BEIRUT — The azure waters of the Mediterranean have long been a symbol of Lebanon's fun-loving character and proud maritime history. But the country's prized 135-mile coast has become its biggest environmental disaster.
Thick gobs of oil have clogged the coast's coral reefs. Sandy beaches have become black-stained no-go zones. Rocky fishermen's coves have become dark soups of crude. All are the result of Israeli airstrikes on seaside oil tanks in the first days of the war against Hezbollah.
Between 3 1/2 and 5 million gallons of oil have fouled more than half of the Lebanese coast, and the damage grows each day that the fractured central government fails to begin the cleanup. Scientists have compared it to the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker, which ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, dumping 11 million gallons of oil.
The environmental group Greenpeace has sounded the alarm.
"The scene is horrific," the group's Mediterranean division said in an Aug. 22 announcement after it played a videotape to reporters showing the underwater consequences of the spill. "The seabed is completely covered with fuel oil, which will threaten marine life for many years to come if it is not contained and removed immediately."
Marine scientists worry that the oil will disintegrate into delicate underwater ecosystems.
Many fear that the spill will further damage the tourism-dependent Lebanese economy. The country is deeply in debt, and its infrastructure is in need of massive reconstruction.
"The damage will be more severe the longer [we] wait," Tourism Minister Joseph Sarkis said. "More than half of all tourist activity is on the seashore. We have a lot of hotels, beaches and seafood restaurants along the coast, and all are closed."
The spill has destroyed the livelihoods of many fishermen.
Mostafa Azmar, 43, along with three partners, used to catch between 100 and 1,500 pounds of fish a day. Now his boat is moored in a cove filled with crude oil that burns the nostrils.
The fisherman looked with dismay at his stained fishing boat and damaged nets.
"The sea is everything to us," he said. "Lebanon wouldn't be Lebanon without the sea, and the sea wouldn't be the sea without Lebanon."
So far, much of the cleanup has been left to dozens of young Lebanese environmental activists using shovels.
"We're going to start with very basic equipment," said Nina Jamal, a member of the Lebanese environmental group Green Line. "We're going to remove the sand and block the oil slicks with booms floated out to sea. We'll clean the sandy beaches before the more complicated task of cleaning up the rocky beaches."
But the volunteers' modest efforts have been hampered by red tape.
The Environment Ministry said it wanted to find a place to store or process the spill's toxic leftovers before proceeding with a full-scale cleanup.
Three weeks after a cease-fire, an environmental assessment has yet to be undertaken.
The spill was caused by an Israeli airstrike on oil storage tanks in the coastal city of Jiye, just north of Sidon. Over the weeks, the oil spread north along the Lebanese coast, hitting Beirut, the Christian town of Jounieh and the Sunni Arab city of Tripoli.
The spill has not affected beaches along the southern parts of Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah.
But it has struck hard at the morale of the Lebanese, who pride themselves on being descendants of the ancient Phoenicians.
"We are open to the world through the sea," Sarkis said. "We are like a bridge to the Arab and Muslim countries. For us, the sea is very important."