Thursday, January 10, 2013

With a perfect storm, perfect failure

The incompetence of the Lebanese state, it is true, is the result of decades of training. At no time was this more obvious than in recent days, as Lebanon has struggled with the devastation from a storm in the Eastern Mediterranean.

With greater imagination, the leaders of March 14 might have legitimately demanded the government’s resignation for its shortcomings. The Mikati government has dealt with the effects of the storm with the same ineptitude as its predecessors. This is a default setting for the state, which waits until disasters happen before taking measures to address or alleviate the outcome.

It’s not as if we did not know ahead of time that the storm was coming. There were several days to take steps to prevent some of the worst consequences. It may be impossible to prevent the Litani River from flooding, but did the government plan ahead to prepare for more manageable contingencies? How is it that rescuers have not found a child lost Monday, Youssef Rakan Fadl? The search will be resumed tomorrow by a “specialized team” that has just arrived in Lebanon, we are told. In the interim, his family has been on its own.

Specialized or not, no team is likely to find alive a child who was swept away by the waters four days earlier. Where is Lebanon’s rapid response system? And if we do not have one, then isn’t it time to admit that we are no better than a third-rate state, one that should devote more time to improving governance than it does to ensuring that ministers have impunity and that their patrons are content?

Myriad pressures have been building. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that some 180,000 Syrians are receiving assistance in Lebanon. This is potentially catastrophic for a country that fears a rise in salaries would undermine the national currency. Nor is it enough to attribute our woes to outdated or depleted infrastructure. What about all the roadwork during the 1990s? Our new highways are as likely to be flooded as older byways.

To make up for the abysmal tourist season, which forced many establishments to close down, the government has embarked on a campaign to encourage Lebanese and foreigners to make purchases in Lebanon’s stores. But why would tourists flock to Lebanon if the country cannot even clear streets of water after rainfall? The scheme is interesting: 50 percent reductions on items for 50 days. But as critics have argued, the tourists did not stay away from Lebanon in 2012 because prices were high. They didn’t come, because they were little reassured about the government’s ability to deal with crisis. Will the latest debacle persuade them otherwise?

Even those who support parties represented in the government hardly seem convinced. A television crew ventured into the disaster zone of Hay al-Sellom, in Beirut’s southern suburbs. There they met an old woman whose house had been flooded. She began by thanking Hezbollah for its help, before complaining of the poor response of the state. It was odd to hear her remarks, for what she really meant was that a government dominated by Hezbollah had done nothing for her, while the party itself had. It’s remarkable how easily people will distinguish between the two. But then a system that discourages any sense of official collective responsibility does that to you.

Have we ever seen a Lebanese minister accept blame for errors by his ministry? When the public works minister, Ghazi Aridi, says that the destruction in Hay al-Sellom was “due to the population in that area” who have built along the Al-Ghadir river, we must pause. Yes, the state is little respected in Hezbollah’s stronghold, so that if it were to warn against construction along the river, it would be ignored. But that doesn’t prevent the state from issuing such warnings publicly, to show that it has a better grasp of future realities than the population.

Nor is it a good idea for Aridi to blame the population for a natural catastrophe, especially when the state has taken no precautions to alleviate the worst of that catastrophe. Or indeed when the state, through its lamentable oversight over public works projects, has virtually ensured that the infrastructure in place to avert flooding is wholly inadequate. For instance, the Beirut-Jounieh highway was closed Tuesday. At best, the highway is a procession of lakes when there is rain, even though work on it remains unfinished.

The key to addressing storms like the one that just came through Lebanon is foresight. Certainly, one cannot expect the state to perform miracles. But when it comes to supervising and fixing man-made structures that are not performing as they must, then the state has a responsibility to act. More can be done to inform the public of likely problems ahead of time, and prepare contingency plans if these take place. And when manpower is insufficient, the emergency services must plan to collaborate with the Army.

One of the worst storms in Lebanon’s recent memory occurred in February 1983. At the time, the multinational forces had to free villagers trapped by snow in the area of Qartaba, and people died in their cars at Dahr al-Baydar. Little has changed in three decades. The state is still unprepared, its response mostly ad hoc and unsatisfactory, and the impact on the Lebanese far worse than it needs to be.

Najib Mikati is a respectable man, but if he deserves to resign, it is for his government’s deficiencies in what was a storm everyone expected and for which ministers should have been ready.

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