Friday, March 21, 1997
LEBANON'S ECONOMY SUNK IN CONCRETE
by Fareed Abou-Haidar
Last October, a news piece by Reuter quoted the Bank of Lebanon as
saying that economic activity in Lebanon had risen in July 1996 to its
highest level in three-and-a-half years. This increase was fueled by
construction, which Reuter described as "the cornerstone of the economy".
Unfortunately, this "cornerstone of the economy" has an extremely heavy impact on the natural and human environment of Lebanon, and cannot be sustained in the long run.
A lot of the construction is in the form of much-needed rebuilding after the war to replace destroyed buildings and repair damaged ones; the country's infrastructure is also being rebuilt. But, a lot of the construction industry is dependent on an ever expanding man-made forest of new buildings and roads sprawling across the countryside. This poorly planned construction is eating up Lebanon's fertile agricultural lands, remaining forests, scenic rocks, and steep
It seems whenever someone earns some money, the first reaction is to invest it in a new building. Somehow, the law of supply-and-demand seems to have broken down, as thousands of finished apartments stand empty while new ones continue to be built.
Construction is a poor base for an economy. A new building is built; it provides a one-time income for the owner when (and if) the apartments and stores are sold. It provides temporary, low-paying employment for construction workers, most of whom are not Lebanese anyway. The land that the building sits on will never be productive again, especially if that land once produced trees, fruits, grain, pasturage, or some other renewable commodity.
Construction is also as addictive as a drug. To keep workers employed and the construction-supply companies (concrete, iron, etc) in business, construction has to continue indefinitely; this, in a small country with a limited land area. Several square kilometers of Lebanon are permanently lost under concrete every year. This has to stop somewhere. While people have to have shelter over their heads, it may be time to rethink other, less important, projects. A small country with a growing population like Lebanon unfortunately can no longer afford to have thousands of second homes and chalets that are used infrequently. For example, a family living in Beirut that also owns a new summer apartment in Faitroun may be contributing to the destruction of the famed rocks of Keserwan. Perhaps it would be better if people escaped the congestion of Beirut by staying in hotels or went camping. Think of a hotel room as a room that can be "recycled" by dozens of customers a year. Moreover, whereas in the past a summer in the mountains meant a house surrounded by a garden and pine trees, today it often means a new apartment surrounded by others; such an environment is little different from the one in Beirut that people are trying to leave. Perhaps the air is cooler, but that's about all.
The Phoenix, Arizona, metropolitan area where I live is hopelessly addicted to construction, so much so that developers effectively rule the place through intimidation and corruption. The result if that the rich Sonoran Desert around it is being bulldozed at a blitzkrieg rate, and many cities are powerless or unwilling to control the quantity and quality of growth. When many developers went bust and growth slowed to a crawl in the late 1980s, the Phoenix economy collapsed. But Phoenix did not use that chance to wean itself from the drug, and growth has resumed faster than ever. It was like deliberately going back to cigarette smoking after having had to do without it for years due to lack of a supply.
Lebanon, like Phoenix, needs to wean its economy from concrete and asphalt and put its valuable capital into more productive ventures. There are many other sectors that can keep on giving. Agriculture produces a new crop every year, feeds the country, and cuts down on imports. Tourism is a non-polluting, permanent industry that heavily depends on maintaining a clean, beautiful, green countryside. (Perhaps some of those empty buildings can be converted to hotels as needed!) Factories (with pollution controls, of course) keep on producing year after year and provide permanent employment and (again) reduce imports.