Protesters, pollution and agriculture in Lebanon

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Governance in Lebanon has been in steady decline; corruption is endemic and transparency is feeble or non-existent.

by Dr. Hussein A. Amery -Source: Annahar

This photo shows protesters waving the Lebanese flag in Downtown, Beirut, on October 19, 2019. (AFP Photo)

Lebanon and Iraq have been in the grips of mass protests where the people are demanding economic opportunities, a war on corruption, as well as regular water and electricity, and garbage collection. Poor governance and sectarianism in Syria and Iraq created conditions of social marginalization, which fostered the rise of the so-called Islamic State. Economic mismanagement, corruption, and clientelism have become threats to national security.

In Lebanon, mismanagement and corruption have led to destructive environmental behavior, causing the slow death of the Litani River, which once was a life-giving artery. The Litani is to Lebanon what the Nile is to Egypt. It’s Lebanon’s largest river in terms of volume, length, and size of watershed. The latter covers 2,100 square kilometers or 20% of the country’s area, where one million Christians and Muslims of all denominations live in over 160 towns and villages. The vast majority of their wastewater is emptied into the river and untreated.

In the dry summer season when water flow is significantly reduced, parts of the river become effectively an open sewer, degrading the ecology and making people sick. If consumers know that the crop they’re about to purchase was irrigated from the Litani, they will not buy it. In supermarkets, shoppers often sniff parsley or mint to check if they can detect a foul smell.

Governance in Lebanon has been in steady decline; corruption is endemic and transparency is feeble or non-existent. For decades, self-serving politicians have mismanaged the country’s economy, violated the people’s trust, and squandered the country’s wealth. It’s a government of “let me slip some (deals) by, and I’ll let you slip some,” as ordinary people say.

These conditions have induced industries to pump untreated liquid waste into the river. Herders and dairy farmers routinely dump carcasses of animals into the water. Moreover, unwitting farmers’ over-use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides results in excess nitrogen and phosphorus leaching into aquifers.

In recent years, the national media and medical doctors have been reporting a significant increase in the incidence of cancer, gastrointestinal diseases, and neurological disorders among residents of the river basin. For instance, Lake Qaraoun on the Litani River is downstream from many industries, farms, and towns and villages who dump their untreated wastewater into the river. This has reduced oxygen levels in the water, creating dead zones. Occasionally, large amounts of fish are found dead on the beaches of the lake. The disgusting odor from the lake has become a major problem. Residents of the religiously mixed town of Qaraoun took the law into their own hands and blocked farmers from using extremely contaminated water to irrigate their crops.

In Lebanon, polluters prosper and are protected. At a 2016 conference on the Litani River at Beirut Arab University, then environment minister Mr. Mohammad Machnouk openly stated that those who commit major environmental crimes are “known” but the offenders have “political cover,” which prevents his ministry from stopping them. The Lebanese audience didn’t bat an eye because the minister was confirming the obvious. Historically, Israel has expressed an interest in the Litani River. At the same 2016 conference, I said that today if Lebanon offers the river to Israel on a silver platter, it will take a pass.

Despite the ongoing ecological crisis and political paralysis in the country, it was astonishing to hear what Hezbollah Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah proposed last week. In a televised speech, he called for creating a large number of job opportunities by “activating the agricultural and industrial sectors in Lebanon,” which can export all of their products to the Iraqi market. The land-route for exports would have to be through Southern Syria, so Nasrallah urged the Lebanese government to restore normal diplomatic relations with Damascus.

These regional geopolitical maneuverings show indifference to the demands of Lebanese protesters and willful ignorance of the agricultural realities in the country. World Bank data shows that the area of arable land per person is 0.02 hectares in Lebanon, which is minuscule compared to 0.14 hectares in Iraq. Furthermore, 12 percent of all workers in Lebanon are in agriculture, a sector that contributes a mere 2.9 percent to the country’s gross domestic product.

Neither economists nor the protesting citizens across the country look to the agricultural sector as a savior of the economy. Healing Lebanon’s ailing river and its environment starts with applying the rule of law, empowering an independent judiciary, and practicing inclusive and transparent governance. This would go a long way in meeting the protesters’ needs.

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Dr. Hussein A. Amery is Professor and Department Head (Director) at the Division of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) at the Colorado School of Mines. His academic expertise is in analyzing threats to water and food security, with a focus on the Arab Gulf states, and in water conflict and cooperation along international rivers such as the Litani, Jordan, Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates. Some of his publications are on threats to Arab food security, threats to water security in the Gulf states, and on Islamic perspectives on water resource management.

His academic contributions were recognized by his selection as Fellow by the International Water Association. Dr. Amery had been a consultant to U.S. government agencies, International Development and Research Center (Canada), and to American water engineering firms.

 

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