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The Environmental Fallout of the War in Lebanon

By Project Syndicate
Created 17/08/2006 - 07:46

Arne  JernelovArne Jernelöv is Professor of Environmental Biochemistry, an honorary scholar and former director of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, and a UN expert on environmental catastrophes. His first piece on Webdiary was Sexy Culture [0].

by Arne Jernelöv

In any war, the primary focus is on dead, wounded and displaced people. The number of people killed as a result of Israel’s offensive in Lebanon at the time of this writing is reported to be roughly 800 Lebanese and 120 Israelis – not an atypical ratio for Arab-Israeli conflicts. The UN estimates the number of displaced persons to be more than a million, about 800,000 of them Lebanese.

Damage to infrastructure and the environment will also continue to be felt once hostilities cease. Of course, infrastructure can be rebuilt much more quickly than the environment can be restored or recover on its own. In the case of Lebanon, however, the two are closely linked, as much of the environmental damage comes from destroyed infrastructure.

As in most modern wars, oil spills are one of the most visible – and therefore most reported – forms of environmental damage. Until the war started, Lebanon’s beaches were among the cleanest in the Mediterranean. They are now to a large extent covered with oil. For a rare species of sea turtle this is bad news, as the eggs laid in the sand on those very beaches in the annual spawning season are due to hatch at precisely this time of the year. The total amount of oil released into the sea is now well over 100,000 tons.

Naturally, oil cisterns are not the only targets, and coastal locations are not the only regions hit. It is far too early to assess the damage done by releases of other, less visible, chemicals, but it is safe to assume that ground water will be contaminated for a long time. The drier the environment, the worse the problem.

Moreover, bombs and grenades not only ignite buildings, but also grass, bushes, and trees. The number of forest and brush fires that start is thus much higher than during a normal summer. Worse still, there is little capacity to fight them, as existing fire-fighting resources are used to try to save human lives. Consequently, bushes and forests burn, reducing the stands of cedar trees – a symbol of Lebanon as much as the bald eagle is of the United States – by the day towards extinction. A unique ecosystem is being lost.

There have also been reports, more often on the Internet than in the press, about despairing Lebanese doctors, who, not recognizing the wounds patients have sustained after Israeli air strikes, have described what they see and asked colleagues around the world for help. One such type of wound reportedly resembles second-degree burns over large parts of bodies, but with the hairs intact – not a typical reaction to fire and heat. There have been suggestions that agents containing some acid or alkali were possibly stored in buildings destroyed in the bombing.

According to this theory, such agents were dispersed after a missile or bomb hit, rather than being delivered with incoming warheads. The last word probably has not been heard. One has only to recall "Gulf War Syndrome," which emerged after the 1991 conflict, and the controversy surrounding the issue of what, if anything, affected US soldiers, to understand how difficult it can be to answer such questions until well after the fact.

The worst environmental effect on health is probably the one most directly associated with the destruction of infrastructure: the release of asbestos. As in many parts of the world with hot climates, apartment and office buildings in Lebanon use asbestos for heat insulation. This has been standard practice for decades, and most buildings that have been erected or restored since Israel’s last bombings in 1982 have plenty of it.

When pulverized by bombs and missiles, asbestos fibers are freed and can be inhaled with the rest of the dust. The protective suits that specially-trained people are legally required to wear in the European Union or the US when demolishing, rebuilding, or repairing any building containing asbestos underscore the risk of pulmonary fibrosis and lung cancer for Lebanese who inhale dust from bombed-out houses and offices. Indeed, US companies have been forced to pay tens of billions of dollars to ex-employees who worked with asbestos.

Lebanon cannot afford to pay anything close to such a sum. But this is just one of many environmental debts that will somehow have to be paid in long after the fighting has stopped – by the victims, if by nobody else.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.  

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