Lebanon — Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud unveiled a new campaign Wednesday to raise some $25 million to improve Lebanon’s fire-prevention and firefighting capabilities. Lebanon’s forest regions are fighting alosing battle against fires and with no national fire-management strategy in place, lose an average of 1,200 hectares annually.
The campaign, which will be managed independently from the government and political groups, was launched “to protect the surviving green areas of our country,” committee member Talal al-Makdessi told The Daily Star on Thursday.
“We have been fighting fires for the last 20 years, and every time there is a big fire we ask for help from Cyprus or elsewhere. If we added all the money we spent on” hiring helicopters and other firefighting equipment from abroad, Lebanon could have bought its own years ago, Makdessi said.
No name has yet been given to the campaign, but would be decided on “early next week” when an account will be opened at the central bank, said Makdessi, stressing that the fund’s work would be “100 percent transparent” and “subject to auditing by an international firm.” He added, “No government since Lebanon’s independence [in 1943] has paid enough attention to such a crucial responsibility.” But “this is not only theresponsibility of the government, but of every Lebanese citizen,” Makdessi said.
Delivering a speech at the campaign launch, Baroud asked all Lebanese citizens to “unite for such a patriotic cause as forest fires … to find a radical solution” to forest-fire prevention and firefighting.
“Our meeting today is a first step in encouraging initiatives” on forest fires and environmental regeneration, said Baroud. “We are counting on [the involvement of] all Lebanese citizens. If local, regional and international politics doesn’t unite people, then the issue of protecting the environment and firefighting should,” he said.
In his speech, Baroud called for areas devastated by fires to be replanted with trees, with a goal “of moving from [having] 12 percent of green areas to 20 percent” within 10 years. The replanting project would be achieved with the collaboration of the Environment and Agriculture ministries and theCivil Defense, said Baroud. “There are more than 30,000 fires a year in Lebanon,” said Makdessi, “but we only hear about the big ones. We are losing thousands of trees a year, but through this campaign, we can” replant Lebanon’s lost greenery, he added.
The campaign’s $25 million “would be used to purchase one or more firefighting helicopters and to buy small- and medium-sized pick-up trucks for 50 municipalities” across the country, said Baroud. Elaborating further, Makdessi said the helicopters would be “managed and maintained by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and piloted by LAF officers. In addition … the trucks will each be able to carry 1,000 liters of water … with the goal of stopping fires in their initial” stages.
To be successful, the campaign needed “full collaboration between the state andcivil society and citizens,” Baroud said. “This will prove to the world that the Lebanese can agree on the main topics of concern,” he added.
Environment Minister Antoine Karam, also delivering a speech Wednesday, underscored the importance of “continually” planting seedlings to replace lost trees, though adding that fire “prevention and fire fighting should take priority.”
Praising the “cherished” role of the Civil Defense, Karam pointed out that most of its members were unpaid volunteers. He urged the employment of full-time firefighters who would undergo training on a “daily basis.”
Adding to Karam’s words, Baroud said: “We should be grateful to those volunteers in the Civil Defense,” and promised that a comprehensive training program would form part of the project “that will live beyond this Cabinet.”
Makdessi said that a television and media campaign would be launched to attract donations to the campaign. “We are targeting every single Lebanese,” he said, nevertheless hoping that wealthier Lebanese would provide substantial donations.
“We would appreciate the donation of LL1,000 just as we would appreciate the donation of $1 million. All donations enhance the feeling of national responsibility” for Lebanon’s forests, he added. “The forests do not belong to the wealthy but to all of us.”
In early August, Baroud headed the first meeting of the Central Security Council, which, among other things, highlighted the necessity of conducting official investigations into the causes of Lebanon’s many fires and of prosecuting those found to have intentionally started fires.