BEIRUT: A combination of political corruption, poorly maintained infrastructure and a lack of planning contributed to the severe flooding that devastated wide swaths of Lebanon following a severe winter storm that struck the country this week, experts told The Daily Star Thursday.
The impoverished Beirut suburb of Hay al-Sellom and the Bekaa municipality of Barr Elias, where one person reportedly drowned in floodwaters, were particularly hard-hit. Both areas are located near rivers which flooded but residents and local officials have blamed nearby construction projects and blocked drainage and sewer systems.
Public Works and Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi defended his ministry, blaming the disaster on the strength of the storm, delayed funding and illegal construction, particularly near rivers. Critics have pointed out, however, that both building permits and construction regulation fall under the Directorate General of Urban Planning, which answers to Aridi’s own ministry.
“The poor do the best they can to build their own houses, which tend to be on abandoned land, and this is thanks to the policies of the central government and the municipalities,” said Leon Telvizian, an architect and former head of the Urban Planning Department at Lebanese University. “The whole process of planning is under the control of special interests, even at a municipal level.”
Simon Moussalli, an architect and urban planner who has also served as chair of the architecture department at the American University of Beirut, echoed Telvizian’s assessment that the problem is systemic, but added that Aridi must bear responsibility nonetheless.
“This storm may be considered a natural disaster, but the directorate and the ministry must foresee such situations,” he said. “This is what we call planning.”
But the gray area of responsibility among the ministry, the Council for Development and Reconstruction and the municipalities when it comes to building and maintaining infrastructure allows public officials to shift the blame when disaster strikes, as Lebanon had the occasion to witness this week.
Accusations have been flying since the storm struck Sunday, with political parties blaming municipalities, municipalities blaming the central government, the ministry blaming the Cabinet and the state-owned electricity company blaming workers.
Politics also plays a role in decision-making and the distribution of services, especially in areas like Hay al-Sellom where most of the residents moved to the metro-Beirut area from rural areas and are therefore not eligible to vote in local municipal elections. The current electoral law requires Lebanese to vote in their home village to preserve the sectarian balance of voting districts. This means that some municipalities are not held accountable to entire sections of the population living there.
Hay al-Sellom, a mixed Sunni-Shiite area belonging to the larger, richer and Druze-controlled Choueifat municipality, was declared a disaster area Tuesday, but residents who spoke to The Daily Star said the area suffers from regular neglect.
“It’s the same story every time,” said Zahra Mazloum, 39, who lives just a few streets away from the worst of the flooding. “The sewers need to be changed and the infrastructure is all ruined ... but the municipality doesn’t care because most of the people here are from the Bekaa and the south.”
In addition to the political and social complications arising from widespread, ad-hoc urbanization, it also affects soil permeability and drainage.
In Barr Elias, Mayor Abdullah Abdel-Rahim told The Daily Star that the unfinished Arab highway, which runs through the municipality and falls under the umbrella of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, created a natural dam which exacerbated the flooding from the nearby Litani River.
The CDR’s press office had not responded to a request for comment by press time.
In the capital the storm was a nuisance for most people, but some areas, including Karantina, faced serious flooding and property damage.
“The infrastructure presently available in Beirut is simply not able to cope with the density of construction that the master plan of Beirut allows,” said Moussalli, adding that even if the storm drains and sewers had been cleared, the pipes do not have the capacity to handle the amount of rainfall from the past week.
“Another very serious issue is that the sewage system is obsolete and has not been maintained; surface water gets mixed with sewage and then you can imagine the result when it floods,” he added.
But addressing the underlying problems of urban planning, poverty, and the uneven distribution of services requires government coordination at many levels, a dim prospect given the current political deadlock.
“It’s a question of to what extent the public is able to take part in the future of their living conditions,” said Telvizian. “We are pushing the limits of everything and it will only get worse without some reform in the democratic process, so hopefully this can be addressed in the new electoral law being discussed.” – Additional reporting by Rakan al-Fakih