Lebanon — The Lebanese government has stepped up its efforts to combat forest fires and launched a joint project with the United Nations and a non-governmental organization (NGO) aimed at better prevention and containment of the blazes, and the replanting of previously burned areas.
“Forest fires have eaten up large areas of green and changed it into black, burned areas,” Environment Minister Antoine Karam said Saturday.
“The green environment is Lebanon’s capital. It is one of our country’s characteristics and an added value in the region,” he added. “This is why it is extremely important to preserve that wealth.”
The Environment Ministry, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the Association for Forests, Development and Conversation (AFDC) on Saturday formally launched their Integrated Forest Fires Management Project in the North Lebanese village of Andkit, in the impoverished Akkar Governorate. It aims is to bring NGOs, municipalities and the government together in fighting fires and their causes.
“We hope that this project heals the wounds caused by fire fires,” Karam said.
While the project was started in Northern Lebanon, it is also designed to be rolled out into other areas of the country, officials from government ministries and the AFDC said.
Forest fires have had an increasingly devastating impact on Lebanon’s forests over the last few years. In 2008, 1,500 hectares of forest were burned. In 2007, when fires were raging on an unprecedented across the Mediterranean, about 4,000 hectares of Lebanese woodlands went up in flames, according to the AFDC.
Only a month ago, Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud had to declare the village of Dibbiyeh a “disaster area” after fires raging in the Chouf Mountains left three soldiers and a firefighter injured. Students from the Arab University campus in the region were evacuated and dozens of families fled their homes.
Lebanon is particularly vulnerable to the impact of forest fires because its woodlands are not adapted to full regeneration after being burned. Thus, ancient forests can be destroyed forever. Current estimates by the AFDC show that forests covered about 13 percent of Lebanese territory in 2007 – in 1965, 35 percent of the surface was covered with forests.
At the heart of the project launched on Saturday is a tree nursery for which a cornerstone was planted. It also contains various reforestation projects, training and education programs for government officials, locals and volunteers, technical support with firefighting equipment such as trucks and water baskets for military helicopters and an awareness campaign. Funding is provided by the Lebanon Recovery Fund.
The new plan is part of the National Strategy for Forest Fire Fighting, in which the Defense, Interior and Agriculture ministries are also participating. The Interior Ministry in September backed a campaign to raise $25 million needed to buy state-of-the-art firefighting equipment, including helicopters and trucks.
“This project will represent a unique model that can be followed up in other forested areas in Lebanon” said Nada Zaarour, the AFDC’s president.
Data compiled by her organization, she said, showed that the Northern region “contains forest areas of highest vulnerability to forest fires, among them the forest we are protecting through the project we are launching today.”
“There really is a lot to do in forestation in Lebanon” said Ali Moumen, the FAO’s representative in the country. “One of the essential things is education,” he added. “People are aware that there is a problem but they do not know what to do. In case of a fire, for instance, it is so extremely difficult to have access.”
Part of the integrated project, which is to run for two years, is to train Civil Defense, forests rangers, army personnel and local volunteers in using intervention techniques to fight forest fires, and managing and coordinating joint firefighting operations. In addition, 100 hectares of burned land will be replanted. The tree nursery is intended to provide seedlings for the reforestation efforts.
Forests are important for protecting the surface soil and underground water in the mountainous areas of Lebanon, environmentalists say. One common result of deforestation is landslides. When rain falls on deforested areas, it disappears in torrents that take land with them, instead of being gradually absorbed by the soil.
According to AFDC officials, the most common reasons for forest fires in the Lebanon are preventable accidents such as throwing away a lit cigarette or farm fires getting out of control. Only a few are ignited on purpose, for instance in land disputes, they said. “I have not seen one case being prosecuted,” Karam said.
As Karam, Zaarour and Moumen left the site of the future tree nursery on Saturday, a column of thick smoke was rising from the forest on the opposite hillside. a timely reminder of the danger involved.