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Lack of environmental policies costs $550m, says ex-minister

Over 240 forest fires blazed across Lebanon's central mountain range this month, destroying over one million trees.
(Marie Claire Feghali/IRIN)

Ramzi Msharrafyeh stepped carefully between the burned bushes and trees in the village of Ayn Trez, 34km southwest of Beirut, where the air is still heavy with the smell of smoke.

[Read this report in Arabic]

“This oak tree is among a few that survived the fires,” he said. “It’s almost 500 years old, and nearly all of Lebanon’s princes and presidents sat under it. It’s called the Saad oak tree.”

Earlier this month, 242 forest fires blazed across Lebanon’s central mountain range, destroying 1,526 hectares of forest - more than one million trees - killing one woman and injuring dozens of residents, according to the Association of Forest Development and Conservation (AFDC).

Three times as many trees were destroyed in the fires as have been planted since the end of the civil war in 1990, Mounir Bou Ghanem, head of AFDC, told IRIN, estimating the total area burned as equivalent to 2,000 football pitches.

The fire was the latest environmental disaster to hit Lebanon, whose mountains, valleys, rivers and coastline - some of the richest natural habitat in the region - are being rapidly damaged beyond repair, due to a lack of protective legislation, financial support and environmental awareness, according to officials and activists.

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“There is a general lack of interest in environmental causes and we don’t enforce environmental laws,” Yaacoub Sarraf, the former environment minister, told IRIN. “The annual budget for the Environment Ministry does not exceed US$2.5 million, whereas our annual losses due to ecological deterioration are estimated at $550 million per year.” Sarraf resigned as part of a cabinet walkout by the opposition, leaving the ministry closed for nearly a year.

The average figure of $550 million includes losses from the all-important tourism sector due to environmental damage; agriculture and fishing losses, due to pollution of land and sea; and clean-up costs borne by the state, according to Sarraf.

Lebanon’s worst environmental disaster occurred when Israel bombed an oil refinery in Jiyyeh, south of Beirut, during its conflict with Hezbollah last July. The refinery spewed an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 tonnes of fuel oil into the Mediterranean; the clean-up has been largely undertaken and paid for by locals and NGOs.


Photo: Marie Claire Feghali/IRIN
The environment ministry estimates Lebanon loses US$550m a year due to environmental damage

Laws ignored

In 2000, the government passed law 444 “in order to prevent pollution and provide a better, more stable life for all beings”.

However, Sarraf criticised the law for providing no mechanism for implementing environmental policies, adding that the government had repeatedly avoided taking steps to improve the environment on grounds of cost.

“When I asked for less polluting fuel to be used, the Minister of Energy said it would [lead to higher] fuel prices. Then I asked for a proper disposal of toxic and medical wastes, but the Minister of Health said it would also cost too much,” he said.

With effective environmental legislation absent, some of Lebanon’s worst sources of pollution continue to grow unchecked.

Rubbish mountain

In Sidon, a port city 45km south of Beirut, the summer air becomes unbreathable within 1km of the notorious “rubbish mountain”, a giant open-air dump on the edge of the sea.

Over 35 years, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of refuse from homes, factories, hospitals and slaughter houses have been piled high on the dump, which has repeatedly caught fire and twice partially collapsed into the sea.

''There is a general lack of interest in environmental causes and we don’t enforce environmental laws.''

According to medical sources, Sidon's children suffer more from asthma than children anywhere else in Lebanon, which doctors say is directly linked to the dump.

“We have cases of asthma, respiratory problems, insect bites, rodent infestations, not to mention allergies caused by the hazardous chemicals slipping into the sea water,” Tarek Hussary, a doctor from Sidon, told IRIN.

According to the Ministry of Environment (MoE), municipal solid waste (MSW) makes up about 90 percent of total solid waste generated in Lebanon. The main sources of MSW are households, commercial establishments, street markets and street cleaning operations.

As well as dumping MSW in environmentally damaging sites such as the one in Sidon, the disposal of hazardous waste materials from hospitals and slaughter houses is not regulated.

The MoE says Lebanon generates more than 4,000 tonnes of hospital waste and 40,000 tonnes of waste from slaughter houses each year. But with no specialised facilities for disposing of the hazardous material, it is currently dumped with MSW.

“Burnt ground, good for nothing”

For many residents of the Chouf mountains south-east of Beirut, the absence of environmental protection and response became all too clear as the forest fires raged around them.

“It is an environmental disaster because the fire department was too slow to respond,” said 70-year-old Genevieve Abi Saber, whose house in Kfaramey almost burned down.


Photo: Lucy Fielder/IRIN
Oil coats rocks and oozes into pools on the northern Lebanese coast, over a year after an oil spill occurred

“I know the blazes were too much, but had my nephew not run to put out the flames himself, we would have burned alive.”

The fires were started deliberately, according to local officials, either by farmers trying to clear their land of dry bush, or by residents making their own charcoal, concerned at fuel prices that have risen more than 10 percent during the year.

Unexploded ordnance, left over from the civil war, began exploding in the fires, further hampering efforts to save the forests.

“This is so bad,” Joseph Tabet, a resident of the ancient town of Deir al-Qammar, a UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site that narrowly escaped the flames.

“Had we had law enforcement and better supervision, none of this would have happened. It is just like everything in this country: either a pile of garbage or burnt ground, good for nothing.”

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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