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BEIRUT: With political assassinations and governmental instability posing a constant threat throughout the past year, environmental issues ranked very low on Lebanon's list of concerns in 2005.
Virtually nothing has been done to solve the two main environmental files, waste management and quarries, according to Mounir Bou Ghanem, director of the Association for Forest Development and Conservation (AFDC).
With respect to quarries and stone mills, a significant setback was registered in the fall of last year, according to Bou Ghanem.
Interior Minister Hassan Sabaa granted administrative extensions to 320 quarries and stone mills to continue their operations based on a Cabinet decision, despite fierce opposition from environmental NGOs, which considered the decision a serious threat to the country's water resources.
Meanwhile, in a preliminary step to address the irreparable damages to the environment caused by quarries, which amount to annual losses of some $25 billion, the Environment Ministry, in December, launched a two-and-a-half-year project to assess the legal, administrative and financial barriers to quarry rehabilitation.
The quarries issue continues to plague the country due to an apparent lack of political will by successive Cabinets to endorse a national plan for the management of the sector.
The status of solid waste management also worsened in 2005, also primarily due to the continuing absence of a national strategy, according to Habib Maalouf, founding member of the Environment Party.
Lebanon's landfills are at maximum capacity. There is a political consensus on the desperate need for new landfill sites. In September, an environmental disaster quickly unfolded in Sidon when more than 100 tons of solid waste fell from the city's garbage dump into the sea.
The Naameh landfill, where most of Beirut and Mount Lebanon's waste is dumped, has also reached its limit and is being secretly expanded, Maalouf said.
After staunch opposition from political groups, an undisclosed decision to move a portion of the waste into locations within the Eastern Mount Lebanon range was abandoned.
To date there is still no consensus to find four main sites on which to construct large waste treatment facilities.
However, several small treatment plants were built by local NGOs in municipalities across the country in 2005. But, according to Maalouf, these projects are not sustainable and are doomed to fail as municipalities do not have the expertise to run or maintain them.
Billions of dollars will continue to be wasted due to mismanagement of the solid waste file unless a clear solution at the national level is found, he said.
Greenpeace spokesperson Basma Badran said that a long-term plan should be adopted to progressively reduce waste production at source. The plan should make industries more responsible for their waste, as well as encourage consumers to separate their garbage.
Meanwhile, Badran said the medical waste file came to a stalemate last year. Hospitals continued to dispose of their waste irresponsibly, either by incinerating the waste or dumping it in regular garbage bins, she said.
One positive development, though, was an adoption in October by the Karantina slaughterhouse, which has dumped its solid and liquid waste directly into the sea for years, of an environmentally sound disposal method.
Cedar Environmental, a private company directed by Ziad Abi Chaker, is in the process of building a compost plant to transform the waste from this public slaughterhouse, the largest in Lebanon, and convert it into a compost by-product to be used in the agricultural sector.
The number of forest fires recorded last year was relatively low compared to previous years, said Bou Ghanem. "This year, early heavy rains in October and November reduced significantly the forest fires which usually occur during this season."
He added, however, that precautionary measures within and surrounding forests and mechanisms to fight blazes were still insufficient. Thirty-five percent of Lebanon's forests are at risk of catching fire, according to a study carried out by the AFDC last summer.
While fears of an outbreak of bird flu became a worldwide epidemic, Lebanon managed to escape a regional scare with a zero rate of infection in poultry and fowl.
The government announced in September and October it had taken measures to prevent the influenza virus from reaching the country by preventing the import of poultry from countries suspected of having bird flu and placing a ban on bird hunting. However, hunting bans are frequently ignored in Lebanon.
According to the World Health Organization, domestic poultry flocks are especially vulnerable to the virus, which can reach epidemic proportions and devastate a country's poultry industry.