August 13, 2012
By Rakan al-Fakih

BAALBEK, Lebanon: The fertile plain of the Bekaa Valley is on the verge of losing its reputation as “Rome’s bread basket,” a nickname it has held for thousands of years after providing wheat to the Roman Empire. In recent years, urban expansion has invaded arable land from the western Bekaa, through Zahle and its environs and on to Baalbek-Hermel.

The expansion is being done in a piecemeal manner, without any central planning, and is changing the plain’s landscape, which looks increasingly like one contiguous city stretching across the Bekaa.

The Bekaa covers an area of 428,000 hectares – 42 percent of Lebanon’s total area – and its arable land is all the more important because mountains make up most of the country.

Civil engineer Wissam Tarshishi says that the construction sector in the Bekaa has witnessed great progress but, due to urban expansion, only a third of the plain’s land remains suitable for agriculture.

A growing population is pushing the expansion and residential buildings now cover 22 percent of the area in a sprawl that increases daily.

“This [growing population] is a natural reason for an increase in the number of buildings,” Tarshishi says, adding that unprecedented real estate prices have encouraged investors, including Lebanese expatriates and Arabs, to transfer their capital to the real estate sector.

At the same time, a deterioration of the agriculture sector has pushed many farmers to neglect their lands and caused fragmentation of agricultural property, resulting in the emergence of small farm holdings which are useless from an economic standpoint, he adds.

A lack of planning – residents of the area often do not obtain licenses to build – coupled with fewer people depending on agriculture for their livelihood, have left residential areas disorganized and the remaining agricultural land neglected.

As land is passed on through generations, it is often divided into multiple tracts, and because of the complicated bureaucratic process, many who inherit these smaller parcels obtain building licenses from the municipalities, which often do not hold builders to the required standards or supervise construction.

“Dozens of years have passed without a change in the area’s urban planning or steps taken to protect agricultural land and facilitate the building sector, as well as prevent ad hoc construction,” says Tarshishi.

He also says a plan for a network of roads has prevented many people from building on land more suitable for development. “This road plan has existed for 35 years, but it has not been implemented or canceled. It is a waste, as people cannot use the land put aside for this, and they have resorted to using agricultural land,” he says.

Serge Yazaji, an urban planning engineer, says areas across Lebanon are seeing agricultural land being consumed by modern expansion, a trend he blames on outdated urban planning laws and regulations.

People are also lured into building because of the quick profit that can be made in the sector, he says.

An absence of accurate studies and statistics on urban expansion in the country and on the actual areas being used for building plots is exacerbating the problem, he adds.

Yazaji says that the general urban planning in Lebanon is insufficient, as the main projects are focused on coastal and large residential areas.

“There is no comprehensive plan for 84 percent of the country,” he says.

Yazaji adds that there are no staff with agricultural or geological expertise or any specialized in environmentally friendly development in the directorate general for urban planning.

Both Tarshishi and Yazaji stress the need for a comprehensive survey of all Lebanese land by the Real Estate affairsDepartment at the Finance Ministry. They also call for a new ministry for urban planning, which would supervise development across the country.

This should be followed by issuing new legislation by the director general of urban planning, which would allow the height of buildings on land that is not categorized as agricultural to reach 20 meters, they add.

Instead of horizontal expansion, there should be vertical expansion, the civil engineers emphasize.

They argue that a decree should also be issued to allow owners of illegal buildings to settle their affairs with the government, as well as facilitate the process of providing building licenses by reducing bureaucracy.

It should also be ensured that there is a technical team in each municipality to supervise building construction, and the role of the Engineers Association should be strengthened, they note.

Finally, ecofriendly construction and reforming the sector in a way that protects the country’s environment should be encouraged.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 13, 2012, on page 4.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::