By Olivia Alabaster
The Daily Star
Sand and rock quarries have contributed significantly in shrinking the country’s green stretch.
Sand and rock quarries have contributed significantly in shrinking the country’s green stretch.

BEIRUT: A new report into the state of the environment in Lebanon, produced by the Environment Ministry, the U.N. Development Program and the consultancy Ecodit, paints a stark portrait of the country’s green credentials.

The report, “State and Trends of the Lebanese Environment,” provides a detailed account of every aspect of the Lebanese environment, from land and water resources, air quality, biodiversity and more, running to over 300 pages.

With each chapter an analysis of the current situation is provided, including the driving forces and proposals for the future.

A damning outlook is given: in the foreword, by Robert Watkins, UNDP’s resident representative, he writes, “The overall impression left by the report is alarming; although there has been commendable progress in many areas over the last decade, trends do not indicate a sustainable future for Lebanon without strong political will to further integrate environmental considerations across all sectors.”

The report, which is available online in Arabic, French and English, focuses on the concept of environmental governance, a factor which the authors say has been lacking in Lebanon until now.

Reminiscent perhaps of many areas of policy, the authors write that: “Frequent Cabinet reshuffles further delay and jeopardize policy-making as new governments and ministers tend to shelve previous policies, or policies still in the making, and start all over with a new team of advisers. This stop-and-go approach has indisputably also affected the state of environmental affairs in the country.”

The Environment Ministry, the second youngest in the country, established in 1993, is responsible for much of the development of green legislation, and the Parliamentary Committee for the Environment, comprised of 12 MPs, discusses and reviews draft legislation regarding the sector. As the report writes, however, “While active, this body can and should do more to accelerate the approval of key legislation.”

In terms of the effects on the environment, the report argues that the main driving factors behind the rapid degradation of the country’s natural resources have been population growth, urbanization, economic growth and climate change.

One chapter focuses on Lebanon’s water resources, which are “under stress,” the report writes. And while “available water … exceeds projected water demand … widespread pollution and substandard water infrastructure are restricting the government’s ability to meet water demands in the future.”

With regard to air quality, the report’s authors write that, “While urban air quality in some industrialized countries has improved in recent decades, in Lebanon the problem persists and has become a major source of concern to public health.”

The major sectors contributing to Lebanon’s poor air quality are transport, energy and industry. The report recommends that the government urgently approve an Environment Ministry draft law from 2005, the Protection of Air Quality.

As the number of vehicles registered is increasing at an annual rate of 15 percent, the report notes, efforts must be made to improve public transport.

The government should, the report urges, adopt “fast-track policies that will renew Lebanon’s feeble taxi fleets.”

“A Taxi Swap to Hybrids and Fuel-Efficient Cars policy would help rid Lebanon of up to 12,000 old and often dilapidated cars, reduce urban fuel consumption, as well as enhance Lebanon’s brand image and green competitiveness,” the report adds.

Asides from the need for improved environmental governance, there are personal lifestyle choices that individuals can make to help Lebanon stay as green as possible, the report highlights. Lebanese could participate in reforestation programs, walk or cycle short distances, carpool and also buy local products, thus reducing the distance items have to travel, the SOER report suggests.

When it comes to biodiversity and forests, the report paints an equally depressing picture. Forest coverage of Lebanon has decreased from 30 percent in 1980 to just 13 percent in 2004.

“Although biodiversity and forests provide invaluable ecosystem services and support countless jobs, either directly or indirectly, human activities are rapidly degrading this resource base,” the report warns.

Lebanon’s current forest strategy, it adds, are “piecemeal efforts” which “will not achieve sustainable results.”

With regard to the country’s land resources, the report states that “Construction is consuming agricultural lands, roads and expressways are infringing on scenic mountain landscapes, and real estate speculation is changing the social fabric of some communities and villages.”

The final chapter of the report posits two alternative scenarios for the state of the country in 10 years’ time.

The first, the “market first” scenario, depicts a Lebanon even less green than the one today.

“New coastal resorts and marinas degrade marine ecosystems further … urban expansion occurs at the expense of agricultural land in the coastal zone and inland areas; regional disturbances and conflicts encourage many expat Lebanese to return to their home country pushing property demand even higher … The rate of urbanization hits 90 percent (from 88 percent in 2010). At least 100 new high-rise towers mushroom in Beirut, changing the skyline, and erasing many cultural landmark buildings.”

Alternatively, the “sustainability first” model shows a slightly improved situation. “Air quality in Lebanon does not deteriorate over the coming decade (government imposes a CO2 tax on gas-guzzling 4x4s … Jiyyeh and Zouk power plants are renovated. Ban on indoor smoking in public areas is enforced.) … Forest cover increases slightly … to 15 percent in 2020.

“Government acquires at least three more fire-fighting helicopters. New coastal resorts are approved without marinas and concrete piers and therefore do not adversely impact the marine environment.”

“Haphazard urbanization progresses at a slower pace … thanks to government initiatives related to decentralization and job creation in secondary cities and in rural areas,” it adds. “Internet services and bandwidth improve markedly allowing many small and medium-sized businesses to operation outside cities.”

In terms of energy, this second model predicts that the government “addresses the country’s energy crisis head on.”

“The energy mix changes markedly, in favor of cleaner and less expensive fuels. The government also cracks down on illegal gas stations and does not license new stations. Under pressure by international lending organizations, the private sector and conservationists, the Parliament ends EDL’s monopoly over the electricity production sector and the Council of Ministers regulates renewable energy efficiency systems.”

For Rayan Makarem, a campaigner at Greenpeace Lebanon, while the tools are in place to develop environmental governance, it has not yet started in earnest.

“The public must be educated about the content of the environment law, published in 2002,” Makarem said, as do police and judges, so that laws can be fully implemented, he added.

“The Environment Minister Nazim Khoury has included environmental governance on his agenda for next year. Let’s just hope he follows through and we see some progress before the elections in 2013.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 27, 2011, on page 3.

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