January 11, 2013 01:22 AM
By Meris Lutz

BEIRUT: A combination of political corruption, poorly maintained infrastructure and a lack of planning contributed to the severe flooding that devastated wide swaths of Lebanon following a severe winter storm that struck the country this week, experts told The Daily Star Thursday.

The impoverished Beirut suburb of Hay al-Sellom and the Bekaa municipality of Barr Elias, where one person reportedly drowned in floodwaters, were particularly hard-hit. Both areas are located near rivers which flooded but residents and local officials have blamed nearby construction projects and blocked drainage and sewer systems.

Public Works and Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi defended his ministry, blaming the disaster on the strength of the storm, delayed funding and illegal construction, particularly near rivers. Critics have pointed out, however, that both building permits and construction regulation fall under the Directorate General of Urban Planning, which answers to Aridi’s own ministry.

“The poor do the best they can to build their own houses, which tend to be on abandoned land, and this is thanks to the policies of the central government and the municipalities,” said Leon Telvizian, an architect and former head of the Urban Planning Department at Lebanese University. “The whole process of planning is under the control of special interests, even at a municipal level.”

Simon Moussalli, an architect and urban planner who has also served as chair of the architecture department at the American University of Beirut, echoed Telvizian’s assessment that the problem is systemic, but added that Aridi must bear responsibility nonetheless.

“This storm may be considered a natural disaster, but the directorate and the ministry must foresee such situations,” he said. “This is what we call planning.”

But the gray area of responsibility among the ministry, the Council for Development and Reconstruction and the municipalities when it comes to building and maintaining infrastructure allows public officials to shift the blame when disaster strikes, as Lebanon had the occasion to witness this week.

Accusations have been flying since the storm struck Sunday, with political parties blaming municipalities, municipalities blaming the central government, the ministry blaming the Cabinet and the state-owned electricity company blaming workers.

Politics also plays a role in decision-making and the distribution of services, especially in areas like Hay al-Sellom where most of the residents moved to the metro-Beirut area from rural areas and are therefore not eligible to vote in local municipal elections. The current electoral law requires Lebanese to vote in their home village to preserve the sectarian balance of voting districts. This means that some municipalities are not held accountable to entire sections of the population living there.

Hay al-Sellom, a mixed Sunni-Shiite area belonging to the larger, richer and Druze-controlled Choueifat municipality, was declared a disaster area Tuesday, but residents who spoke to The Daily Star said the area suffers from regular neglect.

“It’s the same story every time,” said Zahra Mazloum, 39, who lives just a few streets away from the worst of the flooding. “The sewers need to be changed and the infrastructure is all ruined … but the municipality doesn’t care because most of the people here are from the Bekaa and the south.”

In addition to the political and social complications arising from widespread, ad-hoc urbanization, it also affects soil permeability and drainage.

In Barr Elias, Mayor Abdullah Abdel-Rahim told The Daily Star that the unfinished Arab highway, which runs through the municipality and falls under the umbrella of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, created a natural dam which exacerbated the flooding from the nearby Litani River.

The CDR’s press office had not responded to a request for comment by press time.

In the capital the storm was a nuisance for most people, but some areas, including Karantina, faced serious flooding and property damage.

“The infrastructure presently available in Beirut is simply not able to cope with the density of construction that the master plan of Beirut allows,” said Moussalli, adding that even if the storm drains and sewers had been cleared, the pipes do not have the capacity to handle the amount of rainfall from the past week.

“Another very serious issue is that the sewage system is obsolete and has not been maintained; surface water gets mixed with sewage and then you can imagine the result when it floods,” he added.

But addressing the underlying problems of urban planning, poverty, and the uneven distribution of services requires government coordination at many levels, a dim prospect given the current political deadlock.

“It’s a question of to what extent the public is able to take part in the future of their living conditions,” said Telvizian. “We are pushing the limits of everything and it will only get worse without some reform in the democratic process, so hopefully this can be addressed in the new electoral law being discussed.” – Additional reporting by Rakan al-Fakih

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 11, 2013, on page 4.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2013/Jan-11/201767-a-perfect-storm-of-mismanagement-and-corruption.ashx#ixzz2HcgMmPCj
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With a perfect storm, perfect failure
January 10, 2013 12:39 AM
By Michael Young

The incompetence of the Lebanese state, it is true, is the result of decades of training. At no time was this more obvious than in recent days, as Lebanon has struggled with the devastation from a storm in the Eastern Mediterranean.

With greater imagination, the leaders of March 14 might have legitimately demanded the government’s resignation for its shortcomings. The Mikati government has dealt with the effects of the storm with the same ineptitude as its predecessors. This is a default setting for the state, which waits until disasters happen before taking measures to address or alleviate the outcome.

It’s not as if we did not know ahead of time that the storm was coming. There were several days to take steps to prevent some of the worst consequences. It may be impossible to prevent the Litani River from flooding, but did the government plan ahead to prepare for more manageable contingencies? How is it that rescuers have not found a child lost Monday, Youssef Rakan Fadl? The search will be resumed tomorrow by a “specialized team” that has just arrived in Lebanon, we are told. In the interim, his family has been on its own.

Specialized or not, no team is likely to find alive a child who was swept away by the waters four days earlier. Where is Lebanon’s rapid response system? And if we do not have one, then isn’t it time to admit that we are no better than a third-rate state, one that should devote more time to improving governance than it does to ensuring that ministers have impunity and that their patrons are content?

Myriad pressures have been building. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that some 180,000 Syrians are receiving assistance in Lebanon. This is potentially catastrophic for a country that fears a rise in salaries would undermine the national currency. Nor is it enough to attribute our woes to outdated or depleted infrastructure. What about all the roadwork during the 1990s? Our new highways are as likely to be flooded as older byways.

To make up for the abysmal tourist season, which forced many establishments to close down, the government has embarked on a campaign to encourage Lebanese and foreigners to make purchases in Lebanon’s stores. But why would tourists flock to Lebanon if the country cannot even clear streets of water after rainfall? The scheme is interesting: 50 percent reductions on items for 50 days. But as critics have argued, the tourists did not stay away from Lebanon in 2012 because prices were high. They didn’t come, because they were little reassured about the government’s ability to deal with crisis. Will the latest debacle persuade them otherwise?

Even those who support parties represented in the government hardly seem convinced. A television crew ventured into the disaster zone of Hay al-Sellom, in Beirut’s southern suburbs. There they met an old woman whose house had been flooded. She began by thanking Hezbollah for its help, before complaining of the poor response of the state. It was odd to hear her remarks, for what she really meant was that a government dominated by Hezbollah had done nothing for her, while the party itself had. It’s remarkable how easily people will distinguish between the two. But then a system that discourages any sense of official collective responsibility does that to you.

Have we ever seen a Lebanese minister accept blame for errors by his ministry? When the public works minister, Ghazi Aridi, says that the destruction in Hay al-Sellom was “due to the population in that area” who have built along the Al-Ghadir river, we must pause. Yes, the state is little respected in Hezbollah’s stronghold, so that if it were to warn against construction along the river, it would be ignored. But that doesn’t prevent the state from issuing such warnings publicly, to show that it has a better grasp of future realities than the population.

Nor is it a good idea for Aridi to blame the population for a natural catastrophe, especially when the state has taken no precautions to alleviate the worst of that catastrophe. Or indeed when the state, through its lamentable oversight over public works projects, has virtually ensured that the infrastructure in place to avert flooding is wholly inadequate. For instance, the Beirut-Jounieh highway was closed Tuesday. At best, the highway is a procession of lakes when there is rain, even though work on it remains unfinished.

The key to addressing storms like the one that just came through Lebanon is foresight. Certainly, one cannot expect the state to perform miracles. But when it comes to supervising and fixing man-made structures that are not performing as they must, then the state has a responsibility to act. More can be done to inform the public of likely problems ahead of time, and prepare contingency plans if these take place. And when manpower is insufficient, the emergency services must plan to collaborate with the Army.

One of the worst storms in Lebanon’s recent memory occurred in February 1983. At the time, the multinational forces had to free villagers trapped by snow in the area of Qartaba, and people died in their cars at Dahr al-Baydar. Little has changed in three decades. The state is still unprepared, its response mostly ad hoc and unsatisfactory, and the impact on the Lebanese far worse than it needs to be.

Najib Mikati is a respectable man, but if he deserves to resign, it is for his government’s deficiencies in what was a storm everyone expected and for which ministers should have been ready.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 10, 2013, on page 7.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Columnist/2013/Jan-10/201567-with-a-perfect-storm-perfect-failure.ashx#ixzz2HcgcWwks
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Away with murder (editorial)
January 11, 2013

Lebanon is picking up the pieces from its latest bout with bad weather, and most can identify the culprits responsible for a storm that killed several people and caused massive damage to the agricultural and other sectors.

The man or woman in the street can easily rattle off the problems: a lack of enforcement of public safety and urban planning laws, a lack of state resources used wisely, and a failure to take the needed precautions in advance.

But the real problem is that politicians, whether at the national or the local level, are often the ones leading the charge on this front. They can sound very well-informed when they talk about the problems, leading the public on an intricate trip through the areas where Lebanon lacks this or that, or suffers from this or that.

But politicians and state officials are ultimately responsible for the breakdown, and are not disinterested observers. The country’s rivers and its coastline are lying in plain view of the public and their representatives, day after day. Throughout the year, illegal construction is allowed to flourish, whether by municipal authorities or those at higher levels. Quarries and construction sites receive minimal, if any, oversight. A whole set of safety measures are ignored, probably because of complaints that it will cost too much, and the problem is swept under the rug. Structures collapse, sometimes with deadly consequences, and still nothing of substance is done.

Politicians and others complain about negligence, which according to the law is a crime. But making the link between responsibility and accountability is a non-starter. Either authorities fail to follow through and hold someone responsible for physical and material damage, or the people fail to do their part. Time and time again, they vote for the same national politicians who have failed to carry out their oversight duties, or allow the government to evade responsibility for oversight. A substantial level of corruption and mismanagement exists at the municipal level, but again, at election time the overriding concerns involve seeing family A defeat family B.

Few politicians are serious enough to level with the public, and say that without paying for better infrastructure, people should expect to incur substantial damage and inconveniences every time a storm hits the country.

They probably refrain from doing so because they know that a drive to revamp water and road infrastructure would probably fuel corruption, and not solve problems. Elsewhere, a fairly simple case of mismanagement or corruption – or even the hint of graft – is enough to bring down public officials elected to the highest office.

But in Lebanon, many people have given up on demanding their rights. They don’t have the will or power to stand up to their local representatives who fail in their jobs, much less take on the more powerful politicians at the national level.

When parliamentary elections take place later this year, the scenes of January’s flooded roads and homes will be a part of history, and not important enough to enter the election campaign rhetoric.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 11, 2013, on page 7.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Editorial/2013/Jan-11/201774-away-with-murder.ashx#ixzz2HcgnhSYE
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