Lebanon is picking up the pieces from its latest bout with bad weather, and most can identify the culprits responsible for a storm that killed several people and caused massive damage to the agricultural and other sectors.
The man or woman in the street can easily rattle off the problems: a lack of enforcement of public safety and urban planning laws, a lack of state resources used wisely, and a failure to take the needed precautions in advance.
But the real problem is that politicians, whether at the national or the local level, are often the ones leading the charge on this front. They can sound very well-informed when they talk about the problems, leading the public on an intricate trip through the areas where Lebanon lacks this or that, or suffers from this or that.
But politicians and state officials are ultimately responsible for the breakdown, and are not disinterested observers. The country’s rivers and its coastline are lying in plain view of the public and their representatives, day after day. Throughout the year, illegal construction is allowed to flourish, whether by municipal authorities or those at higher levels. Quarries and construction sites receive minimal, if any, oversight. A whole set of safety measures are ignored, probably because of complaints that it will cost too much, and the problem is swept under the rug. Structures collapse, sometimes with deadly consequences, and still nothing of substance is done.
Politicians and others complain about negligence, which according to the law is a crime. But making the link between responsibility and accountability is a non-starter. Either authorities fail to follow through and hold someone responsible for physical and material damage, or the people fail to do their part. Time and time again, they vote for the same national politicians who have failed to carry out their oversight duties, or allow the government to evade responsibility for oversight. A substantial level of corruption and mismanagement exists at the municipal level, but again, at election time the overriding concerns involve seeing family A defeat family B.
Few politicians are serious enough to level with the public, and say that without paying for better infrastructure, people should expect to incur substantial damage and inconveniences every time a storm hits the country.
They probably refrain from doing so because they know that a drive to revamp water and road infrastructure would probably fuel corruption, and not solve problems. Elsewhere, a fairly simple case of mismanagement or corruption – or even the hint of graft – is enough to bring down public officials elected to the highest office.
But in Lebanon, many people have given up on demanding their rights. They don’t have the will or power to stand up to their local representatives who fail in their jobs, much less take on the more powerful politicians at the national level.
When parliamentary elections take place later this year, the scenes of January’s flooded roads and homes will be a part of history, and not important enough to enter the election campaign rhetoric.