Lebanon News

Damage to Lebanon’s forests irreparable

Smoke rises from a fire in Baawarta, Oct. 16, 2019. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

BEIRUT: Experts say that Lebanon’s forests have suffered irreparable damage, following wildfires that tore through the country’s mountains during some of the hottest October days in the past 150 years.

“This is a loss that cannot be compensated,” Director-General of the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute Michel Afram told The Daily Star.

“Whatever we do now, we cannot go back to what the forest looked like three days ago,” he said.

“It will take upward of 20 or 30 years for the forests to come back,” agreed Shadi Mehana, director of rural development and natural resources at the Agriculture Ministry.

Afram says this is because the makeup of the soil will have altered after the fire.

The process of replanting could also introduce different plant species to those that were there before.

Some of the largest fires began Monday morning in the Meshref area in the Chouf and spread overnight, as strong winds carried embers long distances, threatening homes and their residents. The fires continued to break out Tuesday, prompting the country to seek foreign assistance.

According to data from the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, this month’s temperatures have been much higher than normal.

“The temperatures we have recorded [were] at least 3 to 4 degrees higher than the maximum average temperatures in October over the past 150 years,” said Nadim Farajallah, head of American University of Beirut’s climate change and environment program.

But Farajallah said that it was a confluence of meteorological events that made Lebanese forests so vulnerable to the flames.

“The relative humidity was really low ... and the wind was coming from the east, which is not the normal wind direction for Lebanon. All of these [factors] set the conditions for a disaster to occur,” Farajallah explained, adding that the trigger was probably “something else.”

According to Mehana, there are no official figures for how many hectares of land were engulfed by the fires. It will take up to a week for satellite images to give an accurate picture of the damage.

“All of the numbers circling on social media are inaccurate. We don’t know if all the trees died in the fire, or if the forests were only partially burned,” he added.

When asked about solutions to the environmental damage, Mehana said, “It is hard to tell what needs to be done. It will take a year to know.”

Because of this, reforestation campaigns in the affected areas cannot begin immediately.

“We have to wait ... until after winter and into spring, to see what will grow naturally. If there is no natural growth, then we can decide how to move forward,” Mehana said. “We will have to conduct a survey to see what has survived ... a year from now to better understand what the solutions are.”

However, work can be done now on two fronts. First, the affected areas need to be protected “so [the land] can naturally regenerate.”

Second, “compensation reforestation” can be undertaken in other areas. “We have to plant somewhere else to compensate for the lost trees,” Mehana said. “It won’t look the same, but if it’s well-protected and well-managed, it’ll look like a forest.”

According to Afram, forest fires in Lebanon will only increase in the coming years, owing to ongoing global climate change.

There is an urgent need for early warning systems to report weather conditions that have the potential to start forest fires.

“[We need to] inform everyone in Lebanon to be ready,” Afram said.

“The lesson we need to learn from this is that we [must] be prepared to prevent and stop a fire wherever it might occur.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 17, 2019, on page 2.

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