Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

After the bombs, environmental calamity

By Richard Steiner :: Seattle Post-Intelligencer :: Sunday, September 10, 2006

Richard Steiner is a professor and environmental specialist at the University of Alaska. He spent two weeks in Lebanon last month advising the Lebanese government on the oil spill.
As the bomb dust settles from the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah, one thing has become perfectly clear: There were no winners.

  A Lebanese man walks at a public beach polluted with heavy fuel oil in Beirut in July. The Mediterranean is threatened by its worst-ever environmental disaster after Israel’s bombing of a power plant in Lebanon sent thousands of tons of fuel gushing into the sea.

About 1,500 people, mostly innocent civilians, were killed and thousands more injured; more than 15,000 homes were destroyed; and property damage will take billions of dollars and years to repair. Certainly, this war was hell on the people, infrastructure and economy of the region, on both sides of the border.

Compounding the tragedy, this war was hell on the natural environment and cultural heritage as well.

The Israeli air strikes on the fuel tanks at the Jiyyeh power station 20 miles south of Beirut resulted in the largest ever oil spill in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. About 15,000 tons (more than 4 million gallons) of heavy fuel oil spilled into the sea and spread northward along the coast of Lebanon, Syria and beyond. Much of this oil beached along 75 miles of Lebanon’s shoreline, some spread farther north to Syria and Turkey, and much sank to the seabed. Another 25,000 tons of oil at Jiyyeh burned, spewing a toxic cloud into the air and causing a rain of toxic oil downwind.

The oil spill caused severe damage to the shoreline environment of Lebanon, as well as to extensive areas of the seabed environment. The Lebanese government is now conducting a Natural Resource Damage Assessment program to quantify the damage to shorelines, invertebrates, fish, birds, sea turtles and dolphins.

Fishing and tourism have suffered significant economic losses from the spill. Farther up the coast, the Palm Island Nature Reserve near Lebanon’s border with Syria was also seriously affected by the spill. Oil coated white sand beaches where endangered sea turtles had just laid their eggs. The young are just now hatching and making their way into a potentially deadly sea.

Experience with such massive spills elsewhere suggests that ecological injury may take years to fully manifest, and even longer to fully recover.

In addition, what may be the oldest continuously occupied human settlement on Earth was covered in oil from the Jiyyeh spill. The ancient Phoenician port of Byblos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, had survived the Crusades, the Roman Empires and a host of other world-altering events and was planning to celebrate its 7,000-year anniversary last month. Now a symbol of the pathos of war, its ancient, white stonewalls were covered with hundreds of tons of thick black oil.

Other cultural heritage sites, in some cases dating to the dawn of civilization, were heavily bombed. In Lebanon, Israeli air strikes hit the ancient city of Tyre with its Phoenician and Roman ruins; the Forest of the Cedars in the Al Shouf Biosphere Reserve; and Baalbek very near to its six ancient Roman columns, the tallest in the world. In Israel, sites in the line-of-fire of Hezbollah rockets included the ancient Phoenician city of Acre, the archaeological sites of Megiddo and Hazor, and several proposed world heritage sites in Haifa.

There were many other environmental injuries from the war, mostly due to extensive bombing in Lebanon.

Hazardous substances spilled at bombed-out refineries, gas stations, plastics factories and glass plants; 40,000 tons of kerosene went up in smoke in the bombing of the Beirut International Airport; toxic material lies buried in the rubble of south Beirut; and an enormous amount of unexploded ordnance still hides in the ground.

Put simply, war and environment do not mix. Since both the Geneva Conventions and the statute of the International Criminal Court prohibit nations at war from intentionally inflicting unnecessary environmental damage, it’s likely that Israel violated laws of war in its strikes on the tank farm at the Jiyyeh power station. As the tank farm at Jiyyeh is within 350 feet of the Mediterranean, it should have been clear to Israeli military planners that a strike on those fuel tanks likely would cause a massive oil pollution disaster along the coast of Lebanon. It did.

And to be clear, drawing the conclusion that this environmental disaster was intentional is not taking sides in the conflict. It doesn’t matter if the missiles that hit Jiyyeh were fired by Israel, Hezbollah or the pope. It was wrong. The attack reflects a malicious intent to inflict large-scale environmental damage with no strategic military value whatsoever. This seems more like warfare straight out of the Middle Ages, when hot oil was poured on the enemy beneath the castle walls.

An independent, international legal inquiry on the Jiyyeh attack should be convened immediately. And if it is found that this attack did not violate existing laws of war, these laws must be changed to clearly prohibit using such environmental disaster as a weapon in war. As well, Israel should establish a $1 billion Eastern Mediterranean oil spill restoration fund to cover all response and cleanup costs, compensate financial losses of fishing and tourism businesses, and implement a comprehensive restoration program for the coastal and marine environment of the region.

Surely we can do better than this in the Middle East. The international community, including the U.S. and its allies, must take this opportunity to resolve this half-century dispute once and for all. We can no longer afford the continuing distraction from the many very real environmental threats facing our future, and the time to fix this is right now.

Richard Steiner is a professor and environmental specialist at the University of Alaska. He spent two weeks in Lebanon last month advising the Lebanese government on the oil spill.

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"