Forest fires rage through Lebanon

| 22nd October 2019
Fire
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Protests erupt in Lebanon after a week of forest fires and higher taxes.

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At least ten thousand protestors marched in the streets of Lebanon against corruption and incompetence in a government that is fuelling economic stagnancy in one of the world’s most indebted countries.

Protestors chanted: “The people are exhausted"; “The people will bring down the regime.”

Lebanon is one of the world's most heavily indebted states and, this week, the government unveiled a new tax to raise additional revenues - a charge of roughly $6 per month for calls on all voice over internet protocol (VoIP) apps such as WhatsApp and Facetime. The measure is expected to bring about $200 million in revenue per year.

Forest fires

The proposal met with intense backlash on social media and widespread protests in a country with only two mobile service providers. Both are state-owned and are among the most expensive in the region.

Paula Yacoubian, a former journalist and currently an opposition politician, said: “The people will not pay a single [Lebanese] pound on the platform it insults you [politicians] on."

The proposal has since been revoked. But Fahad, a protestor in Beirut, said: “This isn’t about WhatsApp, this is about how this government is simply incapable of doing its job. They [politicians] would let the whole country burn if it meant they can make money.”

The protests also came just two days after the worst forest fires Lebanon had seen in at least a decade. These fires are still raging. 

In a single day last week, 120-200 fires spread out different parts of Lebanon - including in the mountains in the historic and well-preserved region of Chouf. The fires reached residential areas, forcing many people to evacuate in the middle of the night. The damage was worsened by a lack of resources to contain the fire.

Fire fighting 

Although forest management experts and environmental advocacy groups reportedly issued several warnings about the threat of forest wildfires at the beginning of the dry season, in early June, no serious measures were taken to implement fire prevention or forest management measures.

George Stacey, an analyst working with Norvergence, an environmental advocacy NGO, said: “Fires of these magnitude require a lot of resources to be put out that was clearly not available."

Public anger increased when it was revealed that the country’s three firefighting helicopters had been out of service for years.

An investigation has began to hold those responsible to account, and neighboring countries are offering firefighting support. 

On Tuesday morning, Cyprus sent helicopters while Greece and Jordan also offered to send help, according to Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which is the UN peacekeeping force at the country’s border with Israel, also joined the efforts.

Stacey added: “Nothing was done to prevent these fires that were far from unexpected given the current rate of urbanization breaking into forests, as well the heatwave that occurred this summer and increased the risk of fires further."

Climate breakdown

Nearly 65 percent of fires that occur in Lebanon do so in forested areas, according to a 2017 report, but fires will reach cities much quicker in future, as urbanization continues to expand.

Forests in Lebanon also have a very dense biomass which provides for ample fuel for fires to spread quickly.

Temperatures in October in Lebanon have been the highest by several degrees in recorded years. Greenpeace Lebanon has pointed out how these heightened temperatures increase the risk of wildfires.

Julien Jreissati, campaigner at Greenpeace Lebanon, said: “Whether these fires are of criminal origin or not, their extraordinary intensity and ferocity is being fuelled by climate change. 

"Indeed the unusual heat wave and high temperatures in October have dried out our soils and created the ideal conditions for these unprecedented fires to spread out at such speed and intensity.”

Lebanon is not the only country struggling with wildfires. A combination of weather and environmental factors have resulted in wide-spreading fires through the Amazon, Russia, Australia, the Arctic, and many other parts of the world in 2019.

Build resilience

Jreissati added: “This is not an isolated event as 2019 has been a year of unprecedented forest fires from Siberia to the Amazon, from the Canary Island to Indonesia, sending clear signals that our planet is burning and it is time to act like it."

The Red Cross in Lebanon has identified that eighteen people have been hospitalised and 88 have received emergency medical care. One person is also confirmed dead while hundreds have lost their homes.

Jreissati concluded: “We urge the Lebanese government to declare a state of climate emergency, to develop and implement a national adaptation strategy to the impacts of climate change to build the country’s resilience to such extreme events."

This Author 

Rabiya Jaffery is a freelance journalist and multimedia producer covering stories from the Middle East and South Asia. She reports on climate, culture, and conflicts. She tweets at @rabiyasdfghjkl.

The article was supported by a grant from Norvergence,  an NGO that supports climate-related advocacy work.

Image: Rakan Mazloum, Twitter

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