Anti-government protests erupted across Lebanon in October 2019. Plagued by years of economic downturn, civil unrest, corruption, and rampant pollution, Lebanese people took to the streets frustrated with the lack of economic opportunities, stable electricity and clean water, and waste and pollution-management infrastructure. Amidst the widespread discontent with Lebanon’s government and its perceived corruption and incompetencies, a look into Lebanon’s maritime security and welfare offers some insight into the historical path leading to today’s unrest.
To understand the recent protests, one can look to the neglected state of Lebanon’s beaches and fisheries. What were once light-colored, sandy beaches and rich marine ecosystems have been decimated by excessive waste and garbage. Sewers from urban areas have spewed waste into the ocean for years, often without proper treatment. Though the protests today do not demand reform aimed specifically at improving marine ecosystems, the mounds of garbage sitting on beaches and entering Lebanon’s waters point to a larger problem rooted in a corrupt government formed 30 years prior. Environmental neglect harms Lebanon’s population, maritime welfare, and the fishers who depend on a healthy fish population for their livelihoods.
Lebanon’s government has attempted to improve garbage collection and waste management, but solutions have remained mired in corruption. Rather than seeking long-term solutions in a timely manner, Lebanese officials in 2015 warred over the lucrative contracts for temporary landfills that mask the problem rather than eradicate it. Costa Brava and Port Bourj Hammoud, both temporary landfills that are already near maximum capacity, were both $100-million contracts awarded to friends or family of government officials rather than professional waste management teams. Meanwhile, harmful waste has been pushed to the coast and into marine ecosystems.
Lebanese Fisheries Face Seemingly Insurmountable Damage
As garbage overflows into the ocean and private development erodes Lebanon’s coast, Lebanese fisheries and fishers face seemingly insurmountable damage. Artisanal fishers dominate Lebanon’s fishing industry, but they lack the resources, legal rights, or power to seek instrumental change. On average, Lebanese fishers make the equivalent of $3,000 annually, in contrast to the $5,400 minimum wage. Fishers have very few protections or rights, and the government has not passed legislation amending existing fishing rights since 1929. Private hotel construction threatens to overtake Daliyeh Marina, the last public fishing port open to artisanal fishers. Many fishers compete for dwindling fish stock and inevitably resort to overfishing, further exacerbating the problem. In addition, the ongoing conflict in Syria has led many Syrians to flee to Lebanon in search of safety and economic opportunity. Many Lebanese fishers fear that fishing opportunities will continue to stagnate as Syrian refugees enter the workforce for lower wages and sell fish products at increasingly lower prices.
As people continue to protest and Lebanon’s government attempts to respond and restore stability, it is critical to look more closely at the linkages between public unrest and Lebanon’s compromised maritime security and welfare. Contaminated maritime territory harms food security, endangers environmental stability in the face of accelerated climate change consequences, and devalues the government’s legitimacy.
Chehayeb, Kareem, and Abby Sewell. “Why Protesters in Lebanon Are Taking to the Streets.” Foreign Policy Magazine, 2 November 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/02/lebanon-protesters-movement-streets-explainer/.
Majdalani, Samir. “The Present Status of the Fishery and Information System in Lebanon.” Oceanographic and Fisheries Institute at Batroun, MedFisis, 2004. http://www.fao.org/tempref/docrep/fao/010/ai067e/ai067e00.pdf.
Nasser, Zeina. “Fishing for a Living: Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Compounds Fishermen’s Misery.” An-Nahar, 25 January 2018. https://en.annahar.com/article/741305-fishing-for-a-living-lebanons-trash-crisis-compounds-fishermens-misery.
Owens, John. “Trash Crisis Haunts Lebanon as Fishermen Suffer.” VOA News, 24 July 2017. https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/trash-crisis-haunts-lebanon-fishermen-suffer.
Pinello, Dario, and Mark Dimech. “Socio-Economic Analysis of the Lebanese Fishing Fleet.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and EastMed, March 2013. http://www.fao.org/3/ar250e/ar250e.pdf.
Shaw, David. “In Pictures: Lebanon’s Dying Fishing Industry.” Al Jazeera, 20 September 2014. https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2014/09/pictures-lebanon-dying-fishing-in-2014989111054837.html.
Yee, Vivian, and Hwaida Saad. “To Make Sense of Lebanon’s Protests, Follow the Garbage.” The New York Times, 3 December 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/03/world/middleeast/lebanon-protests-corruption.html.