Lebanon’s Minister of Environment, Nazem Khoury, has one of the tougher jobs in government — to raise the profile of a nascent ministry in an already crowded field. Khoury spoke with Executive about his priorities for improving the environment, and how he feels the Ministry of Environment (MoE) has performed over the last year.
E The Ministry of Environment has few resources at its disposal. How are you achieving the goals you’ve set out for the ministry?
We’re understaffed and underfinanced. So on both levels we’re very squeezed. Despite this, the MoE has been able to bring in financing from international donors — the Italians, the European Union (EU), and various foreign governments who have been funding projects in Lebanon. This is how we’ve survived. Our annual budget is just $8 million, and this includes all of the salaries for our staff.
This ministry should have 108 staff members. We have 40, with another 20 who have passed exams in civil service; we are waiting for them now [along with] some 20 others who are funded through the Italian grant to help with capacity building. But these positions will expire in a few months, and with the current financial crisis in Italy, we just can’t ask for more. The Italians have been very generous.
But, we are now on track for two major grants. One is from the EU, for 8 million euros, to help with capacity building and environmental governance, and to strengthen this ministry through the establishment of offices across Lebanon. The other grant is for 12 million euros, for sustainable development and creating job opportunities for Lebanese.
This is from the EU delegation in Lebanon, and the first one is from the European Commission. Both will take effect in 2012 and will last for a period of four years.
These grants are coming from countries that are suffering from great economic crises, so it is very important that these funds are spent the right way because they are not coming back.
E In terms of environmental law enforcement, has anyone in Lebanon been charged for, say, environmental degradation violations?
No, not to my knowledge. I am in the midst of a big legal workshop because this ministry lacks jurisdiction and law enforcement. This ministry is just now trying to find its place within the government.
I have presented eight decrees to the Council of Ministers. For instance, I would like a public prosecutor to handle environmental issues; to create a national council for the environment; to have an environmental impact assessment become law in Lebanon as well as a strategic environmental impact assessment.
And we need to have environmental police. I’m keen to have this police force separate from any existing security forces in Lebanon. We need our own police that are trained in environmental issues and are conscious of the great importance of these issues. They should be highly motivated for this kind of job. This is not a police force that is going to try to impose drastic measures on the population — it has to communicate well and create awareness. We don’t want to just fine people. We must educate them first, and help them understand why this is important. Public awareness is very important.
E Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have said that the MoE reached out to them last summer seeking input. Can you tell us about this?
We got in touch with local NGOs as soon as I came in, because we consider them to be our strategic partners. I come from a background where I was very active with NGOs in Lebanon [and] involved with volunteering and academia for over three decades. So I intend to bring this system of work to this ministry. The MoE needs strategic partners and these can only be found in the local NGOs. We are a government ministry, but we operate with the mentality of an NGO.
The ministry’s motto now is that we want the political environment to be at the service of environmental policy. This is very important, because this ministry is not a part of any political faction. This is a rarity in the government here. The environment is not an issue of politics. We have differences of opinion, sure, but these are mainly technical issues. The environment affects all Lebanese.
We took a conciliatory approach, which was intended to be the plan of the ministry, not of the minister. Because sometimes, with all due respect to ministers, when they are appointed they believe that the ministry starts with themselves, so they bring in people to write up their plans and that’s all. But who is going to implement them?
E Which do you consider to be the most urgent environmental issues in Lebanon today?
Quarries, solid waste, waste management and hunting. For quarries and hunting we have established national councils.
We recently adopted new criteria to obtain quarry licenses that are much stricter than before. The government has a master plan for quarries in Lebanon. Ninety percent of the quarries in Lebanon are outside of the master plan, and of this 90 percent, very few are licensed.
I have extended the licenses until the end of this year for those quarries that had them before, but I have not issued any new ones. I have stopped giving out licenses. We will not stop all of the quarries in Lebanon, but they must abide by the law and [adhere] to the master plan. It has to be strictly regulated. Current rehabilitation efforts for quarries are unacceptable. None of the quarries here have done any rehabilitation.
Everything up until now has been a temporary solution and we cannot go on this way any longer. It has been going on ‘temporarily’ for decades.
E How would you rate the MoE’s performance since you were appointed as minister in June?
I’m not going to rate myself. But I think that what I’ve mentioned up until now, considering all of the reforms we’re trying to implement, as a person, as an individual, I’m quite satisfied with what we have done up until now. But there is a lot more to be done. I’ll be more satisfied when we have achieved more.
E What would you consider to be the greatest success, and failure, of the last year in terms of environmental issues in Lebanon?
I can’t define success and failure, because the standards to evaluate success and failure are very different from other ministries. But, for example, we were able to achieve, in a modest manner, national laws for hunting.
Hunting was not considered to be a legitimate concern. It was not considered real. But we have established very strict criteria for regulating hunting — you must take an exam to get a license, you should have an insurance policy that covers third-party liability, you must take orientation classes and the government will establish hunting seasons. The laws also cover which animals are allowed to be hunted.
And we were able to add the issue of quarries to the agenda of the Council of Ministers. I consider these to be achievements. However, we still need to keep pursuing and following up on these achievements.
While this is not a failure, we were not able to achieve much as far as controlling solid waste. We are facing a huge problem in Lebanon with solid waste management. Air pollution also is a major issue. But these are not things that we can solve by any decree or any quick action. They cannot be done in one or two months. This is a process that has been established and we are working on this.
E Looking ahead to 2012, what is the MoE’s main priority?
Solid waste is our priority. We are working on waste-to-energy programs. And some environmental NGOs are against it, but we are getting sound technical advice and gathering all of the facts. We have found more pros than cons in terms of waste-to-energy technology.
And we have a campaign for the Saida dump. They have started building a wall and shortly we’ll be launching the entire [cleanup] project. Seventy percent of the dump will be recycled.