BEIRUT: Environment Minister Nazim Khoury said Tuesday he was not hopeful that his department would have the power necessary to make needed environmental changes in the country, despite the ministry’s recent progress on tough environmental issues including quarries, hunting and waste disposal.
Khoury sat down for an exclusive interview with The Daily Star to review his ministry’s past year of work and analyze the major environmental battles the country faces in the coming months.
The year has seen environmental studies integrated into the nation’s school curriculum, the safe disposal of tons of expired drugs and food and a cohesive national policy on the environment exists for the first time. But urban pollution remains dangerously high, coastal and interior waterways are still polluted and the Environment Ministry has been widely criticized by environmental watchdogs for having more bark than bite when it comes to environmental improvement.
Khoury told The Daily Star that part of the reason environmental change lags behind policy is that his ministry’s powers are only a fraction of that of other government departments. The Environment Ministry needs more legal power to get things done he said, but it was unlikely to get it any time soon.
“This is why we consider that our first priority is to make this ministry a full-fledged partner within the Cabinet, not a consulting body as it used to be,” Khoury added. “At this stage I am becoming a little pessimistic about it, in view of the political turmoil we are going through.”
There are four pieces of legislation that would significantly boost the enforcement powers of the ministry but which remain mired in parliamentary committees. The first law would create an environmental public prosecutor, another would create a force of environmental rangers to police the country, the third would set standards for air quality and the last would set much easier procedures for the establishment of natural reserves.
All are steps most environmental activists would like to see, but none are likely to pass out of the legislature anytime soon. The laws, which first passed into committees at the beginning of the year, are likely to stay there, according to Khoury. Parliament is expected to be consumed with months of bickering and deliberations over a new electoral law for this year’s parliamentary elections.
“It’s a problem because we have elections in the coming few months and the electoral law is very much a quagmire, but for us it’s a priority and we are pursuing it,” Khoury added.
In the meantime, Khoury said his ministry had quietly worked toward a resolution of two of the most long lasting environmental problems: quarries and hunting.
Last year, the ministry drafted a new master plan for the supervision the country’s quarries, 90 percent of which are illegal. Codes and permits for quarries, which have caused significant environmental damage, has been a controversial sticking point for years.
The ministry will present the new master plan, which has yet to be disclosed, to the ministerial committee on quarries Friday.
The ministry has also made significant headway in reining in the country’s hunting community, the minister said. Hunting has grown rampant without basic regulations and is often the spark of political tensions when it’s done in sensitive areas.
Khoury said the Environment Ministry had made major progress in creating new regulations that would include mandating health certification, insurance, training and membership in a hunting club to obtain a permit. Ministry employees are also looking to set down quota numbers for specific species and a seasonal timetable for their hunt.
The ministry still has two major problems with enforcement and designation for hunting zones, two areas that are tied to the pending environmental legislation. “We have a major problem because the Internal Security Forces cannot cope with this,” he said.
As it waits for expanded powers, the ministry is trying to make progress on a broad range of serious problems that have piled up over years of environmental neglect.
“We have a big problem with environmental issues because they have been building up for the last two or three decades. Nothing was done in this direction,” he said. “And now we have to tackle and face all the problems that have been building up in one shot with limited resources and with limited staff.”