Heat, drought, fires threaten Lebanon’s northern forests


Forested north of Lebanon, a trifecta of climate-related challenges is compounding the already pressing economic woes faced by its residents. Heatwaves, alarmingly low rainfall, and the looming threat of wildfires have captured the attention of the people living in the Akkar region, nestled near the Syrian border.

After enduring an exceptionally hot and parched summer, the inhabitants of this mountainous enclave are voicing their concerns about the ever-encroaching specter of climate change and the increasingly scarce water resources.

Abdullah Hammud, a 60-year-old farmer, who has spent his lifetime cultivating everything from tomatoes to figs in these green hills, laments the adverse environmental impacts on his livelihood. He remarks, “I’ve never seen it this hot,” as he surveys a field where his cabbage crop has been partially lost.

With Lebanon’s main water supply system teetering on the brink of unreliability, Hammud heavily relies on a nearby spring for irrigation. Yet, the diminishing water supply instills fear in him, as trucking in water for his home and farm is not a viable option. He somberly states, “If the water ran out, we would have to leave.”

This year, Lebanon has seen below-average rainfall, according to Mohamad Kanj from the meteorological department. A 13-day heatwave that scorched the region last month was described as “the most severe recorded in terms of the number of days, the area affected, and the exceptional temperatures.”

Akkar, already one of Lebanon’s most disadvantaged regions, has been grappling with economic turmoil since late 2019, plunging much of its population into poverty. A report from the American University of Beirut last year further highlighted that the region possesses only low-to-moderate resilience to climate change.

The memory of devastating forest fires that ravaged the area two years ago near the town of Kobayat still haunts its residents, where houses nestle among the trees on surrounding hills. A 15-year-old lost their life while battling the flames.

Najla Chahine, a former teacher, reflects on the trauma, saying, “The fires affected us a lot. We feared for our lives.” Despite the increased awareness since those fires, she underscores the need for the local community to take a more proactive stance against environmental threats, as she observes that “the state is absent.”

Meanwhile, her son Sami Chahine, aged 13, has taken it upon himself to raise awareness about environmental issues among his friends, expressing concerns about fires and other ecological perils such as pollution. Lebanon grapples with the practice of burning trash at informal dump sites and sporadic recycling.

As a group of locals embarks on a hike as part of a recent local festival, they traverse tree-covered slopes laden with dry pine needles and cones. The hike passes several local springs, with some reduced to mere trickles and others completely dry.

Antoine Daher, the head of the local non-governmental Council of Environment in Kobayat, attributes the water shortages to both inadequate rainfall and rising demand. He urges people to reduce consumption and emphasizes that, despite Lebanon’s crippling economic crisis, “we mustn’t see the environment as a luxury.”

Fires remain a significant threat, and Khaled Taleb from the Akkar Trail association is training a group on how to prevent and combat them. He warns, “We are currently at the peak of the fire season,” cautioning that the risk only abates in late October. The association, comprised of 15 volunteers, transitioned to firefighting in 2020 after major blazes scorched the Akkar region.

Covering an expanse of 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) of forest and housing 73 out of Lebanon’s 76 tree species, the area is particularly vulnerable to fires. The fires near Kobayat in 2021 alone “destroyed more than 1,800 hectares (4,450 acres),” Taleb recalls, stressing the significant challenge of accessing water for firefighting efforts.

In October 2019, the Beirut government’s inability to contain devastating wildfires contributed to a nationwide anti-government protest movement.

Lebanon, Taleb asserts, lacks the logistical capabilities to combat massive fires, but he remains optimistic about the local community’s determination to safeguard the forest from all threats. He says, “We weren’t born firefighters,” but their newfound priority is clear: “to protect the forest from all threats.”

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