Monday, December 06, 2010

Clergymen in Lebanon Friday were leading prayers for rain. Perhaps the country’s politicians and officials took notice, and perhaps not. Even if they found the exercise quaint, they could have at least noticed that down in Israel, a deadly forest fire was wreaking havoc, whether in human, material, economic or political terms.

The Daily Star began the month of December by chiding Lebanese officials for having ignored the menace of fires, despite all the weeks of dry weather, despite all of the environmental costs, and despite the all the signs that the threat had yet to disappear.

This weekend, the Lebanese took a break from the usual rhetoric from politicians, about the possibility that the Special Tribunal indictment would set Lebanon “ablaze.” Unfortunately, the news that replaced the STL stalemate was that the country was actually on fire.

According to Sunday’s count (120 separate blazes), the issue is obviously tantamount to a national emergency. What has happened? The president inspected the site of one fire, and the prime minister is securing foreign assistance. The interior minister has said he suspects arson to be at least partially responsible. But the most intensive action has been taken by the public, as people plead with Electricite du Liban to cut off power supplies and prevent even more damage.

Just as Ziyad Baroud is unable to ensure – by himself – that the country’s roads are safe, no one person can fight Lebanon’s fires. Other officials and figures can step forward, whether they’re in other ministries, or municipalities, or even civic or business associations.

Most people suspect what’s behind Lebanon’s susceptibility to fire. Some fires are deliberately set, in order to reap a “harvest” of wood to be used in heating homes during the winter. But these malevolent entrepreneurs aren’t naturally inclined to destroying the environment for profit. The problem is that the liquid fuel used to heat homes is too expensive for many people living in rural areas. The economic logic is brutal, but it’s understandable. Government officials can do the following calculation: if fuel prices are reduced, this will mean less revenue for the government. But if fuel prices are reduced, this will mean fewer costs for the government, whether in terms of the environment or public health. It also would also bolster tourism revenues.

Or, politicians can simply remember Lebanon’s two prime sources of capital: its people, and its scenery.

In Israel, the entire country has mobilized to fight the threat. In Lebanon, most of our politicians seemed to be enjoying their weekend.

In Israel, people were arrested for allegedly starting the blaze. In Lebanon, by the time someone is arrested for arson, all of the country’s green space might be gone.

In Israel, there are calls for the resignation of top politicians. In Lebanon, the clergymen pray.