One of the subtexts in concerns of the demonstrators in Lebanon is the exploitation of public lands and general disregard for environmental protections. Despite decades of warnings by various NGOs and international organizations, Lebanon’s leadership continues to allow wide-spread illegal use of public lands, especially beachfront property. They allegedly profit from awarding licenses that contravene existing land-use statutes and take shares in companies that are ruining coastlines, highways, mountains, valleys, and waterways throughout the country.
This environmental degradation and misuse, as well as the lack of investment in water management including recycling and treatment, has left the Lebanese people with an age-old solution – purchase drinking water from retailers and wholesalers at high prices, now almost unreachable due to the fall in the value of the lira. A study from the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut (AUB), noted that “Gaps in the public sector have allowed the rapid growth of private water providers: 75% of water expenditures by citizens, or $300 million, goes towards feeding the private sector [suppliers].”
The explosions at Beirut Port only exacerbated an already deteriorating situation. According to a UN press statement, “Jihan Seoud, Energy and Environment Program Manager at the UN Development Program’s (UNDP) Lebanon office, described the impact of the explosion as a major concern, particularly as Beirut’s environment was already ‘in a dismal state’ before the disaster.” She went on to point out that “The destruction of the Port of Beirut has created up to 800,000 tons of construction and demolition waste in the city, and it is likely to contain hazardous chemicals, given the types of material known to be normally stored there, such as pesticides, pharmaceutical products, industrial chemicals, lead from vehicles, and various types of heavy metals.”
So in addition to the destruction of foodstuffs, medicines, and agricultural supplies, the blasts have wrought environmental havoc that will continue to affect public health for a decade. And it is not only groundwater and the seafront that is under duress. “Beirut’s waste management systems are now at breaking point, with one of the two plants serving the city severely damaged in the blast, as more goes directly to landfill sites, one of which is nearly full. Ms. Seoud told reporters that the city could be facing another municipal solid waste crisis soon if this issue is not resolved,” according to the UN statement.
Even before the extensive damage in the port area, urban planners and environmental professionals have been producing studies on the need for infrastructure rehabilitation and reconstruction that takes into consideration a holistic approach to urban design. Experts are recommending that Beirut and other municipalities are rebuilt in a transparent, inclusive, and accountable manner that balances needed investments in sustainable quality living standards as well as commercial and transportation priorities.
The recommendations include being mindful of the environment by taking into consideration elements such as solar power, energy efficiency measures, and climate-resilient building designs. These proposals dovetail with a recent study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) showing that Lebanon has the potential to produce 10 times the amount of energy it’s currently producing. The study estimates that Lebanon has the ability to generate around 30% of its total energy needs by making use of its available renewable energy sources. Not only is Lebanon’s energy sector in its current state very uneconomical and ineffective, but its heavy reliance on private generators is also exacerbating a serious air pollution problem.
As is commonplace in Lebanon, there are existing studies going back more than 10 years that promote investments in renewable energy. “However, even though local studies confirmed that Lebanon has plenty of alternative energy sources that can be used to effectively produce 12% of basic local needs by 2020 – and 30% by 2030 – not much progress has been made in that regard,” according to the same study.
The 2018 CEDRE donors’ conference included approximately 250 projects in the electricity, water, and waste management sectors requiring an investment of some $16 billion over the next 12 years. They are awaiting the outcome of forming a new government to make the reforms needed to tap into IMF and CEDRE funding.
Current projects are also stymied by the lack of transparent governance. The most recent case is the World Bank withdrawing funding for the Bisri Dam project southwest of Beirut. First approved for a $617 million loan from the World Bank in 2014, it was planned to provide reliable water to over 1.6 million people in the Greater Beirut/Mount Lebanon area. Although supported by the political elites, it was vociferously opposed by environmentalists and local residents fearing irreversible damage to the region’s rich ecosystem.
Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq regional director, said that “Given strong stakeholder concerns about the [Bisri Dam] Project, the World Bank has requested the Government of Lebanon to launch an open and transparent public dialogue to address the concerns raised by citizens and civil society groups.” He also announced the re-channeling of $45.5m from two other projects’ funding to help with Lebanon’s efforts to combat the coronavirus outbreak which – compounded by the ongoing economic crisis – has trapped the country in an “unprecedented crisis.”
Without a government committed to widespread and serious reforms including transparency and an independent judiciary, it will become more challenging to secure any international support to remedy Lebanon’s economic and environmental disaster. For a country once called the Paris of the Middle East, it is truly a setback of massive proportions.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.