By Patrick Galey
Friday, December 31, 2010

BEIRUT: Following the damp squib that was the Copenhagen climate change summit last December, Lebanon’s environmentally-minded lurched into 2010 not hoping for much.

But even the most pessimistic of green campaigners could not have dared predict the damage the year would bring. Forest fires destroyed more than 2,000 hectares of Lebanon’s ever-diminishing woodland while water shortages, exacerbated by one of the driest autumns in recent years, continued unabated.

The country’s refuse problem deteriorated, with dumps in major cities overflowing and waste management contractors struggling to cope with the volume of trash. Lebanon’s waters were further damaged by overfishing which threatened marine life as well as livelihoods; December’s storms only compounding the misery of fishermen along the coast.

All the while, sorely-needed legislation jammed in Parliament as the Cabinet’s gridlock over security and justice issues stymied any attempt at improving environmental legalities.

Quicker and more robust lawmaking is required from politicians in order to avoid a repeat of 2010’s disastrous course, according to Wael Hmaidan, director of environmental NGO IndyACT.

“The government needs to get the waste management law through the political process,” he said. “Lebanon still doesn’t have a law to manage its waste. This lack of legislation is the main reason we cannot solve our waste crisis. We need this legislation as fast as possible.”

Last year the government announced its intention to get 12 percent of all energy from renewable sources, although few concrete steps for this have been taken in the last 12 months.

“One thing that should happen is for Lebanon to develop a strategy and a plan on how to reach their climate change target,” Hmaidan said. “What will the government do to reduce emissions and increase the energy portfolio before then?”

He added that Lebanon, as country with comparatively low carbon emissions, needed to use 2011 as a year in which it upped its international cooperation on climate change.

“We want the government to be engaged more in international forums,” Hmaidan said. “As a small country we get affected by others more than by our own work and the only way to preserve our rights is through better negotiation.”

Despite investment in equipment and personnel, 2010 saw more hectares damaged or destroyed by forest fires than 2009. Sawsan Abu Fakhreddine, director general of the Association for Forests, Development & Conservation, said that the catastrophic damage from fires was a direct result of poor education and communication over ways to prevent blazes.

“[In 2010] we didn’t see any progress in the way of dealing with this on a prevention level,” she said. “You cannot stop all fires but you can help prevent them. This didn’t happen.”

Fakhreddine noted several practical measures the government could take to increase forest fire prevention, such as clearing old woodland of combustible material and properly enforcing laws against lighting fires in rural areas.

The biggest hurdle, however, continued to be funding.

“Any preventative measure costs a lot of money and this is not available,” she said. “Municipalities in remote areas are poor so unless the government allocates an annual budget for fires we will have the same problem year after year.

“We have to start working in the winter in order to have a safer summer in terms of fires. All services are just doing response work. Lebanon waits until the summer is here and then reacts. We cannot keep this mentality.”

Fakhreddine pointed out that government awareness on this issue was increasing and that Prime Minister Saad Hariri had this year called for a committee to discuss forest fires.

“But I am not sure how much implementation of plans will be put into practice in the near future,” she added. “The biggest problem is funding and this needs to come from the government.”

Another contributing factor to forest fires was the prolonged and chronic water shortage, a phenomenon that, with sufficient political will, could easily be rectified, according to Hmaidan.

“We are losing most of our water because of bad management not bad resources,” he said. “We do not benefit from the water we have.”

Ministers earlier in 2010 mooted the concept of building dams to preserve falling rainwater, although those suggestions were criticized by environmentalists who warned such projects would ravage Lebanon’s river network.

“We only think that the magic solution is building dams but there are better ways to manage our water without doing harm to the ecosystem,” Hmaidan said. “Specifically, we need to manage demand by having laws that organize the way we use water.”

Just as the country was at its most arid – with religious leaders literally praying for rain in early December – the worst storm in a decade broke over Lebanon bringing with it 100 km/h winds and a month’s worth of rainfall in 48 hours.

It also caused millions of dollars worth of damage and destroyed many fishing boats, which the government has since pledged to reimburse.

Raefah Makki, of Greenpeace Mediterranean, said that the storm was the just the latest in a long line of threats to Lebanon’s fishing industry.

“We support the compensation, but offering training to fisherman is also very essential in this equation,” she said. “We also need to look at the social and professional part of [fishing]. How do we sustain fishermen?”

Makki said that introducing new sustainable techniques would both prolong the careers of those in the industry and help preserve dwindling fish stocks.

“We want stricter monitoring and implementation of fishing regulations. Although the Ministry of Agriculture is making some effort, we need to see better implementation because [a lack of enforcement] causes many problems.”

“But our first wish [for 2011] is for the Byblos marine reserve be officially recognized,” Makki added.