Oil spill off Israel reaches south Lebanese beaches
"When something like this happens, you expect the Ministries of Environment and Labour to be on the ground and responsible for fixing this disaster, but till now there has been no plan made for official clean up."
Nearly two months have passed since a massive oil spill off the coast of Israel began blackening the southern coast of Lebanon, adding an environmental crisis to the country's recent hardships.
With each day bringing a fresh wave of tar to beaches and endangering wildlife, volunteers have taken on the gruelling task of cleaning up, as state help is absent.
While initially confined to the south, mostly around Tyre, the toxic material is being carried further down the coast as the situation goes on unchecked by the government, with tar now being reported on beaches as far north as Batroun and Tripoli.
|Nearly two months have passed since a massive oil spill off the coast of Israel began blackening the southern coast of Lebanon, adding an environmental crisis to the country's recent hardships|
The Lebanon Diving Center in Tyre is one of many local businesses that have taken matters into their own hands to try and rally volunteer cleanup crews, visiting beaches daily to comb for tar and directing volunteers to the necessary sites.
"We've basically turned our social media pages into an awareness campaign asking for anyone willing to come help us clean," Jundi said.
"We're not asking for money or donations from people, we just need volunteers to help out. The one government inspection was over a month ago, and they said they were going to do this and that, bring the civil defence to help clean, but nothing has happened, so it's up to us.
"The first thing we did when we heard the news was to go and dive and see if there was anything in the sea, tried to do an initial sweep, and then coordinate with the National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)," he added.
"Together we started combing the entire beach and have been doing so on a regular basis, all along from the Blue Line until Aadloun beach."
Jundi said he's received volunteers from unexpected sources, like groups from the El-Buss refugee camp, the Murad Electrical Services Company, local restaurants, the Tyre Rotaract Club and the Red Cross. Many NGOs that he thought would be rushing to their aid have been surprisingly absent.
|The toxic material is being carried further down the coast as the situation goes on unchecked by the government, with tar now being reported on beaches as far north as Batroun and Tripoli|
The IUCN and UNIFIL have been providing resources to the municipalities, like the sieves, barrels, latex gloves and disposal bags, to aid the volunteers in their efforts. Jundi has also been regularly collecting water samples for the IUCN to test pollution levels in the water.
Without funds from the government, municipalities are strapped for cash and without resources to handle the oil spill. The depreciation of the Lebanese lira, as well as the scarcity of fresh dollars in the country, makes it difficult for them to finance a local clean up.
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Though the turnout has been heartwarming for Jundi, he feels the reality of the situation is beyond what volunteers can manage, if Lebanon wishes to overcome its latest hurdle before summer.
"We need manual labourers. There are a lot of volunteers who want to help but have never done a hard day's physical work in their life and are simply not up to the task in the way a labourer is," Jundi said.
"Volunteers are also on their own time table, it's not like you can tell them they need to stay longer or clean harder. If you brought me 100 real labourers, with some machinery to sift the sand on a larger scale, we could be done in 15 days," he added.
"But if the army and the civil defence took over, or if everyone in Lebanon just cleaned a small area, it can be done."
The tar means more than just a ruined sunbathing season for beachgoers. South Lebanon's coast is home to many species of critically endangered wildlife, such as a now-threatened colony of Mediterranean monk seals in Al Bayyadah.
Rocky outcrops are a crucial resting point for millions of rare migrating birds that will make their way through Lebanon this spring.
|A tar-covered dead sea turtle found by Youssef Jundi|
With most of Lebanon's coast privatised for resorts or other urban projects, the south beaches are some of the last public and undisturbed sands, making them a vital nesting ground for endangered loggerhead and green sea turtles.
The Orange House, a family home turned turtle rescue and reserve centre in Mansouri, near Tyre, has been sheltering nesting turtles since 2001.
With turtles nesting in May and hatchlings emerging in the summer, founder Mona Khalil is desperate to protect them as increasing reports of dead turtles covered in tar continue to come in from all over Lebanon.
|Tar will stick to turtles trying to dig nests and exhaust them. Any who ingest it will suffocate or starve to death. If tar gets on the eggs, the rising temperatures in the summer will melt the tar and kill the developing hatchlings inside, and any that manage to mature and hatch will be unable to dig through the sticky mess|
"The other day, I got a call from the United Nations soldiers, who had found a dead turtle washed up completely covered in tar, asking what they should do with it," Khalil told The New Arab. "I told them it should be reported to the Environment Ministry but then I started laughing.
"The Environment Ministry might as well not exist. I've tried to report many dead turtles over the years, but it doesn't seem to lead anywhere," she added.
"I now leave these ones on the shore and let nature take its course. Many other creatures benefit this way."
Tar will stick to turtles trying to dig nests and exhaust them. Any who ingest it will suffocate or starve to death. If tar gets on the eggs, the rising temperatures in the summer will melt the tar and kill the developing hatchlings inside, and any that manage to mature and hatch will be unable to dig through the sticky mess.
Khalil has been combing the beach daily to save as many as possible, but has been unable to clear the rockier areas.
|Read also: Lebanon's turtle population
at risk from oil spill
"The rocks are very hard to clean – the tar pools in the hollows – and we just don't have the resources or manpower to sort them out," Khalil said.
"Migrating birds will come down to rest on these rocks, as they're usually a safe place with some food. Now, they will land and get tar all over their feet and feathers and will be unable to fly."
According to Jundi, the fishing industry will suffer in the long term if nothing is done, as newborn fish spend the first phase of their lives living in rock pools and crevices that are now filled with tar. Either they will die from ingesting tar or be unable to find shelter, resulting in the decimation of the fish population.
"If we're looking ahead to the possible longterm effects on the marine ecosystem, it's a disaster," Jundi said. "Right now, the fish are not at great risk – they live deep enough to not be affected right now – but the worry is for in a year's time, when the new generation of fish is expected.
"The shore needs sweeping and sifting daily, not twice a week or something, every single day," he added.
"We have no government to clean this up or rely on, so we have to do it ourselves. I'm not an NGO, but I feel like I'm more concerned about the situation than all these missing parties and that I must do their jobs in their absence."
Maghie Ghali is a British-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. She works full time for The Daily Star Lebanon and writes as a freelancer for a number of publications, including The National, Al Arabiya English, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye, on arts and culture/design, environment and humanitarian topics.
Follow her on Twitter: @mghali6