Devastating fires caused by climate change are threatening forests in Lebanon, in turn accelerating the pace of global warming, an environmental activist has warned. "We are witnessing a rise in temperature which leads to the dryness of forest soil and pushes it toward desertification," Sawsan Bou Fakhreddine, director general of the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation (AFDC), a Lebanese NGO, told IRIN.
The country is witnessing forest fires earlier than usual. "We noticed that fires are starting in April, three months earlier than the usual season, which commences in June or July. With the ongoing increase in temperature, the land is losing much of its humidity and trees are becoming drier. This causes severe fires that are difficult to suppress," she added.
Fakhreddine said on average, about 1,500 hectares of woodland were affected by fires annually, but in 2007 more than 4,000 hectares of forests were ravaged in the worst fires to hit Lebanon for decades. "In one day we lost three times what we planted in 17 years."
According to AFDC, forests covered 35 percent of the country in 1965 - against 13 percent in 2007. "If we witness fires like the ones that erupted last year, Lebanon will lose its forests completely in 15 to 20 years," Fakhreddine warned.
In the mountainous areas of the country, forests are important to protect the surface soil and underground water, environmentalists say. "The most common problem resulting from the loss of forest cover is landslides. When rain falls on trees, the soil absorbs the water gradually rather than being lost in fast torrents that take with it the surface soil as well," she said.
In addition to the common threats to forests such as urban sprawl and pollution, the global hike in fuel prices is taking its toll. "Lebanon has very cold winters and most of its population lives 500m [above mean sea-level]. Some live at heights between 1,800m and 2,000m.
"When you climb Mount Lebanon these days, all you hear is the sound of wood being sawed. People are preparing for the harsh winter. Although this is prohibited, many poor families cannot afford to buy diesel, so they cut down trees to secure some warm days for their children," Fakhreddine said.
Fakhreddine added that forest fires, like many other environmental problems in Lebanon, were not considered a priority for the government, especially in light of the sensitive political and security situation in the past few years.
"Accordingly, we have not had any kind of planning regarding preventing and fighting forest fires and all concerned institutions lack the know-how and appropriate gear to control forest fires," Fakhreddine said.
After the devastating fires in 2007, the government established the National Committee to Combat Forest Fires and Restoration of Lands, involving major ministries and AFDC.
"In one year, AFDC and the Ministry of Environment were able to mobilize $5 million while the actual needs as evaluated by the committee exceed $25 million, without helicopters. Therefore, we are planning to organise a donors' meeting for international organisations to support environment and development projects in Lebanon," Fakhreddine said.
"Reforestation requires huge funds," she said, adding that each hectare costs around $5,000 to be planted. "If we want to reforest what was burned last year [4,000 hectares] we need around $20 million." - IRIN