MANSOURIEH: The rubble which some construction companies have been illegally dumping in Beirut River risks sparking an environmental problem by altering the course of the river and eventually causing floods, warned environmentalists.
"Floods are basically caused by blocking rainwater paths and obstructing rivers," said Darwish Gharizi, the head of the Studies Department, at the Directory of Civil Planning. "Not monitoring topographic changes and leaving it to the wishes of individuals and private firms would lead to national disasters such as the floods of 2003."
Indeed, the floods of 2003 had prompted the issuance of Law 148 which stipulates that all construction projects should be located at least 500 meters away from the main Lebanese rivers and that bulldozing slopes or cliffs should be done by adopting the terracing method, which prevents landslides and erosion.
Each terrace or grade should not exceed 3.5 meters in height.
Mansourieh residents and eyewitnesses have told The Daily Star that the dumping had been going on for years. But it has now reached phenomenal proportions.
"At this point in time, the piles have reached the boundaries of the river causing big rocks to fall into the riverbed," said Khairallah M. Khairallah, a concerned Mansourieh resident.
"At the current rate of dumping and abuse, the areas' mountains and valleys could eventually become man-made planes; rainwater would not flow naturally through the valleys and streams," Khairallah said. Although caused by the rise of rainwater levels, the flood damages would have been much less significant had the paths and bridges been properly cleaned or maintained, said Khairallah.
"Those responsible for such abuses ought to be stopped right away to save Beirut River and its natural setting before it is too late," he said.
He added that, throughout the last two decades, the area had witnessed a housing construction boom at the expense of green pine forests stretching all over the valley.
"Many landowners used the rubble to level their properties disregarding the laws concerning leveling surfaces and slopes," Khairallah said.
Hazmieh Mayor John Asmar said a new housing area is developing around the Western side of the river. "We completed the planning work and many firms and private owners started to build their housing compounds or homes close to the river."
The river, said Asmar, is no longer a vital necessity to the development of the whole area. "Orange groves and vegetation fields have vanished and the river is unfortunately used as a sewage route," he said.
"Our municipality had just completed the plans for a new sewage system that would serve the new housing area near the river and on its close sheer," he added.
Nevertheless, the new housing area is less than 50 meters away from the riverbed.
"The new decree requiring to be 500 meters away from main rivers, proved to be impractical," said Gharizi, "so we approved the new housing expansion in Hazmieh exceptionally." The Directory of Civil Planning would authorize "other exceptions given that each case is considered separately," he added.
In Mansourieh, Hazmieh, Mkalles and Monteverde, dumping rubble and changing the topography of the surface had taken place on a wide scale during the absence of local and central authorities.
"The huge dumping process taking place for over two decades had blocked the rainwater paths through the valley separating Mkalles from the opposite hills in the Dikwaneh-Mar Roukoz area housing the Lebanese University," Khairallah said.
"During the civil war, many construction companies took advantage of the authorities' absence and buried the greatest part of the valley with rubble," Gharizi said, adding: "The valley had been much deeper, but, the damage is irreversible and the authorities could not blame or accuse any wrongdoers."
The wrong-doing continues. Indeed, even the owner of a company which hires trucks for transporting sand and gravel admitted that anyone, given the chance, would break the laws and abuse the environment.
"Many companies, small and big, including mine, would unload in any site away from the eyes of the local authorities," said Youssef Baaqlini said, who owns a Mkalles-based company.
But housing developments are not the only projects that are feeding off the rubble.
Mansourieh Mayor William Khoury said that the municipality was constructing a 12-meter wide road connecting the town to various construction sites overlooking the river, resulting in the need for extracting millions of tons of rubble.
Although the mayor conceded that the municipality had contracted parts of the work of removing rubble to private local companies, including the company belonging to his son, Farid Khoury, he had initially speculated that the rubble dumped near the river could be the result of leveling a piece of private land. "It is a private project," he said, adding: "So far no one had complained to me."
"If the news were true," the Mayor had said, "we would certainly take action. I will immediately send my personnel to investigate the case and stop any illicit practices. Those responsible would have to clear the river bed from obstacles and rocks."
The Daily Star then visited the dumping site and saw trucks emptying their loads on a slope that leads directly to the Eastern bank of the river. The drivers objected to attempts to take pictures, shouting from the other side of the river: "This location is a private property."
Back at the mayor's office the next day, the mayor responded to allegations against his son's company dumping rubble by saying: "Yesterday, I dispatched a special patrol to explore the situation and discovered that some rocks had actually fallen into the riverbed."
What's more, the mayor said that he had "instructed the company to clean up the riverbed immediately; I believe they will abide by our orders without delay."
However, Khairallah told The Daily Star that the dumping was still going on until Monday. "The dumping stopped for two hours, though, because an investigative team from the Environment Ministry came to the site to investigate the case," he said.
The team, according to Khairallah will report its findings to the governor who would act accordingly.
Baaqlini, who is one of Khoury's competitors in the business, said that Khoury's company had a monopoly over dumping works and extracting rubble in Mansourieh. "They have been using the Mkalles dumping site for many years," he added. "Because of the monopoly status, our firm could not benefit from the scheme the boom in Mansourieh."
Unless the driver works for a company that enjoys protection, he would pay a fine of LL2,200,000 if caught committing the offense, Baaqlini said. "This amount exceeds the cost of dumping the load in proper and authorized sites that exist almost everywhere," he said.
Meanwhile the continuous aggression against the environment has caused the area to lose a lot of its natural attributes which used to attract visitors.
Indeed, Sami Faris a local cafe owner recalls better times.
"The area ceased to be an attraction for picnic goers for many years; the water had shrunk and the river turned into a dirty stream abused by official and nonofficial parties," said Faris who runs a small cafe shop and picnic facilities on the banks of the river close to Qanater Zbeideh, a small dam with water falls built in the 1930s, during the French mandate near the ruins of a Roman-time bridge restored by the Ottomans during their reign in Lebanon.
Hussein Hoteit, a reservation specialist engineer at the Environment Ministry, said that the ministry bought the land surrounding the location of Qanater Zbeideh in order to protect it from abuse or destruction.
"It is not considered a reserve as such," Hoteit said, "but rather a place with historical importance surrounded with cliffs full of natural and manmade caves."
He added that the ministry is concerned about the housing constructions invading the privacy of the valley that ought to have been a protected reserve.
"We cannot reverse the clock," Hoteit said. "The best we could do now is to protect the heart of the valley and fight all kinds of abuse especially damaging the riverbed or its natural boundaries."