HERMEL, Lebanon: To witness firsthand the growing problem of desertification in Lebanon, one only has to look at the barren plain which starts at the edge of the city of Baalbek and spreads for 60 kilometers until the village of Al-Qaa at the border with Syria.
Most studies on national desertification have shown that northern Bekaa is the region most affected by this dangerous environmental issue, one which has started to threaten all facets of life in that area, especially economic activity.
Desertification in this region has exacerbated poverty rates here – where over 35 percent of its families live below the poverty line – and has led to an increasing number of residents moving to the capital, abandoning their villages to ruin, experts say.
Hussein Qanso, an engineer and the director of the Jawad Center for Development and Agricultural Guidance, said that according to a study carried out by the National Work to Fight Desertification program, launched by the Agriculture Ministry in 2003 in cooperation with the U.N. Development Program, over 60 percent of Lebanese lands are at varied risk of desertification.
Qanso added that the most overwhelming fact in the study is that the northern Bekaa region was classified as the area most at risk. The study states that this region has entered a stage called “severe desertification,” one of the most extreme levels, causing soil erosion and destruction of vegetation over large areas.
He believes this current situation is due mainly to a decrease in rainfall in northern Bekaa, which has had an annual average of 450 mm in the last few years, and was less than 150 mm in some areas in Hermel, according to the Tal Amara Center for Agricultural Research in the Bekaa.
According to Qanso, other reasons include the nature of the soil, which is deficient in nutrients; the high numbers of quarries in the region, particularly in the town of Arsal; the continuous felling of trees; the mismanagement of water resources, including rainfall, the Assi River and natural springs in the region; the absence of any serious policy or program designed to fight desertification and the lack of accountability of officials who commit environmental violations, especially against forests.
The most worrying result from all this, Qanso said, is that despite eco-tourism projects in Hermel, Al-Jourd and Lazzab gradually helping to raise environmental awareness and create job opportunities for the area’s residents, most of the region’s land has become unusable. Projects to repair the damage would leave the landowners with an extremely large bill.
Ahmad Fliti, media officer for the Rural Development nongovernmental organization in Arsal, said that there are over 150 quarries on the outskirts of the town, with the trade constituting a major source of income for most of the town’s residents. This high number of quarries has led to catastrophic environmental and health problems in the area, Fliti added.
“The quarries have made the town’s lands dead and unusable. There is also a fear that the substances used to explode rocks are causing cancer, after leaking into the groundwater, which is the only drinking source for the town’s residents,” Fliti said.
The head of the Al-Jourd eco-tourism project in Hermel, Hasan Allaw, said that one of the main reasons for desertification in the area is the dominance of the wood trade and the felling of the last remaining oak trees to produce coal for heating and trade.
According to Allaw, the trade is a source of income for many families in the region, given the increased demand for wood for heating after the rise in fuel prices.
“The wood trade has led to the cutting of ancient cedar and Greek juniper trees found in the forests on the peaks of the western mountains overlooking the region,” Allaw said, adding that the trees are considered some of the rarest forest resources in the country.
Qanso, Fliti and Allaw all agree that this pressing environmental problem is starting to have dangerous repercussions on economic and social life in the region, and has undoubtedly contributed to a worsening poverty rate.
All three experts agreed that there is an urgent need for a government-sponsored plan to confront the problem, as well as steps to hold officials accountable for environmental violations and increased pressure on police to protect the region’s forests.
But in the absence of any effective plan by the government to confront desertification, civil society organizations in the area have been carrying out individual initiatives such as distributing saplings provided by Jawad Center for Agricultural Development and municipal unions in the area.
The establishment of two eco-tourism projects in Hermel, Al-Jourd and Lazzab, are gradually helping to raise environmental awareness and create job opportunities for the area’s residents, in order to encourage them to stay on their land.
All three also agree that resuming work on the Assi River dam would be one of the most important steps in limiting the spread of desertification to all northern Bekaa lands. Work on the dam was stopped after the July 2006 war after the offices of the company contracted to oversee the work were bombed.