August 30, 2011 01:28 AM
By Van Meguerditchian
The Daily Star

BALLOUNEH, Lebanon: The people will bring down any pylon carrying high voltage electrical lines that run near homes, activists and residents of the Kesrouan town of Ballouneh said during a demonstration Monday.

Dozens of Ballouneh residents joined civil society activists in their march toward a giant electricity pylon, the sound of which is heard continuously in the area, where thousands live.

A banner held by protesters read: “24/24 hour power, 24/24 hour tension.”

In an effort to improve electricity services, the Lebanese government had installed the electricity pylons to carry power to regions that face lengthy daily outages.

But many are worried of the potential health effects of the high voltage lines, and, following a coordinated opposition by Metn residents, civil society activists and some politicians, the project has been on hold.

In response to the opposition, the government agreed last month to provide full security cover for the contractors to enforce the implementation of the project.

“If they [government] try to enforce this project … they will face a revolution from the people,” former Social Affairs Minister Salim Sayegh, who was taking part in the protest, told The Daily Star.

Sayegh, a resident of Kesrouan, said that there could be a confrontation to defend public health. “This is a matter that is above politics and the government. This is an issue of public health and either the people fight for public health or not,” Sayegh added.

Energy Minister Jibran Bassil has repeatedly said that the implementation of the electricity project is the only way to supply power throughout the country. The minister has also urged the government to approve a controversial electricity bill that would allocate $1.2 billion to the Energy Ministry to construct power plants.

“It’s like asking the Lebanese, do you want life or death,” said Sayegh, commenting on the Free Patriotic Movement ministers’ threat to withdraw from government if the bill is not endorsed.

“Of course people would choose life. But these tactics are inappropriate for an educated minister like Bassil,” he added.

Speaking at the demonstration, Mazen Skaff, a civil society activist, said that the protests would take place around the country. “We want development but we have to protect public health in the country as well. This is the main reason why the high voltage transmission lines should be installed in underground systems,” said Skaff.

Officials at the Energy Ministry have criticized that suggestion, arguing that underground installations are expensive and would place a financial burden on the country.

“When they say that underground installations are more expensive, they are disregarding the environmental and health costs of the project being implemented above the ground,” said Skaff.

Skaff described an accident involving the high tension lines in which two boys, Tarek Dib and Rayan Abu Malhab, were electrocuted in 2008.

“This boy is a hero … he has suffered from the government’s ignorance to health issues in the country,” Skaff said, as he stood next to Dib, now 22.

Skaff, who is a resident of the area, joined the campaign against the project after many residents in Metn’s Mansourieh and Ain Najem stood against the project’s implementation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 30, 2011, on page 3.

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