Lebanon News

Air-quality monitors first casualty of budget

A car drives past smoke rising from a power plant in Zouk area, north of Beirut June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

BEIRUT: The Environment Ministry has shut down all of its air-quality monitoring stations in preparation for “deep spending cuts” in the 2019 state budget. The stations provide pollution data to the widely used air-quality app Sensio, leaving many users perplexed by Beirut’s implausible pollution score of 1 - the lowest reading possible. The reading has been stuck there for around two weeks.

In reality, particulate matter in Beirut is over double the European Environment Agency’s air-quality standards, according to data recently collected by Mohammad Roumie, a researcher at the Lebanese Atomic Energy Commission.

The smallest of these particles - below 2.5 micrometers in diameter - can cause diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular problems and even cancer. The LAEC’s separate air-quality monitoring system will continue to function.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Environment Ministry attributed the closure of its 26 air-quality monitoring stations to the “suspension of maintenance allocations.” In total, the stations cost $500,000 per year to maintain, according to the statement.

The decision was taken “knowing that deep spending cuts were done to the budget to narrow the projected deficit,” a ministry spokesperson told The Daily Star.

“We get pollution data from the ministry’s stations. They are supposed to maintain the stations,” Sensio CEO Cyrille Najjar told The Daily Star.

“I am meeting with the Environment Ministry next week to discuss why they closed the stations,” Najjar said, adding that he would seek clarification on whether the closure was based on the cost of power supply or the cost of running the sensors.

But in Najjar’s mind, the basic reason for the decision is clear: “The ministry has no budget.”

The Environment Ministry will receive around $8 million in the 2019 state budget, the third-lowest of all the ministries’ allocations. The ministry is currently running on an already austere $9.3 million budget.

Previously, the European Union had covered the running costs of most of the stations. That contract ended in mid-May of this year, according to the spokesperson.

In theory, the ministry should put out a new tender covering all the stations; however, the estimated cost falls well beyond the scope of the stripped-back ministry.

“The expected cost through rough estimation exceeds by far the amount available in the budget of the Environment Ministry for maintenance of the network,” the spokesperson told The Daily Star.

A European Union spokesperson confirmed that the decision to unplug the stations boiled down to the draft 2019 budget, currently before Parliament, which looks to cut more than LL500 billion ($330 million) in state spending.

“It is regrettable that after ... the international community assisted Lebanon to strengthen its national capacities, the current budget does not allow the Ministry of Environment to maintain this network,” the spokesperson told The Daily Star.

In its statement, the Environment Ministry sought to dispel accusations that it had only closed monitoring stations near big polluters such as heavy industry. “Stations have been shut down across all of Lebanon, not in certain areas.”

“For logistical reasons, and to ensure the safety of the equipment, the ministry has been forced to temporarily stop the stations from running,” the statement added.

Although the ministry described the closure as temporary, it did not suggest where future funding would come from. The EU spokesperson declined to comment on whether the EU would offer more funds necessary to restart the stations.

But Najjar claims that the equipment would not have been damaged if the stations had been left running without maintenance.

“They could have kept them running. They may have given an inaccurate reading, but it would not have been damaging,” the entrepreneur told The Daily Star.

Sensio has developed its own air-quality monitoring device which Najjar believes could be an adequate alternative to the ministry’s stations. While Sensio’s device cannot monitor all pollutants detected by the ministry’s stations, the technology would detect “major pollutants” such as vehicle, industry and petrol generator emissions.

Najjar claims his devices are significantly cheaper to maintain than ministry’s current stations, which he described as “’80s technology.”

The company is in contact with the Environment Ministry to look into replacing the old stations with Sensio’s devices, Najjar said.

The ministry could not be reached for comment on Najjar’s pitch.

 
This article was amended on Thursday, July 11 2019

A previous version of this article said the Environment Ministry's budget is the second-lowest of all the ministries. In the draft 2019 budget approved by Cabinet, it is the third-lowest, behind the Industry Ministry and the Ministry for the Displaced. The Daily Star regrets the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 11, 2019, on page 3.

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