By Noor Akl for CNN
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(CNN) -- With 220 kilometers of Mediterranean coastline and 300 days of sun per year, Lebanon's beaches are one of the country's main assets and millions of dollars have been invested in the past few years to develop dozens of resorts along the coast.
But these same resorts are now counting the losses inflicted by Israeli strikes and ensuing oil spills which have turned the Big Blue into a Big Black.
The month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel and an eight-week sea and air blockade have increased Lebanon's public debt to $41 billion from the $38.6 billion estimated at the start of 2006.
The conflict caused extensive damage to the country's infrastructure leaving 15,000 houses and apartments leveled, 78 bridges and 630 km of road destroyed and an economy in tatters.
But the most harshly hit sector was perhaps the tourism industry which lost an estimated $2.5 billion in expected revenues. The wellbeing of Lebanon's economy depends greatly on the travel and tourism industry which contributes 11% of the GDP thanks to the country's sandy beaches, snowy peaks and vibrant nightlife.
This year promised to be exceptionally fruitful with the number of visitors expected to reach 1.6 million for the first time since the 1975-1990 civil war.
"Our direct losses and the loss of earnings amount to $10 million," said Roger Edde, owner of Edde Sands, one of Lebanon's hippest resorts.
"We closed for three weeks to clean the beach from the oil slicks which also evaporated, causing breathing problems, and activities have been slow since the September 2 reopening."
An estimated 10,000 to 30,000 tonnes of fuel have spilled into the Mediterranean and contaminated 150 kilometers of coast after the Jiyyeh power plant was hit during an Israeli bomb raid in mid-July.
It is the first time Lebanon has faced an environmental catastrophe on such a large scale, with marine fauna and flora also badly affected.
Yacoub Sarraf, the Lebanese Environment Minister, appealed to the international community to help with relief efforts, saying the country lacked the necessary expertise, equipment and financial means.
"Our priority today is to save the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of tons of heavy fuel have been spilled on our shorelines and millions of God's creatures are craving for your help," he said.
Bahr Loubnan, a Lebanese NGO for the protection of the sea, is currently working with the French Ministry for National Development and Environment and a number of international organizations to clear the 150 kilometers of coastline that were affected by the oil spills.
"We're quite optimistic about the progression of the operation and if everything goes as planned we hope most of the work will be over before the start of the winter season," said Rima Tarabay, Vice-President of Bahr Loubnan.
Ninety percent of the fuel lying on the sea bed has now been cleared by a team of divers working continuously for the last three weeks.
A new technique known as "surf-washing" has also been introduced to clean oil-covered rocks and pebbles by blasting them with powerful waves or hot water until the fuel is cleared and can be collected.
The efforts are being led by Professor Bernard Fichaut, who previously took part in the clean-up operations in the wake of the 1999 Erika disaster and who believes this method is the best available to clear oil quickly, cleanly, and at low cost.
France is significantly assisting with the clearing efforts by providing expertise and equipment. According to Pascal Luciani, the technical adviser to the French Environment Minister, results are encouraging but could have been achieved earlier if the clean-up operation had not been hindered by the bombing.
"We had to wait till the end of the war to start cleaning the coast so this means that there's now more hydrocarbon and waste mixed with sand that needs to be cleared."
A UN-led team of international experts has also started assessing the damage done to Lebanon's environment. The team, led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and working closely with the Lebanese authorities, is visiting and sampling the sites along the country's coast which are thought to present potential risks to human health, wildlife and the wider environment.
"The field work will take up to three weeks and both the governments of Norway and Switzerland have pledged funds for this assessment mission," said Dr Habib Elhabr, Director of the UNEP for West Asia. "The final report will hopefully be out by mid-December."
The UNEP is familiar with assessing post-conflict environmental damage as it has already conducted similar missions in Liberia, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.
"There is an urgent need to assess the environmental legacy of the recent conflict and put in place a comprehensive clean-up of polluted and health-hazardous sites," said Achim Steiner, UNEP's Executive Director.
"Work is on-going to deal with the oil spill on the Lebanese coast. We must now look at the wider impacts as they relate to issues such as underground and surface water supplies, coastal contamination and the health and fertility of the land," Steiner said.
The team will also assess Beirut International Airport, where fuel tanks were set ablaze after repeated bombing, sewage treatment and hospital facility sites, and unexploded ordinance. Many Lebanese villages and fields are still littered with cluster bomblets, making the clean-up operation all the more dangerous.
The country is slowly getting back on its feet but, almost two months after a ceasefire was declared, Sarraf said it was only a start: "The real war in Lebanon begins today, the war of rebuilding, the war of forgetting and also the war for reclaiming our environment."
Fish swim past rocks caked in oil off the Beirut coast. The clean-up effort us being led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
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