May 12, 2012 02:15 AM
By Olivia Alabaster

TAANAYEL, Lebanon: Environment Minister Nazim Khoury and U.N. Development Program representatives visited various projects in the central Bekaa Friday with ambassadors from the donor countries of Italy, Spain and Belgium.

Officials remarked that while environmental progress was being made at these sites, there was still a long way to go. The tour began in Kefraya, where a reforestation project, funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by the Environment Ministry and the UNDP is under way. The project aims at discovering ways to reduce the cost of reforestation, which stands at around $9 per seedling in Lebanon.

National forest coverage currently stands at 13 percent, but the Agriculture Ministry has set a target of 20 percent coverage by 2020, which would require 2 million new trees each year.

The Kefraya project is sampling various methods of irrigation, from traditional irrigation methods to modern methods never before used in the country, such as “nonrechargeable solid water,” or gel bags, which release water gradually over time. When the trial period is over in 2013, results will be published and recommendations made on a national scale.

Garo Haroutunian, the reforestation project manager, was optimistic about the findings thus far.

“The Environment Ministry will be able to reduce the costs of reforestation very drastically” through the new findings, Haroutunian said. “With the same money, instead of reforesting one hectare, we might be able to reforest three or four hectares.”

At the next stop, officials visited the Jub Jannin municipal building, where a $25,000 solar panel provides electricity to the building.

It is one of over 100 sites, all public institutions such as hospitals and schools, which have benefited from a $10 million donation from the Spanish government to implement renewable energy installations, through the Country Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program.

Edgar Chehab, the UNDP’s assistant resident representative in Lebanon, said that such projects not only help the government save money, but also “give a good example to private companies and pave the way for a greener future.”

“Instead of simply preaching about saving energy, these projects are actually doing that,” Chehab added.

Lebanon has pledged to produce 12 some percent of energy through renewable means by 2020 – the total currently stands at around 4 percent – and Chehab stressed that these large-scale projects, implemented from Sidon public hospital to Roumieh prison, are helping the country work toward this challenge.

Spanish Ambassador Juan Carlos Gafo said “all the projects today offer a taste of what we can do to preserve the environment, which is so crucial.”

“There is still a long way to go, but projects such as these prove that, little by little, Lebanon is getting there. It will take time.”

“But now the Lebanese authorities have realized that the environment is an issue which must be dealt with in the present,” he added.

At the final stop, in Taanayel, Khoury and UNDP resident representative Robert Watkins signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the director of Dalal Steel Industries, Toufic Dalal, who pledged to reduce emissions of harmful chemicals, in line with the Montreal Protocol on the ozone layer.

One of the largest steel producers in the country with over 350 employees, Dalal Steel will, in two years, replace all harmful HCFC (hydrochlorofluorocarbon) gases with non-Ozone Depleting Substances under the new MoU.

After 2015, companies not complying with the Montreal Protocol will no longer be able to export their products, but Lebanon has already complied with the first phase of the protocol, banning harmful CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) gases ahead of schedule.

Also speaking Friday, Watkins said that “Lebanon is facing some serious challenges, but we have seen that the country is ready to take up that challenge and has advanced ahead with Montreal.” He also praised the “Ozone Unit at the Environment Ministry and the strong partnership established with the vibrant industrial sector” for the country’s progress in reducing harm to the ozone layer.

Speaking at the signing of the MoU, the environment minister thanked Lebanon’s friends, donors and the UNDP for their support.

“Ambassadors, our friends, my friend Robert Watkins, not only have shown generosity concerning Lebanon, but they have shown commitment. Sometimes generosity is not enough alone without commitment,” Khoury said.

“We are very thankful, as some countries are going through economic crises at home, but we thank you very much, and we thank UNDP, but this would not have been happened without Lebanese initiative.”

The Dalal factory was completely destroyed by Israeli strikes during the July 2006 war, and Khoury said Dalal’s quick rebuild should provide an inspiration to all Lebanese.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 12, 2012, on page 4.

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