An LBC camera crew has become the latest victim of violent Lebanese real estate companies seizing the country’s diminishing natural shores, destroying essential ecosystems for profit and assaulting anyone who tries to document their activities. The LBC crew was violently attacked on Wednesday while filming a new resort being built in the tiny village of Mansouri in South Lebanon, home to the country’s only untouched sand beach and rare sea turtle reserve.
The attack was recorded on the TV reporter’s cell phone and is now making the rounds on Facebook. As soon as the news camera pans toward the resort– built directly onto the public coastline, in what appears to be a clear violation of the constitution and international maritime conventions–a man comes charging toward the TV crew with his fist raised. He throws the cameraman to the floor and then yanks him up by his shirt, shouting in his face: “What are you doing you dick!
He then grabs a man helping the crew and holds him by the shirt: “Do you know who I am? If I want to shoot you I will shoot you, you dog!”
“Get the hell out of here,” he repeats, adding in the crudest terms: “kissikhtkoon bi aiiry(I’ll put my d*** in your sisters’ p****)!”
The man then approaches the woman being interviewed, Mona Khalil, who manages the turtle reserve and operates a small bed and breakfast nearby the new resort development, whose owners have not been revealed. The man rushes toward her and says. “I will burn tires in front of your house on orders of the Hezb (Hezbollah) and the Harke (Amal Movement).”
The cell phone footage was used to open the LBC news bulletin, which condemned the destruction of Lebanon’s coast. It was also featured in the reporter’s news package and the broadcaster even ran a full in-studio interview with the reporter Sobhiya Najjar, for a first hand account on the attack she and her cameraman, Samir Baytamouni experienced.
Najjar said she was prompted to investigate the story after seeing a Facebook post by Khalil, who has been vigilantly documenting the resort development since construction began. She says the construction has been taking place slowly and secretively, and that the resort will put the turtle nesting project and the entire ecosystem at severe risk.
The attack began when the reporter was looking at the social impact side of the story by interviewing a young boy asking him what would happen if the beaches were privatized and closed to the local community. At that moment the man came out of nowhere swinging and punched the cameraman in the face.
“Of course this developer must be afraid of our reporting because he just attacked us immediately, he didn’t even try to talk to us or ask who we were,” Najjar said.
Because the village of Mansouri is so small and has no mayor, Najjar said she requested and was granted permission from a local administrative official in Tyre before heading out to the site. But that same official curiously later accused her and the crew of breaking into the site and instigating violence against the assaulter.
The official also promised to provide the necessary permits proving that the resort was “legal” but then said the documents could only provided if Najjar handed over the attack footage. She simply told him he would see it on the evening news.
At this point, the interviewer also reminds viewers that according to a law recently passed by parliament, the media and the public have the right to access all government decisions and legislation.
Najjar ends by noting that this is not the first time her team has been attacked while reporting on a resort, with similar experiences in Adloun, an endangered coastal archeological site, as well as Ramlet El Baida, Beirut’s only public beach. Cameraman Baytamouni has also been attacked multiple times in the past.
LBC reported that the assailant was arrested and the crew waited at the turtle reserve until an army escort arrived. But some worry the man could be bailed out of jail at any moment and that there will be no accountability for those further up the chain of command. It remains unclear who owns this resort.
It’s also important to note that not all journalists and citizen reporters carry the weight of LBC–one of the country’s largest and most influential media outlets– with its high level political and military contacts to get out of a jam. In May, an activist was attacked and his phone destroyed when trying to document the construction of Eden Bay resort in Beirut, which has also been built directly on the public sand coastline.
In February, straw huts used at the public beach nearby the Eden Bay resort were reportedly set on fire. Those who manage the area have frequently mobilized against the Eden Bay resort.
Arsonists apparently set fire to the straw huts at Beirut's only free public beach. This is the same beach that is being eyed by private developers. Will the police investigate?
And in November of last year, an activist resisting the Eden Bay resort by pulling out its dredging hoses (reportedly installed illegally and subject to a constitutional lawsuit) was beaten and bloodied, as shown in this video:
Activist reportedly beaten after trying to sabotage dredging work at private high rise project (Eden Rock) on Beirut's…
Finally I have personally been assaulted by developers when photographing ancient ruins discovered during the excavation of the massive District S project in downtown Beirut back in 2013. Site workers and supervisors locked me inside the project gates, tackled me and twisted my arms until I erased all photos I had taken of the ruins. The project is now going forward and all traces of the ancient history of Beirut on that spot have been erased. See previous post:
The question begs asking: are real estate developers more powerful than the state itself? How exactly did we relinquish control over our country and its scarce natural resources to these violent, destructive and self-serving firms?
All of these attacks raise important questions about the lawless state of Lebanon’s multi-billion dollar real estate industry, its frequent destruction of public space and ecosystems and its intimate relationship with the country’s leading politicians, who have routinely bent or broken laws to make projects happen. Above all the real estate industry’s immense profitability is made possible by a shameful lack of environmental or labor regulations compounded by an utter lack of taxes paid into the system to cover the damages and drain on resources and infrastructure these mega projects cause.
In fact, as I have reported for the Guardian, there are over 1,000 illegal resorts built on Lebanon’s coast making immense profits and paying no taxes with many owned by politicians themselves. While police take pains to crack down on minor violations such as destroying tin fisherman shacks along the coast or possession of small amounts of cannabis among poor farmers, the police fail to take any action against multi-million dollar resorts and their wealthy and well-connected owners. And let’s remember these projects are not only local–many are financed, designed or executed by multinational corporations, regional, Western and global, seizing upon the opportunity to exploit a developing market with weak law enforcement and low to nonexistent tariffs or regulations to ensure public health, safety or sustainability.
The only upside to this story is that exposure and shaming of these resorts and destructive projects is gaining ground with activist campaigns mushrooming over recent years and growing more sophisticated in their use of technology, visualizations, distribution channels as well as major lawsuits being launched. See this previous post for more details on the battle to save Lebanon’s coast:
Of course all this exposure is being made possible by advances in the breadth and reach of social media, but also by old school print and TV media, which is becoming increasingly bold.
At the end of her interview, Najjar is asked if she will continue to report on seafront projects despite the dangers posed to her and her crew.
“Of course. We are not here to do regular reporting. We are here today to play a role as the fourth estate. We are not here just to represent ourselves, we are here to represent the public interest.
You know, no one dared even to speak to us on camera in Tyre. This shows you the kind of political backing this project has.”
Perhaps it is time responsible real estate developers also exercise some social and moral responsibility for the immense profits they are making. If there are ethical construction and real estate firms in Lebanon, will they condemn this activity and be transparent with the public? Or will they and the country’s politicians remain silent and complicit in their colleagues’ behavior?
Beirut activists are fighting hard to preserve two of the city’s key heritage sites and you can support them by attending a series of events they have prepared this week. The events are actually FREE (another endangered thing in Beirut) so all you have to do is show up. Scroll down for full schedule.
The two endangered sites are Dalieh of Raouche peninsula, the only remaining natural headland in Beirut with a 7,000 year history; and Heneine Palace, one of the largest and only remaining buildings from the 1800s left in the city today. Both sites are threatened by private developers. Both sites are part of vanishing historic neighborhoods. Both sites tell a story-a million stories- about us, our ancestors, our city, our country, our humanity. Both sites need your support, your pictures, your social media posts, your feet on the ground, to demonstrate that these places are important, valued and popular enough that demolishing them will cause a public uproar.
A mega seafront project was planned for Dalieh, but activist multi-pronged legal, design and research efforts have helped slow that. Meanwhile Heneine Palace is located in the heart of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, Zokak el Blatt, which is rapidly being erased by glass towers, gentrification and real estate barons. Neither site is safe however, and activists need all the volunteers, voices, shares and feet they can get.
It all starts with an opening this Thursday at 4PM at Antwork (located on Spears road across from Future TV just before BarBar on the left) where you can pick up fliers and more info. It is followed by an exhibition at the ministry of tourism hamra exhibition space (yes activists are taking over the ministry, peacefully this time). Other events will be taking place in Mansion (take a right after Bar Bar spears and head up the street with old mansions falling apart– it’s the yellow old mansion still in one piece. )
Here’s the full schedule below the map. Tell your friends, your cousins. Bring your mother. Scroll down to the end of post for event posters and GIFs at the end. Share, share, share.
Thursday, May 18th
Official Watch Day Launch and press conference for Dalieh and Heneine 4:00pm, Antwork
Dalieh Exhibition launch 6:00 pm, Glass Hall, Ministry of Tourism. The exhibition will continue until the 27th of May The work of the winners of 2015’s Dalieh Ideas Competition “Revisiting Dalieh: Calling for Alternative Visions along Beirut’s Coast” will be displayed alongside the work of universities, students and artists engaged with the coast.
Revealing of site-specific art interventions in collaboration with Temporary Art Platform. On view until Sunday May 21st. All day, Dalieh Thin White Line (Ieva Saudargaitė Douaihi), Dalieh’s Infinity Pool (Raymond Gemayel), The Flag (Omar Fakhoury), 4’50 (Omar Fakhoury) Partially Occupy Darkness (Ghassan Maasri), The Invisible Soundtrack (Nadim Mishlawi), On the Same Wavelength (Pascal Hachem and Rana Haddad), Washzone (Mustapha Jundi), Kunsthalle 3000 (Thomas Geiger).
In Zokak el-Blat
Exhibition launch: Zokak el-Blat Experiments – Heneine Palace and Other Possibilities Mansion, 9:00am to 9:00pm daily, until the 21st of May – Launch at 7:00pm Includes a virtual tour of the Heneine Palace – Models produced by school students during heritage workshops – Architecture projects produced by university students from USEK – Screening of film “Mapping Place Narratives: Beyhum Street” – Heritage situation overview by Save Beirut Heritage
Saturday, May 20th
In Zokak el-Blat
Celebrating Heritage: Heneine Palace and Zokak el-Blat (12:00pm – 8:00pm)
Souk el-Tayeb in Zokak el-Blat 12:00am to 7:00pm, Hussein Beyhum Street
Guided Tours of Zokak el-Blat First departure at 3:00pm, last departure at 6:00pm.
A tour takes around 1:30
Meeting points: Grand Sérail, Al-Hout Mosque, National Evangelical Church
A fewer number of tours could be provided on Sunday 21st
Readings, organized by the International Writers’ House in Beirut 6:30pm to 8:00pm, Mansion
Readings by Fadi Tofeili and Mounzer Baalbaki, followed by a debate
Exhibition: Zokak el-Blat Experiments – Heneine Palace and Other Possibilities Mansion,9:00am to 7:30pm, until the 21st of May
Candle-lit night vigil from Ramlet El Baida to Dalieh Meeting point at 6:30pm in front of the ‘Eden Rock’ project in Ramlet Baida
Open Air Film Screening of “Children of Beirut” by Sarah Srage 8:30pm, Dalieh
Sunday, May 21st
Dalieh Festival (11:00am – 8:00pm)
Site-specific Interventions / Music and dance performances / Food Market by Souk el-Tayeb All day
Boat Tours with Dalieh’s Fishermen Every hour and a half, First departure at 11:00am., last departure at 5:00pm., from Dalieh’s port. Reservations and name registration on the day at the Dalieh info booth
On site Tours by members of the Dalieh Campaign Every two hours, First tour at 11:00 am, last tour at 5:00pm
Meeting point and registration on the day at the Dalieh info booth
Speakers Corner 12:00 am / 2:00pm / 4:00pm
In several locations on Dalieh
Music & Spoken Words 6:00pm-8:00pm With Ziad Itani, Jebebara, Zeid Hamdan, Tarek Bashasha & Zakaria Al Omar, Saseen Kawzally, Michelle and Noel, and many others
In Zokak el-Blat
Literary tour, organized by the International Writers’ House in Beirut 10:30am to 12:30pm, in Zokak el-Blat, meeting point at the Bachoura Cemetery A walk of the neighborhood during which Fadi Tofeili will comment, from passages of his books, the places that he mentions in his writings.
Guided Tours of Zokak el-Blat (To be confirmed) First departure at 3:00pm. A tour takes around 1h30
To be confirmed – Number of tours to be determined according to attendance
Feel free to share. Hashtags are #WatchDalieh #WatchHeneine
Use of Dalieh is believed to date back to the copper age (5,000BCE) and the site is also reportedly mentioned in ancient Greek myths.
The following article originally appeared in Take Part, a US-based online publication that has recently ceased operation. I’m posting it here in case the Take Part website is taken down during the corporate restructuring period.
JANNAH, Lebanon—At the bottom of a lush valley between rocky peaks of Mount Lebanon, strawberry farmer John Abu Akar may be the last man standing in the path of a dam project worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But he has a few tricks up his sleeve.
When a minister’s motorcade of tinted-window SUVs rolled through his village in 2012 to announce the multinational project, Abu Akar sabotaged the signs directing visitors to the location of a press conference so they pointed instead down the gravel path leading to his farm. Around 10 black American-model vehicles soon pulled in; security agents jumped out and confronted Abu Akar. Unaware that they were in the wrong place, they demanded he move his car from where it was parked in front of his house. They told him they worked for Gebran Bassil, one of Lebanon’s most prominent politicians and the dam’s chief proponent. “Who is he? What does he do for a living?” Abu Akar asked them, playing dumb. Sitting on his porch with a beer in hand, the half-shaved 37-year-old recalls the story with a wry smile as the Abraham River rushes behind him. “We made fun of them a little,” he says, laughing.
Four years later, the reality is more sobering. Work on the dam, which will be one of the biggest in the Arab world if completed, began last year, leaving wide swathes of the valley carved out and thousands of trees bulldozed. (A claimed completion date of 2016 seems unlikely to be met.) Most of the farms and homes in Abu Akar’s village, known as Jannah—Arabic for “paradise”—have been leveled. Jannah sits on the upper banks of the Abraham River, which runs beneath snowcapped peaks to the Mediterranean Sea, about 12 miles downstream from Abu Akar’s home. It cuts a winding path through the verdant Adonis Valley, which is lined with waterfalls and natural springs and home to some 700 animal and plant species, making it one of the most biodiverse regions in the Middle East.
Experts warn that blocking the river and building the dam, which will require flattening up to 500 acres of hillside forest, will not only stifle the river flow and destroy natural habitats but endanger a vast underground network of aquifers that feed Beirut’s primary water source, the Jeita spring. The spring, 20 miles southwest of Jannah, produces a subterranean river that courses through the Jeita caverns, a major tourist attraction and a symbol of national pride seen on postcards and currency notes.
Cutting off the flow of the river could significantly drain the Jeita spring, according to the Hannover, Germany–based Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, which conducted a multiyear study of the project. Thus providing electricity and water to one part of Lebanon may threaten the water supply of its capital. The institute also found that because the dam is to be built on a porous rock formation, most of the 10 billion gallons of water proponents claim it will store will be lost, absorbed by the earth. “In view of the current findings, it is strongly recommended not to go ahead with the construction” planned, the institute concluded in 2012.
But for Lebanon’s politically ambitious Ministry of Energy and Water, the Jannah Dam will be nothing short of a miraculous feat of human over nature, providing much needed water and electricity to surrounding towns. A promotional video by a local contractor bears a strong resemblance to a trailer for an action film, complete with dramatic music, explosions, and title cards bearing phrases such as “They accepted the challenge” and “Failure is not an option.”
Despite the Lebanese state commissioning the German institute to undertake its study, which involved three years of field testing, the Ministry of Energy and Water’s advisers have dismissed the results as “totally wrong” and politically motivated. They have also rejected the complaints of Minister of the Environment Mohammad Machnouk, who said the project failed to provide an adequate environmental impact study and lacked approval from his office.
Yet the digging and razing continues. The Ministry of Energy and Water places the initial budget at around $300 million, which includes the cost of a hydroelectric plant and the 300-foot-high dam.
Activists and environmental experts say the budget is likely to mushroom to closer to $1 billion when factoring the costs of land purchases, annual maintenance, and a tunneling system to deliver the water. The principal contractor, Brazilian conglomerate Andrade Gutierrez, made headlines last year when its chief officers were arrested in São Paulo as part of an alleged corruption scheme to inflate prices on major projects. The firm paid $286 million to settle the charges in a plea deal reached in May. Dam opponents say the company’s track record gels with postwar Lebanon’s notorious record for state corruption and white elephant infrastructure projects.
“Look at all the projects that happen in Lebanon—none have been produced at estimated cost; all of them have been constructed at subpar quality,” says Karim Eid-Sabbagh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of London who studies the political economy of water and natural resources management in Lebanon. Jannah, he believes, “will not ever produce what [government officials] are claiming. It’s just money out the window.”
Aside from wasted funds, experts say the dam will exact a heavy toll on the environment.
“You won’t have any biodiversity. You will have a catastrophic situation: missing trees, more erosion, habitats of species gone,” says Roland Riachi, a water management expert and a researcher and lecturer at the American University of Beirut. “Even sand on the beaches comes from rivers. It’s the destruction of a whole ecosystem.”
Abu Akar, too, thinks about the effect on the valley’s wildlife, which includes populations of wolves, hyenas, boars, hyraxes, and birds: “What will the animals drink when the river runs dry?”
Its human presence dating to antiquity, the Adonis Valley is named after the Phoenician deity, the favorite lover of Aphrodite, whose killing by a wild boar, legend has it, is what turns the river red once every year. (More likely, the hue comes from sediment that pours through at the end of the winter.) All along the banks of the valley’s Abraham River are temples to Adonis and other archaeological sites, including Ottoman-era mills and stone bridges. It is believed that the Phoenicians used the river to float timber to their Mediterranean port of Byblos, from where it was shipped to Egypt to build furniture, rooftops, and ships for the pharaohs. A thousand years later, the Romans built a series of staircases throughout the Adonis that connected it to their temples and palaces in the Bekaa Valley; portions of the route still can be traversed. Following logging of the valley by successive civilizations, from the Babylonians to the Persians, the Roman Emperor Hadrian banned the felling of trees in the first century, making the region one of the world’s first protected forest reserves. Latin inscriptions announcing the prohibition can be seen carved into boulders across the valley.
Environmental activists say dam builders have chopped down thousands of trees and that the number could reach as high as 300,000 or more. Drone video captured from above the area by the Lebanon Eco Movement, an association of environmental organizations, reveals the scale of the destruction: Bald, crumbling mountains are a stark contrast to the green hillsides that will be razed next. The flow of the river is slowing from the buildup of debris; its surface is covered in a thick layer of algae. The destruction is sure to affect the 16,000-acre Jabal Moussa Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-recognized biosphere a few miles downriver from the dam site that is recognized as a protected forest by the Ministry of Agriculture. Two thousand years after Hadrian’s declaration, says Joelle Barakat, conservation manager for the Association for the Protection of Jabal Moussa, “we have ministers who laugh at you if you say you don’t want to cut down [trees].”
During summer Sundays, narrow roads leading through the reserve are thronged with cars and buses full of families out to picnic and camp along the riverbank. Since its establishment in 2007, the reserve has been producing maps and publications categorizing and documenting the hundreds of flora and fauna species native to the area and carving paths to archaeological sites such as the Hadrian inscriptions and the Adonis temples. Barakat says the reserve receives 10,000 visitors per year, which it hopes to boost by supporting family-owned inns.
“We believe the importance of Jabal Moussa reserve stems from the Adonis Valley,” says Barakat. “The whole region is culturally linked to this valley. The dam will have a direct effect on the riparian ecosystem that is there—it won’t be there anymore.”
In the summer months, the Abraham River, fed by snowmelt, is reduced significantly, creating wading pools among the rapids. Barakat says government flow studies failed to take into consideration seasonal changes, evaporation, or filtration down to underground resources—a finding confirmed by the German team, which concluded that existing flow meters are outdated and inaccurate.
The Ministry of Energy and Water maintains that the impact on nature will be limited and that the number of trees cut so far is only 5,000 and will not exceed 50,000. Repeated attempts to contact the ministry went unanswered.
Although Jannah is one of the largest state projects in Lebanon’s history, no environmental impact assessment was carried out before construction began. Public reviews are not protocol in Lebanon. Because sectarian politicians and affiliated sectarian media often scapegoat personalities and individual rivals rather than address broader, more complicated public service problems—which could implicate the attackers’ own side as well—such projects are seldom investigated and proceed with little oversight. Only after a group of hikers and environmentalists encountered signs in the valley announcing the project two years ago was a complaint lodged with the environment ministry.
Other experts are convinced that the dam will not even succeed at its principal aim: retaining water. The entire Adonis Valley is underlain with porous karst stone foundations, jagged rocks ubiquitous throughout the country that give rise to the limestone caves, underwater aquifers, and springs spread across Lebanon’s mountain ranges.
Video captured by a drone shows damage to the Adonis Valley as a result of construction on the Jannah Dam project.
Along dirt tracks on the drive to Jannah, recently carved wide for construction vehicles to pass, limestone facades are evident along the freshly cleaved mountainsides. A six-foot-wide cave opening can be spotted, partially obstructed by a pile of rock crushed to create an access road for construction vehicles and equipment. Inside are several deep crevices, one filled with stalactites hanging from its ceiling.
The valley floor’s permeability could cause the dam to lose more than two-thirds of the more than 10 billion gallons it aims to store, according to the German report. In a 2012 email obtained by TakePart, project leader Armin Margane pleaded with a senior Lebanese official at the state-run Council for Development and Reconstruction: “If construction of Jannah Dam goes ahead it would lead to a failed investment because at a cost of $300 million not more than around [2.6 billion gallons] of water could be stored.”
The Ministry of Energy and Water maintains that it will seal the porous valley floor through grouting, a technique in which concrete is injected across the inundation area behind the dam. The German team described this move as “practically impossible” and maintained that any attempt to seal the valley floor would “significantly reduce” the flow to the Jeita spring, which it estimates provides 75 percent of Beirut’s water.
Riachi says that even if grouting were attempted, the enormous amount of cement required would cause the project cost to balloon to at least three times the stated estimate. He uses an old Arabic proverb to make the point: “It would be like trying to tile the ocean floor.”
Several dams built on karst foundations, the permeability of which can compromise the integrity of the structure, have failed or faced severe problems in the United States. A 2009 report prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers noted that half the U.S. dams deemed “unsafe or critically near failure” were built on karst foundations. “Numerous attempts at grouting solution features in karst have been ineffective,” and “grout has proven to be a short-term risk reduction measure,” it stated. The report concluded by listing a number of “minimum steps” to reduce failure, such as building deep underground walls to attempt to hold water back, though it does not indicate the success rate of such measures.
Mosul Dam in Iraq, built on karstified rock in 1984, is facing the imminent threat of collapse, according to both Iraqi and American engineers. The Corps called the dam “the most dangerous in the world,” forecasting that a collapse could release a wave of water more than 40 feet high that would submerge Mosul and flood Baghdad, killing up to 1 million. Although warned repeatedly about the unstable nature of the rock by successive foreign consultants, Saddam Hussein’s regime ignored this advice and went ahead with the project, viewing it as a symbol of state power and vowing to use grouting as a solution. Problems emerged two years after construction, when the structure was compromised as water running through the bedrock began eroding caves and causing them to expand. Despite a reported 104,000 tons of grout poured over the dam’s lifetime, new problems arose after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when the maintenance operation, which involved a 24-hour-a-day concrete injection schedule, came to a halt. At a height of 367 feet, Mosul Dam is only slightly taller than the Jannah Dam, although its carrying capacity is far smaller.
In Lebanon, the Chabrouh Dam, completed in 2007, also sits on karst rock. Researchers say the dam is now leaking at a rate of 52 gallons per second. The recently completed Brisa Dam is largely empty, as seen in pictures distributed by activists. The country’s largest dam, the Litani, built in the 1970s on the advice of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, has failed in its expectations to deliver water to farms across the arid Bekaa Valley. It now irrigates just 1.5 percent of Lebanese agriculture and leaks some 80 gallons per second, according to Riachi. “These are all failures,” he says.
Another major concern is that the Adonis Valley is a high seismic activity zone, with three fault lines traversing the axis of the proposed dam, according to a United Nations Development Programme preliminary study of the project in 2008. The presence of the faults was the study’s second-biggest concern following the presence of “pervious karst” beneath the dam axis.
In a conference hall at the new Hilton Beirut Habtoor Grand hotel, which towers over the concrete sprawl of Beirut, a line of suit-wearing, stone-faced parliamentarians sat awaiting the start of a televised pressconference. Hastily organized by the Ministry of Energy and Water in response to growing criticism of the Jannah Dam project, over the course of nearly two hours the June 3 conference paraded contractors, architects, and project consultants before the cameras to present a series of charts, which they said proved their assessments of the project were sound.
In the front row were members of the political coalition supporting the dam project, led by Gebran Bassil—the former minister whose route Abu Akar had blocked in 2012. A rising star in politics, Bassil, 46, now heads the Free Patriotic Movement, a powerful parliamentary bloc founded by his father-in-law, Michel Aoun, a former army commander. The station covering the event, known as a mouthpiece for Aoun, regularly panned its cameras toward Bassil and other members of his coalition.
Throughout multiple presentations, the German team was constantly dismissed as producing “a viewpoint,” not “science,” while its series of reports, released in 2012, were called “old,” allegedly disproved by subsequent tests carried out by the prominent local engineering firm Khatib & Alami. The company, which has executed a significant share of government contracts over the last several decades, also claims that soil samples from the site indicate an “excellent” quality of stone and “no possibility” of leakage. Khatib & Alami’s tests were not made available. It was largely a party affair; only a handful of journalists or average citizens attended, and there was no discussion of grouting and the industry-wide skepticism about it.
At one point, Khatib & Alami lead engineer Adel Abou Jaoude held up a printout of a report from the French consulting firm SAFEGE, highlighting one key sentence on an overhead projection: “We have a favorable view toward building the dam.” What Jaoude failed to mention was three subsequent paragraphs qualifying the statement with the condition that the floor of the dam reservoir be sealed or grouted to prevent leakage. The report states this would be a “very difficult” task and could increase the costs of the project. The SAFEGE report confirms a positive soil finding on one side of the riverbank; testing on the other side—the side especially rich in karst stone—is pending.
Raja Noujaim, a retired quality control expert and a leading activist resisting the Jannah project, believes the testing was performed deliberately on the less permeable sections of the river valley. He also points out that the SAFEGE report makes a series of vague and conditional statements and relies heavily on tests conducted by the government. Particularly curious is the discrepancy between the SAFEGE report presented at the conference and one that the firm released three months earlier that extends its reservations toward not only the waterproofing of the dam floor but also the dam foundations. “They put them under pressure,” says Noujaim. “Otherwise they would not be paid.”
Riachi agrees: “SAFEGE initially said it was a bad site for a dam and then said their position was one of reservations.”
With near constant political instability and unregulated crony capitalism in Lebanon, maintenance of the dam could become a critical issue. The Lebanese state is infamous for its failure to maintain and deliver public services such as electricity and water. Despite billions in investment, the state electricity company’s power plants and transmission networks have suffered blackouts up to 12 hours per day for 30 years.
Garbage collection is equally problematic, with waste regularly dumped into rivers and rural areas or flushed untreated out to sea and a raft of failed sanitation and sewage projects. Beirut’s streets were lined with piles of trash last year following the overburdening of the country’s main landfill, due to a lack of oversight and planning by government bodies. Several municipalities resorted to burning their trash, sending cancerous toxins into the air, according to local university studies, which also warned of garbage residue from the piles seeping into groundwater and affecting agricultural production. The crisis, which led to extensive street protests, persists a year later, with plans now to create landfills along the Mediterranean, adding more pollution to existing sewage drains along the once pristine coast.
The nation’s potable water network is no outlier in the state of dysfunction. Tap water runs only a few hours per day; most households are equipped with plastic rooftop reservoirs, and residents are often reduced to buying water from private trucks. Because neither the tap water nor the private supply is treated, nearly the entire country is forced to buy crates of bottled water for drinking and cooking. Poor maintenance and mismanagement by the ministry and its labyrinth of regional water agencies are a major part of the problem. A 2011 studyconducted by one of the government’s engineers found that nearly 50 percent of water in the network is lost because of outdated infrastructure and leaking pipes. Some aqueducts are more than 100 years old; Beirut’s main pumping station was built in 1896 and cannot be expanded.
“Why don’t they spend a few million dollars and repair the pipes?” asks Noujaim. He and other experts believe a series of small dams, wells, and lakes would serve as a more sustainable solution. “These people care about selling big projects, even if they don’t work. They care about money. You are dealing with Ali Baba.”
After the technical presentations, the press conference took a decidedly political turn as Bassil was introduced to much fanfare. The dam project will create an annual state revenue gain of some $180 million, Bassil said, though he did not reference the $100 million environmental cost Gicome calculated.
Known for his off-the-cuff remarks, Bassil dismissed concerns about the fault lines running beneath the dam, saying, “If it’s seven on the Richter scale, then who cares? All of Beirut will be gone anyway.” Government-hired experts had earlier claimed the dam’s concrete structure would help protect against earthquakes and that disaster is unlikely. “Only 12 dams have been ruptured in the past,” said a French expert working with Khatib & Alami.
Bassil is famous for promising during his term as energy and water minister 24-hour electricity in Lebanon by 2015. (He also promised, during his stint as telecom minister, fiber-optic internet by 2010.) With blackouts worse than ever this summer and internet speeds in Lebanon still among the world’s slowest, the hashtag #BlameBassil has periodically trended as the population complains on social media about public service failures.
Though Bassil has been appointed minister of foreign affairs, he maintains a frequent presence at events related to the Jannah Dam. At the hotel press conference, he touted the project as a pillar of “strategic national interest” and security and spoke in conspiratorial tones when describing opposition to the dam.
“What is this reason that a state…, two and a half years after starting a project, needs to stop it?” Bassil asked, throwing his hands in the air. “Cutting down a tree? That an earthquake could happen? An old study? Every day they are creating reasons to stop the dam. What makes all of these concerns lack value? One thing: politics. We spent $100 million, and we have to stop. Why? So someone can have fun?”
Bassil painted his party as a victim of political sabotage, singled out, he says, for abuses that others get away with, such as rampant illegal logging or polluting landfills. Forest fires, he argues, decimate 14 percent of Lebanese trees annually. “Now they are mad about 5,000 trees? Let the environment minister go chase after those [who are] logging trees,” he suggested to rousing applause from the conference audience. “If we are talking about environmental impact, this is over; it’s done,” he said. “The trees have been cut; the site of the dam has been excavated. If there was environmental impact, it happened already.”
The deep commitment to harnessing water and dam building in Lebanon far predates Bassil and his coalition. The notion that Lebanese rivers flowing to the Mediterranean are wasted dates back to the French mandate period: The precolonial water management system, wrote Riachi in an op-ed for Beirut newspaper paper Al-Akhbar, “was judged too archaically managed by the locals and needed to be modernized by a good-willed colonizing power.” This notion was extended during the 1950s, when American engineers first proposed the Jannah Dam as part of diplomacy efforts at the height of the Cold War. Today, Lebanon is embarking on $1.9 billion worth of future dam projects, many of them supported by loans from international lending organizations such as the World Bank.
In the hills overlooking Jannah, Andrade Gutierrez has set up dozens of mobile homes for its engineers in the picturesque mountain village of Kartaba. The firm is celebrated for creating jobs and bringing traffic to local business. In the town’s main square, the windows of offices rented by the company are covered with decals showcasing its projects; a giant rendering of the Jannah Dam is spread across an entire storefront.
Down below in Jannah, however, farmer Abu Akar is bent on giving Andrade Gutierrez hell. He regularly chucks rocks at the passing dump trucks because, he says, in addition to the destruction of the valley, they operate on Sundays in contravention of Lebanese law. His sister parks her Jeep strategically on the narrow road leading to the site to obstruct traffic flow. But it is a lonely battle.
He points to where his neighbors used to live. All that remains are three stone houses on a hillside, nestled amid a handful of oak and olive trees. They are an island of the past surrounded on all sides by newly carved gravel construction roads. Abu Akar says about 100 villagers—more than half the town—have vacated, as their homes were flattened. About eight families received sums of around $80,000 each, he says. “What will they do with that? Buy a small apartment and then what?” He vows to stay despite the enormous dam wall that is set to be built only a few hundred yards from his home and remaining fields, eclipsing the bounty of sunlight that shines down on his greenhouses: “No one is going to move us from here. I won’t leave even for $100 million.”
Abu Akar walks up to a home built of roughly cut boulders, with a porch made of straw and tree branches. Its former occupants, his great-grandparents, are buried under a slab of tombs around the back, near a one-room church with a dozen dusty pews. (Abu Akar says his great-great-grandfather was the first to settle in Jannah, in the 1820s.) Inside, under a chandelier, hangs a fading portrait of John the Baptist wearing a gold crown as he pours water over a half-robed Jesus, knee-deep in another river, the River Jordan. Outside the church, a cast-iron bell is propped up by a piece of decayed wood wedged between two gnarled olive trees. The inscription on the bell says it’s from 1885.
Just beyond Abu Akar’s greenhouses are vast bulldozed plains. He surveys the construction site. Once densely forested mountainsides have been shaved haphazardly, as if buzzed by a giant electric razor. Toward the center of the site lies a mound of bulldozed branches and tree trunks piled a dozen feet high, as if mauled in a natural disaster.
“Look at what they have done,” Abu Akar says, pointing to a large splintered tree stump. “They didn’t even cut them down properly.” The image seems to be at odds with a tree-replanting program put forward by government contractor Khatib & Alami to uproot and move thousands of the trees that needed to be cleared for the reservoir basin. Mountainsides have been reduced to loose sediment. Rockslides from the highest peaks of the excavation are evident throughout, particularly in the V-shaped section where the dam structure will be erected. Bubbly limestone facades are exposed in multiple sections of the construction area. Abu Akar says he witnessed water being pumped out of the project’s tunnel excavation, casting further doubt on the state’s claims of “excellent” rock integrity.
Abu Akar still has a few crops in the construction area but says he can’t bring himself to collect them: “I don’t have a heart to go inside. I’ll cry if I go there. It was the most beautiful valley in the world.”
He changes the subject and puts on a face of defiance mixed with sarcasm. “It’s all business; everyone wants to fill his pockets,” he says. “They make themselves out to be leaders, but they are worth the sole of my shoe.”
“I didn’t say incinerators, I said ‘high technology,'” Beirut’s mayor Jamal Itani told LBC at a recent waste disposal conference. “We are going to start the pre-qualification before the end of the year…In terms of the land, I have two solutions but I prefer not to talk about it now so the criticism doesn’t start…”
The conference featured European guest speakers including the mayor of Copenhagen who claimed that most of his city’s garbage was recycled. But what does this mean for Beirut, what is “high technology” incineration exactly, what are the effects on public health and why is the mayor not disclosing the location or the actual technology being considered for fear of criticism?
According to LBC, an incineration plant would cost over $100 million and require huge amounts of space and deep mines for dumping of the byproducts. Intrepid reporter Sobhiya Najjar asks: “How can Beirut plan “high technology” incineration plant if it it cannot even sort its garbage at the source?
After years of darkness it seems the northern suburbs of Beirut will finally be lit up at night. Like most highways in Lebanon, the street lamps in the Dora area are constantly turned out due to electricity cuts. Finally, someone seems to have decided to rely on the sun instead of the failing national power company. And it’s hard to imagine why this wasn’t done years ago.
But the solar panels are set up only on a small patch of highway.
They seem quite close together:
Maybe because they don’t give out a lot of light?
The work began a few weeks ago.
The company is called Irsal Telecom Solutions Provider, as seen on the truck:
I wonder if anyone knows more about this company or the cost/duration of this contract and whether it will be expanded to other areas. Sadly, there exists no publicly accessible database or website listing government projects–at least to my knowledge–so that the public can keep track of such projects and know how their money is being spent. Because as it stands, most citizens will know only about what they see with their eyes after it has been paid for and executed.
Poles are now going up in the Nahr El Mawt area. Could this be the next site of solar panel lighting?
Let’s hope these lights will be effective and properly maintained. Can you imagine if the whole national highway was lit up at night? One can dream.
Shortly after posting this, I noticed that only a handful of the new lamps were working tonight:
A new project seems to be chewing away the coastline in Batroun. I was able to get a few shots when I was passing by the area last weekend.
Apparently the plan is to build a new private resort by Orchid, which already runs a private beach in South Lebanon.
Here is part of the construction wall:
I wasn’t the only one to notice. This (better) photo set was posted on Facebook yesterday by Tala Hajjar Skaff:
I remember reading once that the law requires a minimum of 10 meters of space between any development and the shore line. I wonder if that law still applies and, if so, how was this project approved and who approved it?
For those unfamiliar, much of Lebanon’s coastline has been privatized by resorts that charge $20 to $40 per day in beach access fees. Of course you can’t bring food or water to such resorts, so patrons will be dishing out an additional $10-$20 for a small snack and/or drink. With a per capita income of less than $1,000 per month, most Lebanese won’t be able to afford such prices and are thus barred from enjoying the coast across much of their country.
Batroun remains one of the few places where many beaches are still free and accessible to the general public. But how long will that remain the case?
Right next to the construction is an existing establishment that has also built directly on the beach:
Mocking the new Orchid advertising slogan on the construction wall, one of the commentators on Skaff’s post, wrote:
“First there was a beach, and then there was no beach”
Surely there is more we can do about this than laugh. What permit has Orchid obtained for this project? Was an environmental impact assessment carried out? Who approved this permit? Will the resort pay fees to municipality? How much and where will those fees go? Have the people of Batroun been consulted? Have any government bodies been consulted? What is the environment ministry’s position?
The Civil Coalition Against the Boutros Highway is hosting a panel and discussion this Tuesday on the battle against the $75 municipality-led project that will cut through one Beirut’s greenest neighborhoods. The speakers include architects, urban planners and activists leading the campaign to create a park instead of the 1.3km road that will destroy several historic homes, including one of the last remaining terraced farm in the city.
The event will take place this Tuesday August 26 at 11:00AM at the lush garden space that is threatened by the project.
You can join the event page on Facebook and find out more about the speakers in the invite below. (Click to enlarge)
For background on the legal battle against the project, and the questions raised about its transparency and the impact it will have on the neighborhood, see this in-depth piece on the project in The Daily Star and blog posts about the recent protests from local residents and activists.
The municipality of a certain village was forced to call the fire department this week for a fire lit by its own staff. Luckily the firefighters were able to put it out before the blaze spread to the surrounding brush and caught half the mountainside on fire.
It all started when a member of the municipal police–who was supervising road works– decided to start a fire to clear the brush.
“We started the fire,” the policeman said nonchalantly with a cigar in hand, when asked. “It’s nothing,” he added as he continued to supervise roadworks, with the firetruck in the background.
The policeman–who wasn’t wearing any uniform–went on to blame the neighbors for the fire he started. “It’s their fault,” he added. “They let all the brush grow–they throw the garbage from their gardens here.”
When asked why the municipality doesn’t bring a truck to clear the brush instead of burning it–so as to prevent a big fire and a column of smoke in the air polluting the entire neighborhood–he smiled. “If you think this is a big fire, what are you going to say when you see a real big fire?”
Thanks to the boys at the fire department and the speed of their response, we didn’t get to see one. “This happens all the time,” the senior fireman said shaking his head, when asked if his mens’ time is often wasted by people setting their own fires to “clear garbage.”
We were also lucky that it wasn’t a windy day. Otherwise the flames could have easily spread to the dense green hillside just behind it, which is full of bone dry shrubs and connected to a beautiful pine forest in the valley.
A new microbrewery has opened in Batroun, a picturesque small town on the Lebanese coast. Even more cool is that the brewery building is built of recycled material: walls made of recycled wood crates and melted down plastic turned into wall panels– the equivalent of 2 million plastic bags. It is a technology pioneered by the local firm Cedar Environmental, headed by Lebanese engineer Ziad Abichaker. Plus tables made of old telephone wire spools, grass planted with organic recycled fertilizer. The launch party is just getting started, here are some pics. Stay tuned for my upcoming piece in Jazeera Airways inflight magazine about Ziad’s inspiring work.
The new beer is called Colonel. A restaurant is also set to open in the space.
In addition to the landfill crisis on Beirut’s streets–covered on this blog yesterday— there appears to be a heavy dose of nasty brown stuff spewing into the Mediterranean near Beirut Airport, as seen in these pictures I took a couple of days ago.
You can see the runway at the top right. And the output point appears to be near a sea resort near Khalde, a few hundred meters before the Ouzai tunnel running underneath the tarmac.
Zooming in on the same area in Google Maps, the brown substance appears to come from very close to this resort, near a green area, before being flushed out to sea via a short canal:
Zoom out and you can see the extent of the damage across the coastline:
But these satellite images could be quite dated– in some parts of Beirut I have noticed Google earth images to be 2-3 years old. Judging by my current airplane window shots, could this mean that the slime has been pumped out constantly for 3 years or even much longer? No wonder Sidon and Khalde are not safe places to swim.