Environmental issues add to Iraqi, Lebanese misery

Environmental issues add to Iraqi, Lebanese misery

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Lebanese demonstrators clean up rubbish from the streets of the capital Beirut’s downtown district after a night of protests against tax increases and official corruption, on Oct. 21, 2019 (AFP)

As protests in Iraq and Lebanon continue unrelentingly into the heart of winter, the main drivers are unquestionably frustration at the rampant corruption and government mismanagement in both countries, as well as a desire to terminate the dead hand of the sectarian systems each society is held back by. Differences exist too, not least the bloodier, more repressive approach of the Iraqi security services and associated militias, with Iranian encouragement. 
Yet one issue that lurks in both sets of protesters’ minds is the environment. In both countries, the total failure to tend to natural resources, protect the ecosystem and ensure clean air and water are telling symptoms of the broader failures of governance at every level. This makes these protests slightly different to those in other countries over the last decade. It may be also be a sign of things to come as overpopulation, combined with desertification, drought, sea rises and other phenomena, blight the planet.
Environmental issues have triggered protests before in both countries. In 2015, Lebanese protested for eight weeks at what was called the “great stink.” Trash was everywhere, even piling up outside hospitals. Landfills had become more like garbage mountains, with glaciers of detritus. The foul air hanging over the country caused by the garbage crisis could hardly be ignored. The air was toxified by large amounts of rubbish, including plastics, being burnt, leading to breathing and skin disorders. Today, temporary landfills on the coast are still infuriating Lebanese, who want them closed. Lebanon should have a glorious coastline on the Eastern Mediterranean. Instead, many of its beaches are unfit to swim at, with raw sewage soiling the water and plastic washed up on to the shore. Only the upmarket private resorts are acceptable, though not always. 
Meanwhile, in Iraq in the summer of 2018, Basrans also came out to protest. Turn on a tap in Basra and you got a murky trickle of brown, salty water. That summer, water contamination led to 118,000 people going to hospital for reasons related to water quality in a city that could once boast of its glorious canals, for which it was nicknamed the “Venice of the Middle East.” Today, these same canals are clogged with pollutants and garbage. 
Added to that, Iraq is also suffering from a major increase in dust storms. This is partly due to drought and climate change, but is also due to the chronic mismanagement of Iraq’s ecosystem and fertile areas. These storms have become almost routine, but lead to serious health issues. 

What energizes the protesters on these issues is that the problem is largely political, with environmental consequences.

Chris Doyle

Of course, for both countries, wars have been devastating for the environment. Imagine the battering the Iraqi environment has suffered, not least after three major interstate wars — the Iraq-Iraq War, the US-led attack in 1991 and the US and UK-led invasion of 2003. More recently, Daesh adopted a scorched earth policy in its fight for survival, setting many oil fields alight to cause even more harm to the air quality. The toxic clouds often blocked out the sun and were referred to as the “Daesh winter.” Lebanon suffered from its own civil war, but also the periodic conflagrations with Israel, the last major one being in 2006.
Assessing the real extent of environmental damage is tough in both countries given the lack of verifiable data. Environmental issues have always been very low down on the government priority lists — at least until now.
What is certain is that, without a real and systematic change in approach, these issues are only going to get worse. Global warming is not going to make any of this easier. Between 1970 and 2004, Iraq’s annual mean temperature rose by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius. Iraqis will have to face higher temperatures — a challenge given that summertime temperatures have been known to reach 53 C. The rise in sea levels and the decline in rainfall will only exacerbate subsequent droughts. Rising salinity levels, which have already damaged much of Iraq’s finest agricultural lands, will continue to climb. 
The Tigris, Euphrates and Shatt Al-Arab rivers have all suffered from decreased water quality thanks to the damming taking place further upstream, which has drastically cut water flows. 
Green movements in most of the Middle East are in their fledgling stage. What energizes the protesters on these issues is that the problem is largely political, with environmental consequences. Lebanon’s garbage crisis is largely down to the corrupt carving up of the system. Iraq’s government has failed to even start investing in the well-being of the country despite having vast hydrocarbon wealth at its disposal. 
All sectors in these countries require significant education about these challenges. In Lebanon, protesters have been clearing up and recycling garbage after their demonstrations in Beirut, making a strong political point. The level of recycling in Lebanon is still far too low.
Governments, businesses, civil society and the broader public have to start working in harmony to address these issues — rather than working against each other — before it is too late. Both countries need to adopt smarter water management and irrigation strategies and provide incentives to keep water clean, prevent the dumping of toxic waste, to recycle and to maintain a healthier environment. Better public transport services are vital to reducing the amount of cars on the roads; something anyone who has suffered Beirut traffic jams would appreciate. The international community should be generous in offering support and expertise to address these issues in a holistic and on a long-term basis. 

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Twitter: @Doylech
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