Environmental problems across the Middle East contrast harshly with a forgotten past.

04 Sep 2015

With thousands of tonnes of rubbish piling up on the streets and no place to go, Beirut has become a place for political confrontation.

The rubbish created a suffocating stink in the summer heat, resulting in a serious health hazard for millions of residents. When the crisis became insufferable, many Lebanese poured into the streets to demand a better government.
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The need for improved politics in Lebanon and the Middle East is an understatement. When a society is unable to take care of such basic necessities as rubbish disposal, its government is either absent or in deep rot.

If the manifold conflicts and widespread poverty aren’t evidence enough that Middle East politics are unconcerned with the common good, the deteriorated state of its environment is.

Regional degradation

Environmental problems, not just in Lebanon but also across the Middle East have become significant, even dire. And it is a harsh contrast with a forgotten past.

Though known today for its vast stretches of desert, the region was home to verdant ecosystems in ancient times.

Few people know that pine and cedar forests once carpeted wide sections of the region, and that the area teemed with large wildlife. It is little known that in the Lebanese port city of Sidon, for example, hippos and lions once thrived in green areas long surrendered to a modern urban sprawl now typical in the region.

Other cities have inherited blights stemming from a kind of unmitigated tunnel vision – from Cairo and its epic air pollution, to the labyrinthine concrete edifice of Beirut with its sewage tainted river, to Kuwait City on whose outskirts lies the Boschian desert wasteland where the largest oil spill in history was deliberately set in motion by Saddam Hussein.

We can’t start over, but we can try to learn how to better formulate urban and economic policy with nature and the environment directly in mind.

Travel further afield, beyond the cities, and you will find evidence of despoiled wilderness.

The denuded coastal mountains of the Levant, once blanketed by mighty cedars, are now mostly eroded slopes, the victims of a blind and ignorant deforestation.

Behind Alexandria, in Egypt, lies Lake Mariout – a formerly idyllic wetland where ancient Egyptians once fished or met in romantic trysts.

That lake is now a chemical dump with an unearthly mercurial pinkish glow that screams toxicity. Yet, today, millions live near its poisoned waters.

The consequences of this environmental neglect are significant.

Respiratory and other chronic ailments run rampant. The region’s cities, where nature has been stripped bare, have contributed to fashioning a human being who is tense, nervous, and aggressive.

Living in a modern Middle Eastern city, one is subject to a kind of cabin fever – especially in the extreme heat of summer.

High population densities combined with anxiety and a lack of good sleep due to the heat, encourage aggression and conflict – the propensity for wars in the Middle East over summer months is often attributed to the good weather needed to wage military campaigns, but the increased tensions of summer city life may also be implicated.

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Extreme summer heat in Baghdad, combined with a lack of sufficient electricity, has triggered political demonstrations demanding an end to corruption.

The quality of life in cities in the Arab world stands in stark contrast with another way of life, one more grounded and respectful of nature.

Indigenous examples

For as long as Middle Eastern cities have stood, the indigenous First Nations living on the Pacific coast of British Columbia, in Canada, have existed in close symbiosis with nature – the great temperate rainforest and the ocean that adjoins it. A healthy ecosystem was, and still is, considered crucial to their cultural identity and physical survival.

There, indigenous groups like the Haida, Gitga’at and Kitasoo-Xai’xais are making a concerted effort to remain in tune with nature – and resist the predations of the modern economy that can threaten it.

For most of them, unlike corporations, the environment is not something to be traded off wholesale for material gain.
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The Lax Kw’alaams band, living near the city of Prince Rupert, have rejected over $750m in return for allowing the construction of a natural gas export terminal on ecologically sensitive ancestral lands.

Other groups, armed with traditional ecological knowledge, are acting independently of the governments and the industrial interests in their midst, to determine their own policies.

The Heiltsuk First Nation is working to protect its waters from overfishing – safeguarding culturally important food sources also deemed crucial to the livelihood of the ecosystem.

Every summer, young people in the community are taught ecology and stewardship practises, including harvesting medicinal plants.

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The Heiltsuk and their neighbours, in partnership with scientists, are also doing their own wildlife surveys – independent of the government whose work is marred by bureaucracy and politics.

However, First Nations and their allies in British Columbia still face challenges. Controversial plans are afoot to build lengthy pipelines to the coast where fossil fuels will be shipped in supertankers to Asia through the narrow, rocky and often turbulent channels of the rainforest.

The care for nature shown by British Columbia’s Coastal First Nations is something seemingly foreign in the urbanised, global capitalist culture that has taken root in the last few centuries.

Although heir to a powerful cultural heritage, the Middle East has slid thoughtlessly into the current of exploitative capitalism and rampant consumption, often without the mitigating trends now present in the West. The region’s environment and quality of life are the inevitable victims.

Learning from others

Although its terrain and nature is vastly different than that of British Columbia, the principles of respect for nature, and priority for sustainability that First Nations practise, are relevant to the people of the Middle East.

From those principles can come many solutions to the ill rivers and urban congestion of the region.

We can’t start over, but we can try to learn how to better formulate urban and economic policy with nature and the environment directly in mind.

This is already happening in some places. But as we infringe on the last of the truly wild places, Canada – and the wider world – would also do well to learn from the Middle East’s long history of resource depletion and environmental degradation.

The Middle East, in turn, can learn from the first peoples of the British Columbia who practise a way of life that is sustainable and respectful of the environment – because they know their culture and livelihoods depend upon it.

Hippos and lions will not return to Sidon, but a deeper appreciation of nature, and the calmer, healthier and more content life that comes with it, may.

John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

John Zada is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

About the Author
John Bell

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.

About the Author
John Zada

John Zada is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.