The biggest myth Lebanon peddles is the one about it being a “beautiful country.” The people are beautiful in that the Lebanese have a wonderful generosity of spirit, but their landscape, it must be said, is pretty ugly. It could have been stunning but we have ruined it with vast swaths of rubbish and the rampant, unregulated building that has crept over our mountains during the past 40 years.
In 2010, Unesco warned Lebanon that the Qadisha Valley, whose monasteries are among “the most significant surviving examples of the fundamental demonstration of Christian faith”, was in danger of being dropped from its World Heritage list. Unregulated picnicking, restaurants and building projects, as well as all-terrain vehicle racing and an uncontrolled inflow of raw sewage into the area were all to blame for the warning. I don’t know what the Lebanese authorities did (very little I suspect) but the site remains on Unesco’s website.
The Lebanese keep their homes spotless but don’t seem to care what happens outside the front door. Apparently this behaviour is a throwback to Ottoman times when the locals would make a mess just to annoy their Turkish masters. But the reality is purely a lack of basic education and governmental incompetence and/or indifference. Hunters don’t pick up empty cartridges; families leave behind the detritus after picnics; and the sides of our main mountain roads are seen as the ideal place to drop off household rubbish.
In fact, in the 20 years since the end of the war there has been neither a genuine national awareness campaign to clean up the country nor any serious initiative to recycle waste. It is a shocking indictment on a country that claims to be modern and forward-thinking.
It’s hardly surprising we don’t know how to treat the environment given we are never allowed the chance to interact with it. As of last week, the Beirut Municipality was still not willing to open Horsh Beirut — the city’s only genuine park — to the public, while the Jesuit Gardens, another popular green space, are to be torn down to make way for an underground car park.
A solid zoning policy might also make people aware of what should be built where. And boy, do the Lebanese like to build. While there may be a growing secondary market in splendid mountain villas, many people living in rural areas have no option but to build on an inherited piece of land — and this is where the problems start. Building codes are minimal and functionality is everything. Often the owner will build the structure to a level at which it can be inhabited, leaving the exterior walls unrendered and even rebars sticking out of the roof in case another floor is needed for one of his children.
So for every state-of-the-art, eco-friendly villa that goes up, there are at least half a dozen often half-completed “buildings” that contribute to the ever-morphing blot on the Lebanese landscape.
Short of there being a massive earthquake, we can’t really do much about our ugly buildings but what we can fix is the rubbish. With the exception of the Chouf, where the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has imposed his own green policy, there have been few local initiatives to keep the country clean. It would be interesting to see what would happen if Lebanon’s other leaders, Hizbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah in particular, took a minute during their regular political homilies and urged their constituents to keep the country tidy.
To be fair, even the most advanced nations have had to work at it. As children growing up in Britain in the 1970s, we were encouraged not to be “litter bugs”, while kids all watched The Wombles, a TV show in which a family of furry animals picked up rubbish on Wimbledon Common.
Nearby Cyprus also had an acute litter problem, but the government realised that no one would want to holiday amid empty beer bottles and chocolate wrappers, so now the island is relatively clean.
It really is time we too cleaned up our act.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut