Environmental Crisis in the Mediterranean: The Syrian Oil Spill
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
On August 23, large quantities of oil leaked into the Mediterranean Sea from one the largest oil refineries in Syria: the Baniyas Thermal Power Plant. More than three million gallons of oil that were stored in a fuel tank were assumed to have accidentally spilled into the sea from the deteriorated, government-controlled plant. The oil spill quickly spread through the Syrian coast, extending 58 sq. miles off the Syrian Coast by the next day. Syrian teams used sand and worked with oil-sucking machines to absorb the slick in the rocky areas off the coast in efforts to preserve the ecosystems in the region. Not only did the spill present an ecological threat for Syria’s coast, but it also posed dangers to the Northern region of Cyprus, separated by 80 miles of sea from the spill’s origin.
Photo Credit: WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative
Officials in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a de facto state, were suddenly faced with an environmental crisis. The first chunks of the oil spill were expected to arrive to Cape Apostolos Andreas—the farthest extent of the Karpas Peninsula in Northern Cyprus—within 24 hours from the start of the spill. The spill’s progress was closely monitored by government agencies from Cyprus, the TRNC and Turkey. Considering that the Syrian oil spill was almost the size of New York City, its repercussions on Cyprus’s Karpass Peninsula were an inevitable reality. Within a week after the start of the spill, the Turkish-Cypriot government erected a 400-meter floating barrier (known as ‘booms’) to prevent large amounts of oil from accumulating in the coasts of the Peninsula. The Greek-Cypriot minister of Agriculture also requested an oil recovery vessel and satellite imagery of the Karpas Region from the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). These images discovered that patches of oil had stuck to the seabed, as observed on September 1.
Although satellite imagery from EMSA suggests that a large percentage of the spill remained in place, statements made by Juan Peña Ibáñez contradict those images. Ibáñez is the CEO of Orbital EOS, a company with a network of radar and optical Earth Observation satellites designed to detect marine pollution. He noted that the fuel tank in the refinery must have still been leaking for such large concentrations of oil to remain in the region, taking into account that oil dispersal in open waters tends to occur quickly. Contrasting Ibañez’s findings, Giovanni Coppini, Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change expert in oil spill trajectory forecasting, said that “it may seem that there is a lot of oil, but it is the same oil staying there.”
Environmental experts affirm that the spill will be reflected as a disaster that will disturb the ecosystems and biodiversity of the Eastern Mediterranean for next 15 years at least. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) pointed that not only would the spill provoke severe damage to marine wildlife and ecosystems, but it would present “… serious risks… for the communities and businesses that depend on tourism and marine resources for their livelihoods."
The impacts of oil spills in the environment include (but are not limited) to drastic ecological changes, chemical toxicity, loss of habitat, and physical smothering of organisms. Turkey was impacted by a direct, short-term effect of the Syrian spill when on September 13, dead bodies of crabs washed in the shores of Mersin, a town in the southern coast of the country. Mersin’s coastal region had also been covered by scattered oil sheen patches. Workers cleaned up the bluefin crabs and other wastes in the province’s 13-kilometer seacoast. This is only an example of one of the effects of the Syrian Oil Spill—in the following weeks, months and years, the countries impacted by the catastrophe will have to deal with the environment’s reactions, as the oil sinks and consolidates in the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.
In 2012, the Syrian government updated their environmental laws, seeking to raise environmental awareness in the country. Some of the measures implemented include stronger responsibilities on Syria's Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs, the creation of the Supreme Environmental Protection Council, tax benefits to environmentally-friendly corporations, and the imposition of “criminal liability… on individuals whose actions prove detrimental to the environment."
However, these laws need further revision as they lack stronger regulations to prevent ‘accidents’ like the Syrian Oil Spill. The WWF urged nations in the impacted Mediterranean region to consider “... the ratification and effective implementation of the relevant Protocols of the Barcelona Convention (including the Offshore Protocol, Land Based Sources Protocol, Prevention and Emergency Protocol).” Furthermore, the WWF encouraged these countries to limit oil and gas exploration, extraction and processing projects, and to look into investing in sustainable energy sources. By implementing stronger regulations on these practices, environmental catastrophes like this recent oil spill can be avoided.