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Environmental degradation exacerbates Lebanon’s crises |

BEIRUT – The problem of environmental pollution in Lebanon, exacerbated by authorities’ neglect of the issue, is worsening.

The continued contamination of the Litani River, the longest river in the country, and the severe rise in the rate of air pollution, foretell an environmental disaster that could immensely burden the country that is already rocked by economic and political crises.

According to officials and experts, pollution in Lebanon has increased the population’s health and economic suffering, while the relevant authorities have made no effort to take measures needed to stop the environmental degradation.

Environment Committee rapporteur MP Qassem Hashem believes Lebanon’s current caretaker government does not prioritise environmental issues highly enough, noting that pollution in Lebanon is chronic and worsening.

Hashem said that “unfortunately, the resignation of the government and the sta

lled formation of a new government made concerns over environment issues outside the country’s priorities,” adding that “environmental problems have increased to some extent due to the crisis the country is going through.”

On August 10, 2020, the caretaker government headed by Hassan Diab resigned, six days after the disastrous Beirut port explosion. To date, no new government has been formed due to political differences between the main parties.

For more than a year, Lebanon has suffered from a severe economic crisis, which has led to a financial collapse and large losses in the Central Bank’s funds.

The country has also begun to see popular protests occasionally flare up in which economic and political demands are raised.

Professor Najat Saliba, an air quality expert, said that between 2017 and 2020, air pollution increased by 50%, according to a study conducted on samples taken in Beirut.

A truck loaded with waste arrives to the garbage dump of Karantina, north of Beirut. (AFP)
A truck loaded with waste arrives to the garbage dump of Karantina, north of Beirut. (AFP)

Saliba, a chemistry professor at the American University of Beirut, pointed out that recently, Lebanon’s streets have been cleaned less regularly, waste has increasingly accumulated and the number of generators running on liquid fuel has gone up.

Saliba said air pollution has spiked 150% in the areas affected by the Beirut port explosion due to the resulting dust, destruction and rubble removal work.

The explosion, which took place on August 4, killed 200 people, wounded 6,000 others and caused enormous material damage to residential buildings and commercial establishments.

As bad as the pandemic

Julien Jreissati, Greenpeace’s Middle East and North Africa programme manager in Beirut, said Lebanon records the highest levels of air pollution in the Middle East due to the absence of renewable and environmentally friendly energy sources.

Jreissati said air pollution in the country causes more deaths annually than the coronavirus pandemic has this year. Jreissati stressed that, in light of the country’s economic and health crisis, environmental issues have become the lowest priority for officials and decision-makers.

According to a report issued by Greenpeace in the summer of 2020, the average number of premature deaths from air pollution in Lebanon was 2,700 in 2018, an average of 4 deaths per 10,000 people, one of the highest rates in the region.

The 170km long Litani River, which suffers from severe pollution, has lost its role as an essential life artery in the country once relied upon to provide secure drinking water, ensure irrigation and generate electricity.

According to Sami Alawiya, director-general of the National Authority of the Litani River, Lebanon’s economic crisis has been used as an excuse for the concerned ministries and contractors not to implement measures to fight pollution or stop sewage and industrial waste from being dumped into the river.

Alawiya added that “in light of the crisis, the spread of random dumpsites on the banks of the river increased, which necessitated the redoubling of our teams’ movement to prevent this.” Still, “things are getting worse,” he said.

Pollution of the Litani River has affected the health of citizens in nearby areas, which makes up about 20% of the country. According to Alawiya, there are thousands of cancer cases in the towns surrounding the river, with one town recording 600 cases.

He pointed out that 20% of the crops in the Bekaa region (eastern and central Lebanon) are still irrigated from the polluted Litani water, making them unsuitable for human consumption.

The river’s pollution has also led to significant economic damage, including the collapse of fish wealth and the subsequent loss of dozens of families’ livelihoods.

Random dumpsites

Lebanon has suffered from a waste crisis since 2015. Experts believe that waste disposal methods do not take into account environmental conditions and the risk of health damage.

Lebanese volunteers take part in cleaning a beach in the capital Beirut. (AFP)
Lebanese volunteers take part in cleaning a beach in the capital Beirut. (AFP)

The head of the Lebanese Environmental Movement Paul Abi Rashid said that random dumpsites have become more widespread since the country’s political crisis escalated.

According to figures published by the environment ministry in 2018, there are 941 random dumpsites throughout Lebanon, dozens of which are burned in the open air at least once a week.

Between the summer and autumn of 2020, forest fires in Lebanon led to the loss of about 7,000 hectares of the country’s green space and agricultural land. Lebanese beaches have not been spared from pollution either, with sewage water being dumped into the sea for years.

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