Beirut’s lessons for how not to rebuild a war-torn city

By Julia Tierney – Washington Post: Link to Original Article

The Syrian conflict has divided and destroyed many of the country’s most important cities. Should the fighting cease, they will require massive reconstruction. Yet I spoke with urban development specialists at the National Agenda for the Future of Syria who fear that the war-torn cities of Homs and Aleppo will never be rebuilt. Instead, they will be razed to the ground and another Solidere will be rebuilt in their place.

Their references to Solidere are intriguing. Solidere is the name of the private company contracted to rebuild downtown Beirut after the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). However, Beirut’s reconstruction had wide-ranging political and economic repercussions that offer an object lesson in how not to rebuild a devastated city.

Solidere turned Beirut into a city of exclusion. Its iconic architecture and tax incentives attracted foreign investment, in turn helping the country’s economic recovery. But more buildings were torn down during reconstruction than were destroyed by the war, transforming Beirut’s war-scarred layers of history from the Roman, Mamluk, Ottoman and French periods into a city without memory.

During the civil war, Beirut was separated by checkpoints between Christian East and Muslim West. Daily movement today is disrupted by what Mona Fawaz, a scholar of urban planning, describes as architectures of security. Soldiers and blast barriers guard the entrances to Solidere’s downtown. The sidewalks outside public buildings are protected by concrete walls and barbed wire, forcing pedestrians onto the road. The areas surrounding politicians’ homes or political party headquarters are blocked by checkpoints. The only public park was, until recently, closed to the public for security reasons. The sentiment that those living here need to create a bubble and live inside the bubble for them not to lose their minds is one often expressed to me, and which I also feel after two years of living in Beirut. These frustrations mean that half of Lebanon’s young and educated emigrate at some point in their lives.

Solidere also symbolizes the extent to which reconstruction has blurred the boundaries between public interest and private profit. The process of postwar rebuilding was especially lucrative for members of government and their business associates, none more so than billionaire Prime MinisterRafiq Hariri, who upon purchasing $125 million of shares in Solidere became the largest shareholder in the very company to which his cabinet awarded the most lucrative reconstruction project. Hariri also owned Lebanon’s largest private construction company, whose director was appointed the head of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, meaning, in the words of architect Hashim Sarkis, that “the agency that the government used to control private development has now reversed its role.”

Lebanon went deeply into debt to finance reconstruction, and with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 149 percent, it is today the world’s third-most-indebted country. The interest payments total more than a third of the government’s annual spending. Yet because politicians and their families control one-third of all banking assets — and because Lebanese banks own around 85 percent of the debt — these payments profit the very political leaders sinking Lebanon deeper into debt.

Lebanon’s reconstruction has preserved the war economies once lining the pockets of militia leaders. During the civil war, the militias established civil administrations to service their sectarian constituencies. In return for taxing the population under their control, they collected garbage, provided water and electricity, managed traffic and maintained roads. Yet the militias also turned war into a strategic resource. From drug-trafficking to pillaging the port to speculating against the Lebanese pound, the militias procured about $1 billion annually, creating personal fortunes for their leaders and perpetuating the civil war.

Postwar reconstruction came without political reconciliation. The former warlords are today Lebanon’s politicians, ministers and heads of government. These include (but are not limited to) Walid Joumblatt, the Druze leader who despite displacing tens of thousands during the war was named minister of the displaced; Nabih Berri, who led Shiite forces and has been speaker of parliament since the civil war’s conclusion; as well as presidential candidates Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun, whose Christian militias battled each other throughout the war. Their inclusion may have persuaded them to lay down their arms, but according to Reinoud Leenders, these politicians are less willing to surrender the economic windfalls from violence and state collapse. Today, they sit in a paralyzed parliament — which has failed to elect a president in more than two years (or pass a budget in over a decade) — where they line their pockets through a system of sectarian patronage.

The pathologies of reconstructed Beirut are laid bare in the deterioration of basic services. Every summer when the faucets run dry, the streets are blocked by tanker trucks delivering water to the plastic cisterns atop apartment buildings. Compared with the average international broadband speed of 22.4 megabits per second, Beirut’s internet crawls along at 3.2 Mbit/s — and only when there is electricity. There are daily blackouts of three hours in Beirut and up to 18 hours in the rest of Lebanon. The government subsidizes the public electricity provider $2 billion annually, totaling 40 percent of the public debt; but with half the bills uncollected and politicians divided over privatization, the World Bank refers to Electricité du Liban as “the Poster Child of Confessionally-Induced Waste in Public Spending that Plagues Public Finances, Businesses, and Households since 1981.”

Everyone must purchase potable water, and those who can afford it pay for a generator, but there is no individual solution to garbage. A private company is responsible for both the collection and disposal of Beirut’s garbage. The council of ministers renewed its contract three times without an open tender and its payment per ton of garbage is one of the highest in the world. So when the landfill, which had long reached its absorptive capacity, was closed last summer and putrid garbage began piling on the streets, the Lebanese people participated in the largest protests since the assassination of Hariri in 2005 and the withdrawal of Syrian occupying troops. They were demanding not simply a solution to the trash crisis but an end to corruption disguised as sectarianism.

As the economic downturn and insecurity of the Syrian war bleed across the border, Lebanese policymakers point to the business opportunities of reconstruction. I spoke with real estate developers who hope to be called upon for rebuilding and commercial bankers who want to reopen their offices in Syria.

But as international donors and development specialists look towards reconstructing Syria, they should heed the lessons from Lebanon. Politically paralyzed, infrastructurally fragile and deeply indebted, Lebanon is a model for what postwar Syria should avoid. A cessation of the hostilities is essential in Syria. Yet reconstruction without dismantling the war economies and political patronage networks perpetuating them means that Syrian reconstruction will resemble Lebanon, in all its division and dysfunction. More than rebuilding, what is required is reorienting the political economy away from war. Lebanon reveals this is especially problematic when the same perpetrators and profiteers of the conflict hold political office in the postwar era.

Julia Tierney is a doctoral candidate at the University of California Berkeley in city and regional planning.

Rise Above Lebanon

You have to rise above Lebanon to see its beauty. I had mixed feelings when I watched this video. I loved every scene and region (couples were left out). It reminded me why I have this deep love for this country even though when there are times I feel like I hate it with passion and lost hope in it. On the other hand, I felt sad and angry. We have a beautiful country and instead of enjoying and make it better, the Lebanese are following corrupt leaders and are divided by their sectarian sects. I still doubt that one day we will have a decent country without corruption, religious division, hate, and Zbeleh – garbage (be it real garbage or political garbage). Enjoy this short touristic ad about my beloved country and maybe one day the children of my children enjoy it from the street level and not from above.

Energy – Refreshing news

After writing about Beirut River Solar Snake project, couple days ago, my friend Najib blogged about ABC Ashrafieh Mall and their plan to install the largest private photovoltaic plant in Lebanon on their rooftop. The project will give ABC Mall a capacity of 0.45 MW that is enough to power its department store. You can read more about the project on this link. ABC Mall move is in the right direction and I hope all these new high rises that they are building in Beirut will adapt the same mentality and cut their need for electricity. The Beirut River Snake project will generate 1,655 megawatt-hours per year and will benefit the resident of Bourj Hammoud area.

Due to corruption and mismanagement, Lebanon been suffering from electricity supply shortage. According to Lebanese National News Agency, Lebanon production of electricity will stay at 1,500MW in 2015, while the demand for electricity during the peak summer will be around 2,800MW. Électricité Du Liban (EDL) deficit will exceed $21 billion. The alternative is solar and wind clean energy.

According to the United Nations development program (UNDP), Lebanon has around 300 sunny days in a year with over 8- 9 hours of daily sunshine. Solar energy presents a clean alternative that can, if properly designed, remove the need for diesel self-generation and lower the national utility electricity bill.

In addition, Lebanon is not taking advantage of Wind Power to generate electricity. I am aware of Akkar Wind Farm project but not sure if we have similar projects under study. According to a 2012 UNDP-CEDRO report, Lebanon has at least 1500 MW potential with a mean of 6,100 MW! In the past two years the technology advanced and probably Wind Power can generate more electricity these days.

Couple years ago, I was discussing ideas with a Lebanese business person and he had a good idea for Wind Power: The Maronite church is one of the biggest real estate owner in Lebanon. The church should be approached with a project that generates revenue. The church will give the land (or rent it), the private sector will invest in Wind Power stations and sell its production to EDL at a competitive price. The project will help supplying clean energy (instead of those diesel generators), fill in the gap in electricity production and generate money for the private sector as well as the Church. In return the church can use the money to help the poor.

It is a great idea, but it needs some lobbying to convince EDL to buy electricity. You may say it shouldn’t be that hard because in July 2012, Lebanon signed a $360 million three-year contract to lease electricity-generating barges from the Turkish firm. The two barges combined are expected to generate 270MW of electricity. Who will need these barges if we have alternative energy? But keep in mind that several powerful people mad money from this barges deal and others are making millions from the electrical generators companies.

By the way, I didn’t even talk about Lebanon average rainfall (1 meter annually). Not only Lebanon could be selling water to its neighbors but the country could be a major generator of clean electric power, sufficient for its own consumption and even to sell to others.

Yes we have few projects here and there but so far it’s not enough. Corruption and electricity mafia will do their best to shut down these initiatives but it shouldn’t be a reason not to push forward.

Net Metering in Lebanon

Sebline Public Hospital Solar power

Today, December 22, 2011, Net Metering is introduced to Lebanon official and the first Lebanese signed an agreement with Lebanon Electricity Company to link to its Grid. This is great news for Lebanon. Clean energy in an over polluted country.

Net metering is a financial agreement in which utility customers generate some of their own electricity and use a single meter to measure the net electricity bought from the utility. At various times, the customer will not use all the electricity generated. The excess is fed back into the grid and makes the meter run backwards. When the meter is read, it will usually show a net purchase from the utility. If for some reason the customer generated more electricity than was consumed that month and the meter shows a negative value, it will be read as zero or credited to the next month’s bill.

Lebanon has another source of “clean” energy that is going down the drain (or the sea). Its water resource. Instead of relying on diesel generator, Lebanon should invest in hydroelectricity. Lebanon can easily produces 10 megawatts from small hydro projects.

Another source is the wind. Wind Turbines can be placed in strategic places inside Lebanon and in the sea in order to generate power.

We have plenty of sun in Lebanon during the year, why not start with solar street lighting? Few municipalities in Lebanon implemented small scale of solar street lighting. Why this program is not implemented nationwide? We all know how bad are our street lights.

Back to Net Metering deal signed today, and I have to admit that I am not aware of its details, but knowing Lebanon and its politician, will one company given the rights to sell equipment to generate solar power and turn this “clean” energy to a “dirty” one?