Little has improved in Lebanon since Executive’s last year-end report on the environment in December 2010. Air quality continues to deteriorate, urbanization advances almost totally unchecked and water resources remain poorly managed; and these are only a few of the steadily growing ecological problems the country faces.
For years, one of the major problems present in addressing Lebanon’s many environmental issues has been the near total lack of reliable and current data.
It has been more than a decade since the last comprehensive report on the environment here was released, so perhaps the most substantial development of 2011 was not an innovative field project or the passing of new environmental regulations, but rather the publication of a 355-page report titled “State and Trends of the Lebanese Environment 2010”.
The report, released in July by the Lebanese development firm ECODIT, was compiled with the assistance of the Ministry of Environment (MoE) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It includes data culled from the Central Administration of Statistics, local and international non-governmental organizations, as well as various news reports. Together, this will add to the ability to clearly analyze the successes, failures and neglected areas of the environment in Lebanon. It can also serve as a platform from which to promote the adoption of new environmental laws.
Any substantial changes to existing environmental laws in Lebanon must ultimately gain approval from the top — no easy task considering the epic bureaucratic hurdles of government. Najib Saab, secretary general of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED), says Lebanon’s biggest environmental issues, “such as air pollution, land and water degradation and coastal zones’ deterioration, can be easily solved in the presence of adequate governance, professionalism and vision.” He adds that “environmental matters are managed by amateurs.”
And not only are government agencies highly inefficient — in the case of the MoE at least, they are also understaffed. More than two years ago, the MoE was given approval to hire an additional 23 staff members for various positions, and salaries for an additional 20 contracted technicians were to be paid in part by a grant from the Italian foreign ministry’s local outreach arm, Italian Cooperation for Development in Lebanon. With government bureaucracy a chronic problem in Lebanon, on the surface, adding more staff to a ministry seems like an unwise decision. But adding analysts, technicians and other specialists to a long neglected ministry could be of great benefit in the future. To date, most of these positions have not been filled. [See Q&A with Minister of Environment Nazem Khoury on page 216]
Another urgent problem is the lack of an environmental law enforcement body. Without one, the task of enforcing regulations, cracking down on violations and monitoring and carrying out court rulings falls on municipal police departments and the Internal Security Forces — both of which have other priorities. The addition of even a modest environmental police force in Lebanon could begin a process of changing people’s attitudes toward the environment. “If the government would enforce laws, say, against throwing trash on the side of the road, I think Lebanese people would stop doing this because they don’t want to pay fines,” says Capricia Chabarekh, an environmental and air quality specialist at ECODIT.
The MoE has sought assistance from a broad range of NGOs in Lebanon, as Rayan Makaram, Greenpeace Lebanon campaigner, says: “When the new minister of environment was brought in this summer, right away he asked for feedback from civil society, NGOs and the media. This push toward greater cooperation with the government was a good success. But, it’s just a first step.”
Shortsighted land management
According to Rita Stephan, environmental and land management specialist at ECODIT, one of Lebanon’s most pressing issues is the poor management of its land resources. Given the country’s size, having responsible policies that curb urbanization and regulate land use is all the more urgent.
“We don’t have land for public gardens; we only have land to build towers and big commercial centers,” she says. “We are destroying our land heritage.”
An October 2011 report from the AFED, ‘Arab Environment: Green Economy,’ offers a blunt assessment of the region’s overall disregard for environmental sustainability: “Arab economies continue to unsustainably deplete renewable natural resources, motivated by short-term profits, causing environmental impoverishment of scarce land and water resources while discounting the value of these resources of future generations.” While meant to address the region as a whole, this statement could be used to describe practices in Lebanon alone, too.
And the figures are staggering: “The average annual cost of environmental degradation in Arab countries has been estimated to be $95 billion, equivalent to 5 percent of their combined GDP in 2010,” the AFED report adds. The last time a thorough cost analysis of environmental degradation in Lebanon was performed — 12 years ago by the World Bank — estimates put the cost at roughly $500 million, or 3.4 percent of Lebanon’s GDP.
Seeing potential in solid waste
According to data from the MoE, solid waste management, or the lack thereof, is one of the fastest growing problems for Lebanon. One possible solution, supported by both the UNDP and ECODIT, is the construction of four waste-to-energy (WTE) incinerators in Lebanon. ECODIT’s Stephan points out the positives — increased energy production for Lebanon’s ailing power grid and less solid waste piling up in landfills, among others — but acknowledges some activists and NGOs are against it. Building and maintaining incinerators “is costly and they need to strictly regulate it,” she says. Among the problems is to dispose of the ash produced from burning waste, which can contain highly toxic chemicals and heavy metals that are dangerous to water supplies.
Beginning in 2006, the government was expected to begin the construction of treatment plants and landfills as part of its WTE “master plan”, but it has so far failed to act. And it is not just a matter of building WTE facilities, it is about changing people’s habits, as Stephan explains: “You have to sort the waste well before incinerating it. So we need to reorganize our waste. We should be separating it in our homes.” She adds that “there is no public awareness for separating waste, and this is a major problem in Lebanon.”
Government stalling will cost Lebanon dearly in the near future. According to the ECODIT report, “waste generation in Lebanon is expected to increase by 1.65 percent annually to reach 2.3 million tons by 2030, notwithstanding potential waste recovery from sorting and composting facilities.” It adds, “Waste disposal is particularly difficult in Lebanon because of its rugged terrain and limited surface area.”
According to Saab of AFED, “Waste-to-energy is just one possible component in an integrated solution to the waste management challenge. Until now, the principles of reduction and re-use are totally absent. It’s as if consumers are encouraged to generate more waste. In this context, waste-to-energy is one option. But what is being considered by the ministry is restricted to generating energy through incineration. When up to 80 percent of municipal solid waste is composed of organic material like in Lebanon, many doubts are raised on the efficiency of combustion, how much energy it produces and how many pollutants. High content of wet organic material is not good for burning, will need addition of fuel to blaze and generates minimal energy.”
“We haven’t seen a study of an option comprising generating energy from organic waste, utilizing digestion to obtain methane. This might be the better option in the Lebanese case. Environmental affairs, including waste, are run by pretentious amateurs or shrewd salesmen,” Saab says.
The issue of waste-to-energy incinerators is highly divisive, with NGOs and activists who are against incinerators pitted against the Ministry of Environment and UNDP who support their construction. According to Makaram of Greenpeace Lebanon, “Our stance is that incinerators are still incinerators — they encourage the production of waste rather than the reduction of waste. Around the world, countries are shutting these incinerators down, and now we want to build them in Lebanon? The global trend is to close down. If we build these in Lebanon, we’re going against science and global trends.”
Additionally, the AFED report estimates that “greening the waste management sector would save Arab countries $5.7 billion annually.”
On the horizon
While there were significant steps taken to improve the environment in 2011 (such as the passing of the National Water Sector Strategy in April), tangible improvements have yet to be seen.
With assistance from the UNDP and NGOs, the government has several major environmental projects on schedule to begin in 2012. Jihan Seoud, environment and energy program associate for UNDP in Lebanon, says that a program with the ministry that will work toward reducing ozone-depleting substances will start next year.
The water sector strategy will be looking at options for renewable sources of water for Lebanon, as well as studying the effects of climate change on supply. “It’s quite comprehensive,” Seoud says. “Of course, implementing the strategy and finding the funding to do the work required is another story.”
The World Bank, in its June 2011 Country Environmental Analysis states that Lebanon is set to meet five out of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG) set out by the United Nations by 2015. Among the three that are predicted to fall short is the reversal of environmental degradation, or as the report calls it, the Ensure Environmental Sustainability MDG.
So, while there is always more that can be done to improve environmental conditions across Lebanon, 2011 could be looked back on as a turning point in the understanding of the most crucial issues. Now it is up to the policymakers to act.