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A Plan for Environmental Recovery

A Plan for Environmental Recovery

Najib Saab

Publisher and editor-in-chief of Al-Bi'a Wal-Tanmia (Environment and Development)

 It can be said without hesitation that the environmental crisis in Lebanon is rooted in the weaknesses inherent in the country's prevailing political system.  It is, unfortunately, a structure based on the distribution of profits among those in power, which encourages dealing with public resources not as a national common good, but rather as a milch cow to be shared among influential clan-chiefs, under the pretext of various religious, regional and provincial interests.

 Against this backdrop, issues such as regulating stone quarries, banning vehicles operating on prohibited diesel engines or identifying locations for landfills, are quickly turned into sectarian debates. Moving quarries from forest areas rich in biological diversity, which happen to be populated by a majority of Maronites, is  considered a conspiracy to strip the Maronites of their right to exploit natural resources; and as  the majority of owners of taxis and transport vehicles operating on diesel are  Shiites, opposition to regulating the sector mainly comes from Shiite politicians. As for setting up landfills within the borders of certain provinces, this is viewed as a plot targeting  specific sects.[1]

 Waste Management

 In the absence of a blueprint for a national waste management plan, ad-hoc arrangements have been governing waste treatment since the end of the civil war. The bulk of the 1.5 million tons of solid waste daily produced in Lebanon finds its way to arbitrary dumps in the natural landscape, often destroying forests and beaches.  Billions of dollars have been spent since 1994 on emergency waste collection and treatment schemes, in many instances at a cost exceeding US$ 100 per ton. Hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and loans provided by international organizations to tackle the solid waste problem have been spent on projects  that have largely washed out during the past decade for lack of an integrated waste management plan.  Those who really benefited from the money were contractors and middlemen, and no sustainable benefits were achieved. International sales representatives and their local friends continued to push for isolated projects on a selective basis, ignoring the obvious prerequisite of a national plan under which sectoral waste management could  be successfully implemented. A World Bank programme initiated in 1995 that has since been aborted was partially to blame for the deadlock, as it advocated a plan based solely on landfills, even for heavily populated cities with no access to vacant land, instead of developing an integrated waste management scheme.[2]

 Air Pollution

Although the data available on air pollution is sketchy and unreliable, combining that data with field observations has confirmed the alarming state of air quality in Lebanon. A 2002 law intended to limit air pollution banned vehicles using diesel and also abruptly prohibited leaded fuel. In a country where more than 70 per cent  of the cars in use are over 10 years old and were made to run on leaded fuel, the shift resulted in very high emissions of hydrocarbons, owing to the inefficiency of combustion. This increased emission-compounded by the fact that the content of benzene in the gasoline used in sun-drenched Lebanon is over 5 per cent-means that while the level of lead may  have dropped, the rise in the level of ozone due to the increased emissions of hydrocarbons must certainly have rocketed since 2002. The phasing out of leaded fuel in Europe was gradual, on the other hand; there, to cater to owners of old cars, gasoline with additives to replace lead remains available to consumers.[3]

Totally banning all cars running on diesel is yet another ramification of Lebanon's  futile policies. One would do well to  consider that 40 per cent of new cars in Europe use diesel, with the percentage reaching 60 per cent  in France and 70 per cent in Austria. Instead of limiting the ban to some 40,000 cars running on old diesel engines that were illegally imported from Germany as scrap and imposing strict specifications on diesel engines and the quality of fuel, the Lebanese law banned all cars using diesel, old and new.

The few studies carried out by private research teams within the framework of limited grants, mainly from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), gave alarming statistics  on the consequences of pollution on human health, confirmed by widespread cases of irritation in the eyes and chronic respiratory problems. A 1997 study carried out by a research team from the American University of Beirut (AUB) had already shown levels of ozone surpassing 400 micrograms per 1 cubic meter, or some 50 per cent  above critical levels. Carbon dioxide, sulfur and nitrogen oxides were way above acceptable levels in random measurements taken between 1996 and 2003.[4]

No programme is being implemented or even planned to organize and encourage public transport, which alone could effectively reduce the air pollution caused by over 1.2 million private vehicles. A study carried out in 2003 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for the Ministry of the Environment determined that air pollution in Lebanon cannot be controlled except with the introduction of a reliable public transport system, including a rail network (which has been defunct since the outbreak of the civil war in 1975).[5]

 Industrial Pollution

A World Bank-sponsored State of the Environment report published by the Ministry of the Environment in 2001 indicated that there are 22,000 industrial plants in Lebanon, 90 per cent of which are small establishments employing less than 10 persons. These produce about 191,623 cubic metres of liquid waste annually, over 90 per cent of which is discharged untreated into nature and through the sewage network. Industrial operations contribute 75 per cent of organic pollutants, in addition to methane gas, and generate some 200,000 tons of solid waste annually, including an estimated 3,350 tons of hazardous waste, the bulk of which is dumped together with domestic waste.[6]

A USAID-financed study undertaken by a Lebanese American University (LAU) team in 2003 and published in January 2004 revealed that in the intensively industrialized area of Chekka-Selaata in North Lebanon, where cement and chemical plants are concentrated, the quality of air was way above the limit. Particulates were between 250-450 micrograms per cubic metre, against an EPA daily average limit not exceeding 150microgram and an annual average not exceeding 60 microgram per cubic metre. Sulfur oxide levels in populated areas around the plants were, in many instances, 10 to 20 times above acceptable averages. Nitrogen oxides, although most of the time within limits, surpassed acceptable levels more than a hundred times during certain periods. While the levels reported may be inflated, owing to lack of precision in the measuring instruments used, the team observed that on the same days when high nitrogen dioxide levels were detected,  severe conditions of eye and respiratory irritation were reported by residents.[7]  An earlier study undertaken in 2001 showed that Lebanon's annual economic loss attributed to the effect of air pollution on health was over US$ 170 million.

 Wasted Water

At a time when the Lebanese are suffering from severe shortages of water, coupled with a deterioration of its quality because of  bad management, about half of the 2,600 million cubic metres of accessible surface and groundwater is wasted every year as it is left to flow into the Mediterranean Sea. Fresh water is being polluted by untreated sewage, while  updated data on the quality of water is either not reliable or practically not available. A mobile station to carry out spot measurements of water quality, which was part of a French donation in 2000, stands rusting in the parking lot of the Ministry of Environment, probably from  the lack of will to operate it, although the Ministry attempts to justify its idleness by claiming a shortage in operating funds. [8]

 Deforestation and Agriculture

Despite volumes of rhetoric in support of reforestation programmes and natural reserves, forests in Lebanon have diminished to less than 7 per cent  of the country's land area, due to war, chaotic urban expansion, stone quarries and the uncontrolled cutting for firewood. In 1975, forests had covered 20 per cent of the country.

The failure of rural development plans, the increase in aridity owing to water wastage and the continued lack of support to rural communities, have led to the abandonment of 40 per cent of the country's arable land, resulting in widespread erosion and desertification. This has been documented in the report on the National Plan to Combat Desertification that was  released in June 2003. The report reveals that 60 per cent  of the land in Lebanon is under high threat of desertification.[9]  These figures confirm an earlier report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1999, which indicated that arable land in Lebanon has decreased from 360,000 hectares in 1970 to less than 250,000 hectares in 1999. The situation has been made worse by the intensive use of chemical fertilisers and insecticides, which has resulted in high levels of soil and water pollution.

 Chaotic Urban Planning

One major challenge to environmental stability that still remains seriously neglected in Lebanon is zoning, as 90 per cent  of the country has yet to be classified. The consequence is that  the whole country is being regarded as no more than  chunks of real estate destined for sale to the highest bidder. Aided by legal manoeuvring and enticement, virtually any part of the country's forests and beaches can be exploited, often through the power of money, politics or religion.

Some development projects in Beirut represent prime examples of environmental crimes, in which  financiers, lax laws and a corrupt bureaucracy all play the role of partners in crime alongside the developers. A 120,000-square-metre shopping mall was built on a 20,000-square-metre plot of land owned by the Orthodox Church in the middle of a residential area in East Beirut. The building covered the entire  surface and left no  provision for service roads, thus creating heavy traffic jams and causing an alarming increase in air pollution inside the  congested area. A government official justified granting the permit by pointing to another shopping compound previously built in an equally congested residential area in West Beirut by a Muslim foundation. Another example of environmental abuse is the member of Parliament from the predominantly Maronite region of Kesrouan who  complained against banning stone quarries in his area, which is noted for  some of the most beautiful forests in Lebanon, as though the ban was directed against what he considered a divine right to destroy nature.

Are we witnessing a balance of environmental terror practised in the name of religion? Or is it a special interpretation of the Genesis?

 The Coast and the Sea

Industrial and private recreational developments occupy 56 kilometres of the Lebanese coast, or  23 per cent  of it; and solid waste virtually litters most of the remaining 77 per cent. Half a million cubic metres of untreated wastewater is discharged into the sea every day. Meanwhile, a plan to build wastewater treatment plants across the country has been delayed by disputes among politicians about land expropriation.[10]


Noise Pollution

Noise pollution caused by cars, factories, building equipment and loudspeakers has become a most troublesome feature of Lebanese cities, mainly Beirut. In many sectors of the city, noise levels are over 85 decibels, compared to the acceptable limit of 70 decibels. As each time the level of noise is doubled another 3 decibels are gained, a level of 85 decibels actually translates into a 16 times increase over the tolerable level.

 From One Catastrophe to Another

An Environment Protection Act adopted by the Lebanese Parliament in 2002 remains, in the absence of executive decrees, a declaration of principles lacking in enforcement power. It is yet another one of the dozens of environmental programmes launched since 1994 with international funds, which produced  hundreds of reports that ended up as no more than display items on the shelves, because they were not undertaken as part of an integrated national plan specifying priorities and setting goals. The harsh reality is that  the state of the environment in Lebanon is no better than it was when major programmes were launched in 1994.

The policy statement of the government, which was endorsed by  Parliament in late 2000, was the first attempt in Lebanon to integrate environmental policies within national plans. The statement included clear guiding principles, from calling for an environmental state of emergency, to setting priorities, establishing a national agency for environmental research and implementing a system of incentives versus taxation, which effectively would support cleaner production while punishing polluters.

The government promised to give the environment utmost priority on its agenda, and endorsed the principle of sustainable development when it stated that "recent experiences around the world have confirmed that environmentally sound decisions can also be sound economically, especially if we are to take into account future generations, instead of merely            focusing on instant gains."

In order to place  environmental issues in the hands of professionals and not amateurs and  stop treating ministries as guinea pigs, the policy statement called for the "establishment of a National Environment Agency, entrusted with carrying out scientific research and setting standards. This will ensure that environmental policies are based on reliable data and not wild guessing and witch hunting." Promising to establish this independent institution may be the most prominent declaration  in the statement, as it represented an advanced step towards creating active environmental institutions and defining rational scientific policies not constrained by circumstantial interests.

Results so far, however, have been disappointing. Although the statement included a perfect framework for a state environmental policy, consecutive governments have failed to translate declared principles into a plan of action backed by concrete programmes designed to address the environmental state of emergency as described in the policy statement. The Ministry of the Environment itself is still considered a second-class ministry, assigned as a consolation prize to ministers not known to be proficient in environmental policies.[11]

Attempts to establish the National Environment Agency were aborted by factions intent on benefiting from the state of chaos that proceeded to waste international funds on a closed circle of  newly created ‘experts'. While the declared intention was institutional capacity-building, local project managers employed by international programmes and development agencies became what may be termed environmental mercenaries, moving from one project to another in search of higher payments, with little if any capacity-building impact on the institutions they were supposed to serve in the first place.

Basic Steps

 Before formulating  detailed environmental policies, national priorities should be defined and socio-economic policies should be modified, in order to alleviate the negative effects on the environment. The World Bank has estimated the total economic loss of  environmental degradation in Lebanon at US$ 500 million  a  year. Similar alarming figures were released on Syria, where environmental degradation costs US$ 700 million annually (and US$ 3 billion in Egypt). Deteriorating environmental conditions cost all the Arab countries combined US$ 15 billion  each year, representing 3 per cent of the combined gross domestic product (GDP), which exceeds average growth levels.

Whereas sound economic policies are often good for the environment, such as lifting the subsidies on water, electricity and fuel to rationalize consumption, this is not always the case. For example, controlling industrial pollution is in most cases an expensive option, but it is nevertheless a social price that has to be paid.

A few basic steps that should precede the implementation of a viable environmental platform in Lebanon would include:

- Organizing and activating the Ministry of the Environment to enable it to manage efficiently in the areas of environmental policies and strategic planning; laws and legislation; industry and consumer protection; international relations including treaties and organizations; information and awareness; waste, noise pollution and traffic; water and agriculture; chemical and radioactive substances; air and energy. Until now, there is still no action plan in place for the implementation of international conventions ratified by Lebanon, mainly those on climate change, biodiversity and desertification.

- Establishing a Higher Environmental Council, presided over by the Prime Minister, to act as a decision-making body entrusted with setting cross-sectoral national environmental policies and authorized to take binding decisions.

- Instituting an Environmental Emergency Board grouping the most distinguished professionals and cadres of environmentalists, whose mission would be to conduct, within three months, a comprehensive survey of all the environmental initiatives and programmes that had acquired international, bilateral or local financing, in order to assess their status and determine the possibilities of benefiting from them to avoid repetition. The Board should also define environmental priorities for 12 months, checking on signs of deterioration until such  time that comprehensive environmental management programmes will have started producing positive results.

- Establishing the National Environment Agency as a specialized body entrusted with monitoring the state of the environment, carrying out research on the  natural, economic and social factors affecting the environment, and producing status reports, forecasts and recommendations. This will provide decision-makers with the accurate data needed to develop viable policies. A significant budget should be allocated to the Agency, enabling it to perform its duties in co-operation with the National Council for Scientific Research, universities, private consultancies and specialized organizations. One of the Agency's responsibilities would be to co-ordinate and supervise internationally-funded programmes. Research is the only credible answer to the lack of reliable environmental information, as the issue at hand is not limited to the collection of data, as envisaged by some current programmes, but depends on the creation of this data. For how can we set up a data bank on the environment, if there are no research institutes producing the data in the first place?

- Adopting a national environment policy, which sets specific goals that allow for accountability and can determine successes and failures within a designated time frame.

- Constituting environmental boards within municipalities, to initiate and manage environmental action at the level of local communities and to promote rural development projects based on  appropriate environmentally-friendly  technologies.  Such projects would include waste treatment by separation, composting and biogas production, encouraging organic farming, supporting renewable energy sources, and establishing rural development centres to execute the different  programmes.

Plan and Targets

A national environmental action plan should incorporate a few specific targets, which may be grouped under the following eight categories.

Land use and zoning

 -          Develop a master plan that defines different land uses, specifying residential, commercial, agricultural, industrial, tourist and forest zones, according to advanced scientific standards that strike a balance between development needs and environmental requirements and  define the environmental characteristics of each region. With most of the country not covered by strict zoning regulations, permits to exploit land have become a lucrative political commodity, with  politicians arranging permits as a bribe to mollify their constituents.

 -          Cease construction along the coastline and in other unregulated areas immediately until a master plan is developed, designating 80 per cent  of the coast for public use and assigning certain areas for forests and natural sites where building would be prohibited.

 -          Impose wastewater treatment obligations on all existing residential, commercial and tourist facilities along the coast. Sewage waste produced by those facilities should be treated on site instead of being discharged raw into the sea.

 -          Put all illegally-acquired private coastal properties into the public domain within a designated time frame; oblige owners to open their facilities immediately to the public during a transition period; and demolish illegal structures that deface the coast within 24 months. Accepting the status quo created by some investors who misappropriated beaches for private use under  shady arrangements-thus barring  access by the public, including tourists, to a major natural commodity in Lebanon-shouldn't be allowed to continue.

 -          Pinpoint all vacant plots of land in Beirut and expropriate parts of them to be used as parks and public gardens, and promote gardens on rooftops and balconies in the concrete-built, overpopulated city. This can be achieved through incentives, such as offering permits for extra built-up areas, provided that an equivalent area would be developed into an open garden. This would create  green vertical breathing room in urban areas that lack any open horizontal space. The rooftop gardens in Geneva are a good example of this approach, as is  the successful experiment of the green buildings around the Sofil intersection in Beirut.


 -          Establish stations to monitor the quality of air, especially in areas that are highly exposed to industrial or traffic pollution.

 -          Set modern standards to determine permitted levels of emissions from cars and industries, and impose implementation through supervision, inspection and fines.


-          Apply a modern system for the periodic inspection of cars, through a network of designated licensed private workshops, whose personnel could be trained to apply the required standards. This measure would provide job opportunities for a large number of technicians and, at the same time, reduce air pollution and guarantee the safety of passengers and commuters.

 Modernize public transport and encourage its use. One way would be  to replace the cash transportation allowance applicable now by a monthly bus pass provided by the employer. Rail and ferry connections should be seriously considered to facilitate transportation  between coastal locations, and thus ease the heavy traffic that is concentrated specifically along the coastal highways.




-          Earmark a budget for scientific research on renewable energy and produce a wind and sun atlas, as part of a feasibility study that would designate the regions in Lebanon where those technologies could be efficiently applied.

 -          Control energy consumption in private and public places and launch a programme for energy conservation.  This could  include subsidies for things such as isolating walls, windows and roofs; using construction materials that are energy efficient; and developing standards for building materials and energy conservation methods. A study conducted by MECTAT, the research division of Al-Bi'a Wal-Tanmia magazine, showed that up to 40 per cent  of the energy used for heating and cooling residential apartments along the coastal zone of Lebanon could be saved by using appropriate building materials and methods.

 -          Promote the use of solar energy to heat water in private and public places and support local solar industries in this regard, with the goal of converting 50 per cent  of houses to solar water heating within 10 years. This would entail appropriate fiscal measures and tax incentives.

 -          Establish pilot projects to generate solar and wind energy, along with biogas, especially in farming areas.


 -          Conduct a detailed study of water resources in order  to increase availability and rationalize consumption. Access to clean water should be considered a basic right for every citizen. Currently less than half of Lebanon's available water is exploited.

 -          Collect rainwater in artificial lakes, as well as in family-scale reservoirs in village houses.


-          Reduce losses in the water supply networks and protect them from pollution by modernization and proper maintenance. It is estimated that only 70 per cent of the water pumped to Beirut reaches consumers, while the remaining is lost in old pipes.

 -          Recycle wastewater for use in the irrigation of public gardens.

 Agriculture and forests

-          Set environmentally-friendly standards for the use of pesticides, fertilisers and hormones.


-          Encourage organic farming and train farmers to use natural methods; support the marketing of organic farming produce through specialized co-operatives.

 -          Establish rural industries for drying and preserving fruit and other crops, using appropriate methods such as solar energy.


-          Reclaim sites of old stone quarries by transforming them into agricultural terraces, complimented by a forestation program, at the expense of the parties that had illegally exploited them; conduct a feasibility study on importing rocks and stones from neighbouring countries to help preserve the stressed Lebanese landscape.


-          Launch a national reforestation programme to cover 100,000 hectares with trees over a period of 10 years.

 -          Develop an integrated forest management plan, including fire protection, in association with local authorities and the civil society.

Waste management

 -          Set a national waste management plan that adopts an integrated approach and defines appropriate solutions for each region. Whereas modern incinerators may be best and least damaging in large cities, there are cheaper and more efficient methods suitable for rural areas.

 -          Decrease the quantity of waste at source and promote reusing and recycling, through practical systems and appropriate tax measures. The aim should be to decrease domestic waste by 30 per cent  and recycle 20 per cent  of it in five years.

 -          Establish a comprehensive system for the return of glass and plastic bottles used for soft drinks and water in order to reuse or recycle them, including the imposition of a sizeable refundable deposit on the bottles.

 -          Promote appropriate technologies for waste treatment in rural areas, including composting and other environmentally-friendly methods.


-          Establish waste separation "parks" in villages and small towns, where residents can dispose of their separated waste; introduce incentives to visit them, such as playgrounds for children. These parks could be transformed into community educational centres for waste handling.


-          Set standards to minimize industrial and waste pollution. This would entail adopting cleaner production technologies, which basically generate less waste, instead of continuing with end-of-pipe solutions.


-          Impose regulations for treating waste such as tyres and used oils from vehicles and other machinery by imposing fines on such waste to finance recycling and proper treatment.

Working environment

 -          Guarantee proper conditions for a healthy and safe working environment, protecting workers from chemical, noise, radiation and other forms of pollution.

 -          Set working environment standards for different types of professions.

 -          Set emission and discharge levels allowed for various industries and activities.

 -          Encourage industries and businesses to apply for ISO certificates.

 Education and information

-          Reinforce environmental programmes in schools and endorse intensive training sessions for teachers on environmental themes and activities; promote environmental school clubs.

 -          Establish museums, natural history and environmental science centres, where children and the general public can learn about nature and the environment.

 -          Designate TV and radio time for environmental education.

 -          Launch an environmental information plan that aims at changing individual attitudes and behaviour towards specific issues affecting the environment, as personal action is a crucial step towards a better environment.

 Any viable environmental programme has to be integrated within a comprehensive socio-economic development strategy. However, continuing to use poverty as an alibi to neglect the environment will only accelerate environmental degradation and trap Lebanon in a vicious circle, as environmental deterioration and the loss of resources will definitely lead  to more poverty and deprivation. The time has come for Lebanon to endorse an environmental master plan rooted in the  human spirit and based on sound socio-economic ingredients, developed and implemented by professionals and capable institutions.






















[4] There are no permanent stations to measure air quality, and the figures available were mostly registered with instruments that lack precision. Advanced instruments to measure air quality given to the American University of Beirut  as a grant from USAID have been lying unused in the warehouse of the university for years, due to the lack of interest by the government to contribute to the cost of the operation. The last measurement available on the ozone level was from a study carried out by Professor Farid Chaaban and a team of AUB researchers in 1996-97.















[7] The study on air pollution in the Chekka region was carried out in 2003 by Professor Gebran Karam and a team from LAU within the framework of a USAID grant. This was the first study to take measurements from fixed stations over extended periods and lasted for 12 months.


 [8] The most comprehensive reference source on fresh water in Lebanon remains a study prepared in 1978 for the Council for  Development and Reconstruction (CDR) by AUB professors Aftim Akra and Constantine Inglessis. Most studies which followed contained contradicting figures and mixed politics with science.

 [9] The National Plan to Combat Desertification was released in June 2003 by the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture, as part of its obligations under the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification.

 [10] An introduction by Najib Saab to The Lebanese Coast by Carl Stephan (Beirut, Aleph Publications, 2003) spells out the environmental state of the Lebanese coast in detail.

 [11] A chapter entitled, ‘Environment in Lebanon', written by Najib Saab in The Lebanese Economy 2000 (Marwan Iskandar, ed., published by M. I. Associates, Beirut, 2001) outlines environmental challenges in Lebanon against the backdrop of government policies and the failure of international assistance to establish the conditions for a viable and sustainable environmental course of action.












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