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Milk, Honey & Muck


new internationalist
issue 258 - August 1994

Milk, honey & muck
The polluted atmosphere of Beirut is just one symptom of an environmental malaise.
Mohammed Khawlie diagnoses the problems and prescribes the measures needed to cure them.

When I take my one-year-old daughter Elissa for her daily walk through the streets of Beirut I often wonder what she is inhaling. I worry about how much it will affect her immediate health – not to mention her growth into a fit and happy child and teenager.

More and more of our children are falling ill – how much is pollution responsible? The figures speak for themselves. The worst problems are undoubtedly in Beirut. Half of the 800,000 private cars in Lebanon are in Beirut. During the day the population in Beirut and suburbs approaches two million as people commute in by car or public taxi in the absence of any bus services. Thousands of private electricity generators kick into action every day when the main electricity supply cuts out yet again.

Just 30 years ago Beirutis used to have ten lovely bays carpeted with golden sand to enjoy. Now the once-beautiful pockets of sandy beaches and rocky protrusions are on the verge of obliteration. You either have to pay a lump sum to dip into the sea at one of the many concrete resorts, or drive out of the city a considerable distance to find an unpolluted beach.

Preliminary attempts to find out the acidity of the rain (as yet there is no systematic monitoring of air pollution) showed it to be well above normal. Estimates of current emissions into the air indicate increases ranging between 8 and 42 times the rate 20 years ago. This means emitting about 260,000 tons of sulphur dioxide and about two million tons each of dust, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons annually... and Lebanon is among the smallest countries in the world.

Environmental deterioration is not just the result of so many years of war, although the war certainly made conditions worse. Lebanon’s environmental concerns are pretty much those of other developing countries and stem from poverty – high fertility rates in poor communities lacking proper nutrition and clean drinking water. Lebanon also ‘enjoys’ some of the environmental problems faced by developed countries: physical deterioration of the coastline, various kinds of pollution on land, sea and air – traffic being one important factor – and energy-related issues, especially from thermal power stations.

Facing these problems is not easy. I do not expect that environmental deterioration in Lebanon will be solved overnight. In the past Lebanon was known as the ‘land of milk and honey’. The ‘milk’ came from the snow-covered mountain peaks; the ‘honey’ from the fragrant woods. Both are under threat. To stop the environmental degrad-ation Lebanon needs more than fair words or money. It needs a miracle.

This miracle can only be effected in small, practical ways. Environmental legislation must be updated and upgraded. Laws which already exist must be enforced. The one Parliamentary Committee responsible among other things for environmental issues, is simply responding to issues as they become ‘hot’: for example, declaring three islands and an ancient forest in north Lebanon ‘protected areas’.

At least a Ministry of the Environment has been set up. It still has bare offices and minimal staff but it has taken a number of steps in the right direction. In Beirut it has re-activated a solid-waste incineration plan and is trying to revitalize an existing compost plant. Between them they can handle 840 tons of waste a year. The Ministry has updated legislation to prevent the removal of beach sand and to control rock-quarrying. Hunting has been banned for three years starting from 1995 – Lebanon’s birds as well as its people were victims of the war. Cement, asbestos and fertilizer factories, especially in the Chekka area, are being routinely checked. The German Government has promised to send mobile laboratories for detecting and monitoring air pollution. Schools are supposed to be introduced to environmental education to ensure that children are aware of the problems that their parents ignored.

All this is a start, at least on paper. But many measures have only been half-heartedly implemented. Environmental education is still in most cases a cipher rather than a reality; the legislation on beach sands has simply opened the way for offshore extraction; the Chekka factories and others may have controls but these are limited.

On the other hand, groups at all levels, from institutes to voluntary organizations, scientific and social, international and local, have become increasingly involved in environmental issues. The UN agencies have stepped up their initiatives, but not to the extent that one would expect given the levels of environmental deterioration, war or no war. Bilateral aid from German, French and Italian governments and agencies, as well as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, is coming in earmarked for the environment.

The universities are also trying to work on the issues. But due to lack of funding their attempts focus mostly on face-saving activities such as scientific meetings and conferences. This leaves the voluntary organizations. Environmental groups are increasing everywhere. They are getting a fair amount of coverage on the many television stations. Amazingly they have also managed to forget their confessional differences enough to create an environmental forum. Although it has not yet taken any action its very existence is a miracle.

All this has increased public awareness and forced government agencies and leading politicians to come to grips with environmental issues, taking them seriously as a factor in any major decision.

Perhaps one day, when my daughter and I go walking, I will no longer have to worry about the effects on her health and we will both be able to enjoy the beauty of our ‘land of milk and honey’ once more. When this happens the miracle will indeed have taken place.

Dr Mohammed Khawlie is Professor of Geology at the American University of Beirut and a leading international spokesperson on environmental issues.

Worth reading on Beirut and Lebanon

Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk (Andre Deutsch 1990) is a gripping account of a journalist’s experience of the Lebanon conflict. For those who want a more analytical approach, Theodor Hanf’s Coexistence in wartime Lebanon (IB Tauris/Centre for Lebanese Studies 1993) is full of facts and figures with details of the surveys he conducted.

For more historical analysis Kamal Salibi’s A House of Many Mansions (IB Tauris 1988) is a must, while Jonathan Randal’s The Tragedy of Lebanon (Chatto and Windus 1983) charts the first years of the war. There is a whole range of books on the 1982 Israeli invasion: Beirut Fragments, by Jean Makdisi (Persea Books 1990) takes you movingly through one woman’s experience; while Israel’s Lebanon War by the Israelis Ze’ev Schiff and Ehud Ya’ari (George Allen and Unwin 1985) and The Battle of Beirut by Michael Jansen (Zed Books 1982) give you different viewpoints.

Rosemary Sayigh’s books on the Palestinians are both classics - Palestinians from Peasants to Revolutionaries (Zed Books 1979), and the more recent Too Many Enemies (Zed Books 1994).

For a summary look at the Minority Rights Group reports Lebanon: a conflict of Minorities and The Palestinians, both by David McDowall . And for anyone interested in keeping up with events, Middle East International, 21 Collingham Road, London SW5 ONU, UK or 1700 17th St NW #306, Washington DC 20009, US, and The Middle East Report (MERIP) PO Box 43445, Washington DC 20010, US and more specifically, the Lebanon Report and Beirut Review, both from Box 1377, Highland Park, NJ 08904, US, are well worth subscribing to.

The International Broadcasting Trust has produced a video and a booklet entitled The War Generation - Beirut which chart the experience of different people during the war. They are available from IBT, 2 Ferdinand Place, London NW1 8EE.

Don’t forget the many Lebanese poets, playwrights and novelists, from Khalil Gibran to Amin Malouf and Elias Khoury.

And finally, thanks to all those who helped me with ideas for this magazine, including Fida Nasrallah and Nadim Shehadeh at the Centre for Lebanese Studies, and Leila, Nabiha and friends, Khadije, Ramona, Aliya and Albert.

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