is $16 million, mainly due to the inability to fight forest fires during the conflict.
The FAO secured funding to aid some of the south’s most vulnerable farming communities. Seeds, seedling, fertilizers and irrigation equipment will be provided to, if possible, resume agriculture. Livestock farmers, traditionally the poorest of the rural population, will receive animals and beehives, as well as medication for livestock, feed and equipment.
One question mark remains over the ecological war damage. The Israeli army possesses uranium enriched ammunition, but it is not clear if it was deployed this summer and what, if any, will be the level of the fallout. While one British lab stated it found traces of uranium at two bomb craters, the UN Environmental Program announced it had not found any.