Friday, October 23, 1998
LEBANON ON FIRE
by Fareed Abou-Haidar
(Sorry for the missed LebEnv last Friday; I was out of town on a work-related trip.)
About a week ago, the temperature in Lebanon soared into the 40s, something that is very unusual for so late in the year. Such temperatures would have set records even in the deserts of Arizona, let alone a temperate place like Lebanon. Hundreds of fires broke out all over the country as well as in its neighbor to the south. One news item said 85 precent of Lebanon's pine forests had burned; I hope that was a misprint, but even 8.5 precent would be far too much, considering how little we had to start off with.
In our southern neighbor, people set fires to forests as part of action against Israel. The Israelis shelled areas of South Lebanon with phosphorescent artillery, systematically burning down forested mountains that the Israelis claimed were being used as cover by "terrorists." Both sides are wrong. There's no such as an "Israeli tree" that deserves to be a target, and the Israelis should find another way to fight the "terrorists." Forests, like civilians, should be kept out of this.
Farther to the north, the fires had other causes, all human (as there were no lightning storms at the time). Some were probably caused by discarded glass bottles concentrating the rays of the sun, just like a magnifying glass, setting fire to vegetation that has been drying out all summer long. Others were said to have been set by entrepreneurs seeking easy firewood to turn into charcoal. And, I would not be surprised if some were set by lowly elements, enemies bent on destroying Lebanon in a novel way, now that they cannot do it with guns.
Realizing this, Lebanon's government should take extraordinary precautions to save what little is left.
On my recent trip to Lebanon, I noticed a proliferation of local restaurants all over the country offering "mashawi ala el-fahm" (charcoal-broiled meats). This kind of food has been available for centuries, but its increasing popularity and the increasing population seem to have made it unsustainable. Perhaps we need to sacrifice a bit of taste and avoid this kind of food. We can still eat it using dead branches cut from living trees. Restaurant owners need to find alternatives. (This is a problem even in the southwestern United States, where the appetite for mesquite-broiled barbecues is stripping northern Mexico's deserts of mesquite trees.) Also, alternate forms of heating should be made available for inhabitants in remote mountains.
The government has banned the cutting down of living forests. It should permenantly extend this ban to those that have burned down. This will remove the incentive to start fires and will nullify the excuse of "too bad it burned down, but let's cut it and make use of the firewood." In addition, the dead wood will eventually fall over, decay, and provide badly needed nutrition to the soil for new post-fire growth.
A ban on disposable glass bottles is badly needed. Also, cleanup campaigns should pay special attention to removing these time bombs from roadsides and forests.
On a very hot day in the drought year of 1996, a huge fire in Arizona burned 260 square kilometers covering an entire mountain; it was started by careless campers. Belatedly, the government banned all recreation and access to fire- prone areas until the summer rains arrived. Perhaps the same needs to be done in Lebanon, especially towards the end of summer when vegetation is at its driest. A few lost picnics is a small price to pay to save forests.
Of course, there is also the need to educate people about fires and their causes. Vigilance is needed against the malicious thugs who will start fires on purpose.
Finally, a huge salute to the brave souls who narrowly saved the Shouf cedars from burning!
Fareed's Home Page (with articles and photos on the environment in Lebanon) at http://members.aol.com/fdadlion/