Lebanon faces major environmental harm: UN

BERLIN (Reuters) - Unexploded cluster bombs and factories contaminated with toxic chemicals after last year’s conflict between Israel and Hezbollah pose serious environmental risks to Lebanon, the United Nations said on Tuesday.

A fuel tank burns in Jiyeh after being attacked by Israeli missiles in south Beirut July 16,2006. Many bomb-damaged factories, including the Jiyeh power plant south of Beirut, were contaminated with toxic substances, the United Nations Environment Programme said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

A report by the organization’s Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that if it fails to act quickly to remove the debris, Lebanon will face major long-term public health hazards, including water supply contamination.

“The report gives an objective assessment, we are not pointing fingers,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said at a news conference to unveil the report. “Our intention is to bring the environmental damage into the open.”

About one million unexploded cluster bombs in the south of the country pose a grave risk to local people and are a serious impediment to reconstruction efforts, the report says.

“In addition, agricultural fields are heavily contaminated by cluster bombs, affecting the livelihoods of populations in those areas,” it adds. De-mining could take up to 15 months.

Many bomb-damaged factories, including the Jiyeh power plant south of Beirut, were contaminated with toxic substances.

“Urgent action is needed to remove and safely dispose of such substances which include ash and leaked chemicals amid concerns they represent a threat to water supplies and public health,” says the report which follows a visit by 12 experts to Lebanon in September and October.

Steiner declined to estimate the cost of the damage but noted the overall reconstruction costs for Lebanon run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

He urged world nations, including those attending a Lebanon reconstruction conference in Paris this week, to consider the environment in their talks.

The good news was that the impact of an oil spill on marine life after the bombing of fuel tanks at the Jiyeh plant had been limited after a swift clean-up.

The experts found much of the oil had sunk to the sea bed and contained relatively low levels of toxic hydrocarbons. The report recommended, however, the remaining fuel near the power plant should be removed in case it remobilizes.

Some 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and 157 Israelis, most of them soldiers, were killed in fighting which started in July 2006.

The fighting began after Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas seized two troops in a deadly border raid. Hezbollah launched around 4,000 rockets into Israel during the war.