This piece was initially published on the United Nations Development Programme’s “Peace Building in Lebanon” Project on March 24th, 2021.
This article is an invitation to explore the links between the movement to stop the Bisri Dam project, a proposed project in the Bisri Valley located in Mount Lebanon, and the wider importance of integrating an environmental and social justice perspective to our understanding of modern Lebanese politics.
The Bisri Valley lies on a green fertile bed, southwest of Beirut, and includes an expansive land of pine and citrus trees as well as ancient ruins. The Bisri Dam project threatens it all as it requires much of the valley to be flooded.
In addition to its obvious environmental costs, it is worth noting that the Bisri Dam project, despite being so controversial among the wider population, remains highly symbolic for the Lebanese political class. It is but the latest of post-independence Lebanese policy that goes back decades. Many academics have since argued against the “long-term national strategy for the creation of dams spanning the entirety of the country” on account of its environmental and social costs, but that has yet to stop members of the Lebanese political class from recycling these outdated ideas.
Indeed, one thing that surprises most people is how old the Bisri Dam project is, dating back to 1953, just ten years after independence. It was only revived in 2014 with the support of the World Bank, and has been met ever since with staunch opposition by academics and activists. As of the time of writing, the World Bank has canceled its funding of the project “due to non-completion of the tasks that are preconditions to the commencement of construction of the Bisri Dam.” We don’t yet know what its final status would be, with the risk of it being relaunched in the near future remaining real.
The fact that such projects have survived the multiple phases of Lebanese history speaks to a much deeper problem that, like so many things in Lebanon, relates to the clientelism and corruption that governs the Lebanese government. As Joude Mabsout has argued in her thesis on the Bisri Damn project, these projects are conceived by Lebanon’s ruling class as political maneuvers that “entrench existing powers and exacerbate societal rifts.” This is done through specific capital allocations based on clientelist calculations (for example, a politician or political party may back a ‘development’ project based on the connections that it could bring, the profit they may make out of it, and so on). It is also coupled with the usual sectarian calculations that make certain political parties more interested in certain regions and their ‘development’ than others.
As the various parties that were invested in the Bisri Dam project regularly appealed to existing sectarian rhetoric, an environmental justice approach to tackling the Bisri Valley is only appropriate. This reality is but the latest example of why environmental and health concerns have always been at the forefront of protest movements in Lebanon, including the 2015 ‘You Stink!’ protests which were the largest independent protests until the October 2019 uprising. The ‘Save Bisri’ campaign came into being between these two protests.
The ‘You Stink!’ protests explicitly linked the waste crisis affecting Beirut and Mount Lebanon with clientelism and sectarianism perceived to be deeply entrenched in the Lebanese political establishment. The imagery of trash bags piling up on the streets of both regions evoked comparisons to a decaying political system, thus allowing many people to see the direct links between politics and the environment. The 2015 ‘You Stink!’ movement, however, was unable to formulate demands based on an environmental justice framework, a lesson which I believe ‘Save Bisri’ activists have learned from. Since the October 2019 uprising, ‘Save Bisri’ activists have routinely linked their campaign with the wider protests, even borrowing chants that were being chanted on the streets of Beirut, Tripoli and elsewhere.
Quoting Mabsout again: “The process of endless ecological and cultural destruction paralleled with a continuous state of protest, can be seen as a two sided fight with the landscape in between; a battle for different worlds of the landscape.” In other words, the Bisri Valley is at the forefront of a long and ongoing struggle between the public and common spaces and pro-privatization interests within the political establishment. We have been seeing these more frequently in recent years, with activists in Mount Lebanon, Beirut and beyond making explicit demands that could be argued to be on an environmental justice nature, if indirectly.
For example, protesters in Beirut during and since the October 2019 uprising have been attempting to reclaim the privatized spaces of downtown Beirut, still viewed as ‘al-balad’, literally ‘the country’ by many Lebanese – a public space where people of all sects and backgrounds could mingle. These could pave the way towards the greening of these spaces in the coming years, and reverse a trend that goes back to the early days of post-independence Lebanon where large infrastructure and mass privatization projects have severely restricted the spaces once seen as public or common.
For that reason, one can conclude that environmental and health concerns will become an increasing part of political demands, particularly since the August 4 explosion in Beirut and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention the effects of global warming. This is likely inevitable given the scale of these interrelated problems. Time will tell.