Nadim Farajalla and Rana El-Hajj | Wednesday, October 30, 2019
It cannot be contested that dire socio-economic situation was the main driver of the ongoing mass protests taking place in Lebanon since October 17, 2019, however, several environmental issues can be considered of critical importance to these protests. Leading up to the current events was a crescendo of resentment and frustration Lebanese citizens endured over deteriorating environmental issues such as air pollution caused by the multitude of private generators and endless traffic jams; water pollution resulting from untreated sewage discharging into surface and ground water; uncontrolled and greedy quarrying of sand and rocks; dumping and burning of municipal solid waste; and more recently, widespread forest fires that devastated thousands of hectares of green areas, homes, and businesses.
These dreadful environmental conditions are surely not all the result of the government’s policies for the past three or ten years; they are the result of an accumulation of decades of mismanagement, corruption, and vested interests. Recent governments have not done much to rectify the situation either deliberately or through negligence. Instead they managed the multitude of problems with “quick fix” “band-aid” solutions totally disregarding sustainable long-term approaches that address the root causes of the problems Lebanon has been and is still facing.
Following media coverage of the protests and social media posts during the past two weeks, one would clearly notice the pronounced role environmental issues have played as a multiplier factor leading to the protests. This is also reflected in many social media posts, signs and chants by protesters, as well as through some protestors requesting not to burn tires fearing more air pollution. There was also citizen led streets cleaning efforts and the sorting the collected garbage for recycling, which showed the prominence of environmental awareness within the protest movement.
Considering the multitude of demands for new environmental policies, and the many chronic environmental issues that need time to be resolved, protestors have to focus on demands that can be implemented immediately in many sectors such as: 1. use less polluting fuel in power generating plants and improving public transport to reduce air pollution; 2. immediate implementation of the National Strategy for Forest Fire Management to prevent or mitigate forest fires; 3. ensure the operationalization of existing wastewater treatment plants to reduce sewage discharge into waterbodies; and other time sensitive and critical environmental initiatives. All these will lay the foundation for immediate action in the post-crisis period. This would include the announcement of a national environmental state of emergency and the establishment of a national committee of experts that would convene immediately to review and/or reconsider recent decisions taken by the government on issues such as the waste management plan, national quarries plan, and propose an environmental roadmap.
The public uprising succeeded in shaking the government from its somnolence and has led to the announcement of an emergency reform plan; however, with a noticeable absence of any significant environmental measures. Although some of the proposed reforms will indirectly be reflected on the environment, it is important to highlight that any gains by the protestors through the ongoing street pressure will remain ultimately unsustainable, unless accompanied by demands for serious environmental reforms and a real commitment to changing the current philosophy towards overall national development.
Nadim Farajalla, Director, Climate Change and the Environment Program, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut.
Rana El-Hajj, Manager, Climate Change and Environment Program, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut.
In line with its commitment to furthering knowledge production, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs publishes a series of weekly opinion editorials relevant to public policies.
These articles seek to examine current affairs and build upon the analysis by way of introducing a set of pragmatic recommendations to the year 2019. They also seek to encourage policy and decision makers as well as those concerned, to find solutions to prevalent issues and advance research in a myriad of fields.
Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.