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Predictions to make you sweat

Can Lebanon withstand the effects of a warming planet?

by Executive Editors

As world leaders assemble in Copenhagen to tackle the gradually encroaching threat of climate change, Lebanon itself stands at the crossroads of two very different futures. In one, appropriate and timely action is taken to reduce human contribution to the phenomenon; global warming abates, or at least slows; weather patterns stabilize; and what minimal changes occur to regional geography and weather patterns are met with carefully-planned mitigation measures and stable infrastructure. This is the best case scenario.

The risks of inaction

Now consider the worst: internal division and transnational rivalry stall meaningful action in Copenhagen and beyond. As the earth’s population booms, the desire for short-term profits outweighs concern for long-term consequences, and the energy industry expands its operations to meet public demand with ever-increasing use of oil and coal. As climate change escalates towards a point of no return, Lebanon’s abundant yearly rainfall occurs with greater intensity, washing away topsoil and draining into the sea before the earth has time to absorb it. Rising sea levels encroach on coastal cities and salinate groundwater reserves, while inland, aquifers dry up from overuse. Hurricane winds, the product of drastically oscillating temperatures, whip up dust storms in fields where crops once grew, now turned into desert. And from the Gulf, a region even more susceptible to the impacts of climate change, a steady press of displaced humanity comes crowding at Lebanon’s doorstep.

These two visions represent extreme ends of the spectrum of possibilities. Most experts project a future that is somewhere between the two, witnessing effects that are serious, though perhaps not catastrophic, and in which Lebanon must take concerted steps to meet an increase in temperature and reduction in water supplies.

Moderating consumption

The threat of climate change has not been lost on the Lebanese government, said Antoine Ghorayeb, head of the Awareness Department at the Ministry of Environment.

“We are aware that climate change will require both mitigation and adaptation measures on the part of the government, particularly with regards to the agricultural sector, which will be most impacted,” he said. “To this end the Ministry of Environment has designated a National Authority on Climate Change, to study the causes and consequences of the phenomenon and recommend necessary measures.”

The focal point of the authority will be the recommendations and targets of the Kyoto Accord, to which Lebanon is party, he said.

Though Lebanon is only responsible for a tiny fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions, that small percentage is due to the country’s relatively small size, and not a serious nationwide commitment to reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Currently the country produces 97 percent of its electricity by burning petroleum, according to a report published by engineer Chafik Abisaid in cooperation with the Lebanese Center for Energy Efficiency and Planning. Add to this the country’s robust transportation sector, another major consumer of fuel, and Lebanon appears a long way from meeting the Kyoto Accord’s target of reducing emissions by 5.2 percent by 2012.

If anything, demand for energy — and with it, fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions — are set to rise. Julien Feghali, president of Schneider Electric, wrote in an email message that “the demand for energy in the region will double by 2020; in Lebanon an average of 5 percent growth per year in electricity demand… The installed capacity in Lebanon is of 2.3 gigawatts; there will be a need for one additional gigawatt.”

If serious changes are not made to the way energy is produced in the country, it would mean the energy sector would have to augment fuel consumption by roughly a third.

Feghali pointed out that while a shift to renewable energy is one of Kyoto’s objectives, it may not be the immediate answer to Lebanon’s own fuel consumption issue. Instead, he argues for an economization of energy and higher efficiency standards for the way energy is used.

“Today, renewable [energy sources] remain less cost-efficient and more difficult to use than oil, gas, and coal,” he wrote. “This means that figuring out how to use less energy is important to our quality of life. Conservation and efficiency are key to meeting the energy needs of our world today and in the future.”

“Conservation and efficiency are key to meeting the world’s energy needs today and in the future”

When it rains, it pours

When it comes to developing solutions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, time may not be a luxury the world, and the Middle East in particular, can afford. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that average temperatures in the Middle East will increase 2 degrees Celsius by 2050, and that regional water supplies could see a reduction by as much as 20 percent.

These figures differ for Lebanon, but reports tend to project a mean temperature increase of between 0.9 and 1.8 degrees Celsius. One study, co-authored by Mutasem el-Fadel, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the American University of Beirut, projects that the ratio of renewable water (primarily collected rainfall) to per-capita consumption will decrease by around 18 percent, due both to an increase in population and a decrease in trappable precipitation.

This will put additional strain on Lebanon’s population, and the rural agricultural sectors in particular. The problem is less with a reduction in rainfall as with a narrower timeframe in which the rainfall occurs, said Edgar Chehab, energy and environment program manager of the United Nations Development Program  (UNDP) in Lebanon.

“Rain flow is becoming increasingly problematic as a result of climate change. While Lebanon’s rains have always occurred primarily during the winter months, now they are arriving with greater intensity during short amounts of time,” he said. “This means that the earth has less time to absorb and retain the rains, which flow directly into the sea.”

Testifying to Chehab’s statement, Lebanon’s precipitation levels as of December 21 were 462 milimeters, amost double the usual monthly average for December of 256 milimeters, according to the Nicholas Chahine Meteorology Center in Beirut. 

A 2004 report by Fadi Karam, head of the Department of Irrigation and Agro-Meteorology at the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, pointed out that climate factors interact with other human actions to worsen the situation.

“Reduced vegetation cover, due to deforestation, overgrazing and low rainfall, as well as poor surface management of cultivated lands have led to reduced infiltration rate” — that is, the amount of rainfall retained by the soil — “increased runoff and soil erosion, and a decline in groundwater recharge,” the report read. “The extent to which the deterioration in hydrology is reversible with improved land management…is now becoming a critical issue…[with effects on] agricultural activities, which are extremely sensitive to the large year-to-year climate fluctuations that are observed.”

Water runoff can be controlled through relatively simple means, said Chehab, as long as those means are implemented under a coordinated strategy. One such strategy would be to improve the country’s irrigation systems, which divert rain water to crops and away from densely inhabited areas where flooding poses a threat to property damage.

Excess rainwater could also be diverted to water traps — pits lined with imperforated material — there to be stored for later use. Such measures will be critical to managing the increased intensity of rainfall which experts predict will accompany climate change.

However, critics say little has been done to improve or repair the country’s water management infrastructure, much of which was destroyed during the 2006 war with Israel. When flash flooding caused thousands of dollars in damages to property in the Northern Batroun region this September, Member of Parliament Antoine Zahra criticized officials at the time for a lack of preparation, warning “the merciless winter will soon come and we should be prepared so as not to drown in similar problems.”

Lebanon’s precipitation levels as of December 21 were almost double the normal monthly average

Unseen repercussions

While some effects of climate change — such as increasingly extreme weather patterns — can already be witnessed on land, the impact of global warming on Lebanon’s coastal waters could be even more profound, and is probably much less understood, said Garabed Kazanjian, oceans campaigner of the Lebanon branch of the international non-profit organization Greenpeace.

“While most of our predictions are speculative, we do know that the Mediterranean basin is an extremely delicate ecosystem because it has been isolated — both from temperature fluctuations and non-native species — for a long time,” he said. Climate change could disrupt that balance dramatically, as water temperatures and salinity rise, he said. These factors would disrupt the deep seabed life that makes its home on the Lebanese coast, and could affect migration patterns of fish species that have historically come to the Levantine basin to spawn. In addition, aquatic life would face previously unseen competition from alien species once held at bay by the Mediterranean’s colder water temperatures. 

Lebanon’s future in terms of climate change, and that of the region as a whole, remains murky. What seems certain is that the coming years will see the consequences of our past, and that these consequences will have to be met with careful planning and mediation. The severity of those consequences may well hinge on world leaders  establishing — and abiding by — a new approach to energy consumption following last month’s Copenhagen summit. Curbing climate change will be a global undertaking, and Lebanon, though a minor player, has to commit to do its part.

Much of the country’s water management infrastructure was destroyed during the 2006 war with israel

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Executive Editors

Executive Editors represents the voice of the magazine.

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