Lebanon: wildfire season further exposes government failure
Lebanon was hit by a spate of wildfires in 2021. Although these have happened before, the government wasn’t equipped to handle them, and it was locals and civil society groups who had to fight the blaze with the minimum means at their disposal. Lebanon’s poor response offered further evidence of a hopeless government that remains paralysed by the self-serving acts of political elites in a context of economic meltdown. As part of its obligation to fight climate change, under the Paris Agreement that it recently signed, the Lebanese government must urgently design policies to strengthen the preparedness of local authorities to fight fires – and enable civil society to contribute to these efforts.
Around the Mediterranean basin, countries were swept by extreme weather in 2021. But while the fires erased borders, international media coverage respected them. Much more media attention was paid to countries on the European side of the Mediterranean basin than their counterparts in North Africa and the Middle East. Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Turkey were all plagued by a ring of wildfires peaking in July, the second-hottest July ever in Europe. When thousands had to flee the Greek island of Evia, pictures and videos of panicked locals and tourists were widely shared online and by international media.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, countries had their fair share of apocalyptic weather too. In the Kabylia Region of northern Algeria, forest fires claimed the lives of at least 69 people, including 28 military personnel who were fighting the flames.
On top of the scourge of its 10-year-long conflict and pressing humanitarian crisis, Syria experienced devastating drought: the reservoir formed by the Al-Duwaysat Dam in Idlib province completely dried up for the first time in its 27-year history, leaving thousands of farmers without any means of irrigation.
While Lebanon may not have been on the international radar for its climate disasters, the way the fires were tackled – or rather weren’t – told an important story about the governance failures the country urgently needs to address.
Mishandled fire season points to bigger problems
Lebanon’s extreme weather events further exposed a troubled state failing to get to grips with multiple crises. As the country reached the 13th month of stalemate over the formation of a new government, a record fire season struck.
A series of blazes occurred in July and August in northern Lebanon. Fire broke out in the northern Akkar province before spreading to the coastal highland regions of Syria. The fact that forests of cedars, the tree on Lebanon’s national flag, were ablaze symbolised the extent of the catastrophe.
These fires were followed in mid-November by hundreds more that swept through southern Lebanon. When the flames reached residential areas, hundreds of locals were forced to evacuate.
The scale of the challenge far exceeded the capabilities of the government – and not for the first time. In 2019, devastating blazes led to mass protests at the government’s poor performance and ill-preparedness. The government was also utterly incapable of dealing with the impacts of a massive explosion in the Port of Beirut, which rippled through large sections of the city on 4 August 2020.
People have ever since demanded not just a new government but a new political system and a new generation of leaders, better equipped to handle challenges such as these. Lebanon has for years been locked in a governance crisis; self-serving elites occasionally rotate in leadership, but they are all cut from the same cloth – all equally distanced from the worries and aspirations of regular people and out of sync with the evolving nature of public opinion.
Mismanagement has further fuelled economic crisis, as international lenders have been reluctant to sustain Lebanon’s collapsing economy due to well-founded corruption concerns. When Lebanon’s forest caught fire, people readily connected the environmental damage to Lebanon’s broader political and economic failure.
A repeat lack of preparedness and a civil society response
The government’s response to the 2021 fires was no different from that of 2019. Its unpreparedness was reflected in the shortage of equipment and lack of maintenance of helicopters, among other issues. Even when supported by four air force helicopters and military units, its civil defence could not control the blaze, and fire spread to Syrian villages in the Al-Qusayr area. Lebanon had to turn to Cyprus for help to extinguish the fires.
Knowing that both fires and an inadequate state response are predictable, in recent years civil society groups have stepped in to help tackle the problem. The Akkar Trail organisation developed a project to prevent and fight against forest fires in the long term, as locals realised that roughly 70 per cent of their region was highly exposed to fire risk. Its team consists of 10 volunteers, along with two forest fire-fighting vehicles. With these scare resources it tries to cover a huge area of dense forest. In 2020, the organisation even fought on with only one vehicle due to a lack of resources. In 2021, it has sustained its efforts through a crowdfunding campaign.
Tackling another part of the problem is the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative, which is promoting community-based forest restoration and management, working to support livelihoods through work that replenishes and defends forests. This effort is part of a collaborative initiative, Firewise Lebanon, that since 2015 has taken a community-based approach to preventing and reducing wildfire risks. In 2021 it advocated for fire-reduction initiatives in more than 50 municipalities during. It also launched a Fire Patrol phone app to encourage the early reporting of forest fires.
Knowing that both fires and an inadequate state response are predictable, in recent years civil society groups stepped in to help tackle the problem.
Local communities, ill-served by the government, are also doing their best to respond. Trapped in a recurring nightmare after experiencing similar blazes in 2019, communities brought attention to the inferno by posting videos using the trending Twitter hashtag ‘Akkar is burning’. On the ground, many residents worked around the clock to extinguish the flames that surged towards their homes and businesses.
A test of readiness for climate change
For Lebanon and other countries in the Mediterranean basin, forest fires have always been part of the summer season; however, in the face of fires of unprecedented dimensions and duration, in recent years the systems used to tackle them have been pushed to the limit.
On paper, the Lebanese government appears to be in harmony with the international community when it comes to its commitment to combat climate change, which is increasing the frequency, severity and costs of events such as fires, droughts and floods. In 2020, Lebanon finally joined the 2015 Paris Agreement. Ahead of the November 2021 COP26 climate change summitannounced an updated and more ambitious national plan to increase emissions cuts by 2030.
But many Lebanese people will see this as just so many words on paper. They will continue to judge their government by it actions – and rightly so.
On the action front, the outlook is much less encouraging. Rather than take responsibility, the Ministry of the Environment tried to blame others, claiming the fires were the result of arson. The government blamed scavengers who illegally felled trees: amid the economic crisis, this has become an increasingly common practice in response to severe shortages of basics, including fuel.
Beyond wildfires, Lebanon is prone to other environmental challenges, including scarce water resources. The United Nations warned that Lebanon’s public water supply system is on the verge of collapse, and that 1.7 million Lebanese people only have access to 35 litres of water a day.
The 2021 fires offered the leaders of a region deemed to be a climate change hotspot a reminder that the consequences of global warming need to be tackled urgently and across multiple areas of policy. The Lebanese government desperately needs to put its so-called climate ambition into action. In the face of its own failings, it should prioritise working with civil society and the local communities affected by extreme weather events.
Given the government’s incompetence and remoteness from the people, those affected won’t be holding their breath. On the climate crisis, as on Lebanon’s political and economic crises, they will continue to insist on their right to have a government that works for them, and not the other way around.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Lebanese government must provide training to local authorities and support to civil society to improve local-level preparedness.
The Lebanese government must adopt a strict protection policy for its national forests.
All new policies to tackle the impacts of climate change, including forest fires, must include an active role for civil society.
Photo by Ethan Swope/Getty Images