By Antoine Amrieh
Friday, September 03, 2010

AKKAR: The series of fires that broke out across the country this summer have left numerous green spaces completely torched.

The massive damage has become evident in the north Lebanon region of Akkar, where almost 100,000 square meters of land were ruined, threatening both the environment and the future of local farmers.

The flames were reportedly caused by the heatwave Lebanon experienced in the two first months of the season. By the beginning of September, “lands had turned from green to grey,” said Alfonse George, a member of the Lebanese Gathering to Protect the Environment.

The affected areas were mostly forest lands in the villages of Haql al-Khirbeh, al-Sahrij, Zaroub Sisa, Qornet al-Shouh, Mishmsheh, Akkar, al-Qamamin and Dinnieh.

“The green wealth that was lost cannot be easily replaced … some of the trees destroyed in Mishmsheh were rare,” George said. The damaged trees included pine, oak, cedars and fir.

He added that the soil and tree roots were also harmed, and urged officials to take the matter very seriously. He feared the torched lands would become an easy target for investors and workers in the coal industry.

“Unfortunately there’s a lack of vision on how to confront such disasters,” he said, proposing to expand the authority of municipalities to allow them to protect forests and build surveillance towers. “We’re at the beginning of winter, coal season, and many people will turn to chopping wood for coal.”

The flames that erupted this summer also hit fruit fields, leaving many farmers facing an uncertain future.

Thousands of olive, almond and pomegranate trees were destroyed in the villages of Mashha, Hayzouk, al-Suwayseh, Deir Dloum and al-Hosniyeh, while apple and pear trees were destroyed in Akkar al-Atiqa. Irrigation canals were also burned, depriving farmers of water.

Khaled Shahine, former president of the Agricultural Cooperative Association in Akkar al-Atiqa, seemed pessimistic about the likelihood of farmers receiving compensation for the damage.

“Giving farmers indemnities is almost impossible considering the current economic situation and the state of the treasury,” he said. “However, the state can help farmers by giving them fruit trees to plant,” he added, noting that the trees won’t be profitable for several years and losses will inevitably continue.

The fires across vast swathes of the country has been largely blamed on the hot spell Lebanon has experienced.

Abu Ahmad, a local from al-Qaytaa, said the high temperatures seen this summer were incomparable to any he had previously experienced. “I think temperatures rose up to 46 degrees and many people in the region were sleeping on their balconies,” he said.

This year’s fires were unprecedented, Ahmad said. “Fires this year surpassed anything we’ve seen or heard before. A cloud of smoke formed above ten villages in Akkar and we had to close our windows to prevent the smoke from entering our homes … One fire went on for days and we had a naturally formed sauna in the middle of summer,” he added.

However, this summer uncovered more than just record-high temperatures. Weaknesses were spotted within Civil Defense forces and many complained about the scarcity of volunteers.

The Civil Defense currently has more equipment than members, George said. He attributed the cause to a lack of motivation to join the Civil Defense because volunteers did not benefit from a state contract, despite the risky nature of their job. “There are only 50 Civil Defense members in Akkar and they have an average age of 50 … Not all of them are physically fit to combat forest fires,” George said.

He noted that another obstacle encountered this year was the absence of paths inside forests and the low number of lakes close to Akkar.