Oil spill threatens to be ecological disaster for Lebanon coast

Lumps of tar wash up on beach famous for nesting turtles

The public beach in Mansourieh is a sliver of paradise in a country wrought by crisis.

In previous summers, the sand would be packed with families, and children would swim in the crystal blue water with fish and turtles gliding at their feet.

The coronavirus lockdown put that on hold, but a new disaster is threatening to leave the image of paradise confined to memory.

Three days ago, tar began washing up on the beach, staining the sand in thick black lumps. It took several weeks and some unlucky wind for the oil to begin reaching Lebanon’s shores.

In early February, tar was reported washing up on beaches across 160 kilometres of Israel’s coast, just south.

With strong currents, it was only a matter of time before the oil reached south Lebanon. Now locals say they are facing another crisis – an ecological one.

Israeli officials say this may be one of the area's worst such disasters in decades, and while Lebanon says it will lodge a complaint with the UN over the spill, for now there is little sign of a co-ordinated effort to clean up the oil – at least on this side of the border.

The conservation areas off the coast of south Lebanon are among the few ecological success stories in a country where much of the coastline is blighted by privatisation, construction and pollution.

Turtles nest on the beach and the water is a translucent turquoise – a long way from the filthy murk off that floats off the coast of Beirut.

Greenpeace region director Julien Jreissati has called on the government to “take immediate measures to assess the seriousness of the oil spill”.

And although tests have been carried out, the only sign of a response so far is a team of volunteers who rise early to beat the morning sun and pick up clumps of tar by hand.

In a nearby car park are crates full of the sandy clumps, which are melting in the midday sun.

Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry claims the spill occurred between February 6 and 10, but the source of the leak remains as murky as the waters.

Scientists and government officials admit they do not have a true idea how toxic the oil may be.

Yousseff Ndeaihli is one of those trying to clear the black patches from the beach.

As he stacks a third crate of the black mess, a call comes in from the municipality telling him to stop. It could be dangerous for him to handle.

An employee of the local municipality, Mr Ndeaihli is an engineer by trade, not a conservationist.

His only qualification is his desperation to stop yet another of the country’s spots of beauty from being ruined.

Mr Ndeaihli is using his expertise to clear up what he says is one of the last spots to which people can go to truly relax in Lebanon.

“For three days they have been trying to clean it but it’s impossible to clean it all,” he says.

“We have the coronavirus crisis, we have the economic crisis and the people have a lot of trouble.

“It’s easy to come to here without any troubles, to have a little rest in your life. This is the last place you can find that. So I am very sad.”

On Thursday, it appeared the local’s worst fears may be realised, as scores of dead turtles began washing up on beaches in the south.

Lebanon is often referred to a resilient nation, yet for those who have grown up with around the turtles and sandy beaches, there are nightmares that this may be one disaster too far for one of their few protected environmental sites.

Updated: February 26, 2021 03:29 PM

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