What New Challenges is Lebanon Facing? An interview with Eric Verdeil and Ghaleb Faour

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Eric Verdeil , Ghaleb Faour and Mouin Hamzé have recently coedited the Atlas of Lebanon. New Challenges, published by Presses de l’IFPO. Previously published in French and Arabic, the Atlas provides a unique vision of Lebanon through maps, pictures, satellite images and infographics as well as texts assessing the main challenges the country faces today. Resulting from a violent past, current conflicts in neighbouring countries such as Syria or massive urbanisation, these new challenges are analysed in connection with a certain retreat of the state to the benefit of other, sometimes new actors. Eric Verdeil and Ghaleb Faour answer our questions on this collaborative project and some of its findings.

What is the genesis of this international endeavour? Who is part of the research team and how did you work together?

The genesis of this Atlas dates back to the end of the 1990s. The CNRS-L (or National Centre for Scientific Research-Lebanon) created its Centre for remote sensing in 1997 (where Ghaleb Faour had his first position) that started to produce a wide range of new geographic and environmental data using Geographic Information Systems. At the same time, researchers at the Urban Observatory, IFPO (where Eric Verdeil worked between 2000 and 2003) sought to structure the accumulated documentation into a geographic database. The project of an Atlas of Localities in Lebanon resulted from the encounter of these two institutions. We produced a database of local geographic units (limits, names of villages), thanks to archival work as well as digitization and coding of land registry and army maps.

This project was boosted when the Lebanese government launched a study for the National Master Plan of Lebanon. CNRS-L and IFPO collaborated with consultants and administrative bodies in charge of this study. One of its outcomes was the enrichment of the existing database with statistics and geographical data thanks to unusual and large scale cooperation efforts among experts and administrations. While the consultants produced their own documents oriented towards a national master plan (2004), we prepared the first version of the Atlas of Lebanon: territories and society (2007). It analysed territorial dynamics through two time scales: the process of construction of a state out of the dismantled Ottoman Empire and through the French colonial rule, during the twentieth century, marred with recurrent conflicts and migration waves, and the changes since the Civil War, including physical damages, displacements, urbanization and environmental degradation.

This first Atlas was well received and in 2013, while preparing the 50 th anniversary of the CNRS-L, its General Secretary Mouin Hamze took the initiative of a second edition. Rather than just updating the data, it aimed at exploring news facets. Among them, the issue of water scarcity is one of the most conflictual in the relation with neighbouring countries. New challenges have also arisen from the renewed conflicts after 2006, and accentuated even more from the start of the conflict in Syria after 2011 that caused an unprecedented wave of refugees in Lebanon.

Over the years, the team of partners has widened. In addition to the editors, the second edition gathered a geomatics and graphic design specialist, three young French doctoral students, as well as Lebanese scientists from the Centre for Remote Sensing and a professor and his students from the Urban Planning Department at the Lebanese University—hence a multidisciplinary collective. This process shows the strong dynamism of geographical and environmental research in Lebanon, as well as the benefit of relying on IFPO’s publishing and documentary infrastructures, which was pivotal for international cooperation with French research centres.


Did you face specific difficulties and how did you overcome them?

Collecting and accessing geographical and statistical data in a country such as Lebanon is a very difficult task. First, Lebanon does not conduct population census. Since the last census in 1932, various institutions have made several estimations following diverse objectives and methodologies, which do not allow for easy comparison between them and across time. The availability of the existing data is also questionable, and their geographical precision is uneven. The same goes for social and economic data (e.g. jobs, production) and this has worsened since the beginning of the 2000s. Indeed, state administrations then relied on surveys implemented in view of the reconstruction after the civil war, with more exchanges among administrations than is now the case.

The episodic violent conflicts in several Lebanese areas of course add to the difficulty to produce updated information. It does not mean that state institutions produce no data, but they are hard to locate, sometimes flawed. At times, however, they are very interesting. A good example is the dataset on illegal encroachment we were able to use to map illegal occupation of the shoreline.

Producing our own data based on remote sensing technologies or field surveys is an alternative way to document territorial dynamics, such as urbanization or environmental degradation. Here, the wide knowledge and expertise within the CNRS-L and in particular the Centre for Remote Sensing proved particularly useful.

The process of data collection also showed that state institutions do not have a monopoly over geographical information. Not to mention armed groups who operate beyond state sovereignty in some regions, and whose data are inaccessible, international organizations as well as non-governmental organizations produce maps and statistics. More original, several associations and civic groups also process and generate their own data, in order to document and contest state policies. A few of them agreed to share some of their findings with us, which allowed the Atlas to convey more than just the state’s view of its territory, as is the case with most atlases, but also competing views and claims on space.


What is the main originality of this edition?

Lebanon is one of these countries that are mostly depicted through sectarian and geopolitical lenses. These traits are not forgotten nor neglected in our book, even if it is very difficult to follow the pace of local and regional conflicts. Hence, the data on the Syrian conflict spill-over, and the issue of refugees are already outdated! Also, we refrained from overusing the religious or sectarian lens, which is one among many other factors in the political stalemate the country is facing.

Other dimensions are equally important to understand everyday life in this country, despite being less discussed in international media. A case in point is the environmental crisis triggered by the massive urbanization process and aggravated by the chronic failures of public infrastructures, which are a massive concern within the country. The Atlas documents in depth the mounting water crisis, which is not only caused by competition with Syria and Israel for water harnessing. It is also the result of bad management of existing resources and lack of maintenance of the dams and water pipes. The absence and mismanagement of sanitation infrastructure also translate into aquifers and sea pollution. The open crisis of solid waste management since 2015, following years of inaction by the state, has added new sources of water and air pollution and triggered unsustainable responses, such as disposing waste in newly built landfills on the shore, with no compliance whatsoever with environmental procedures and norms.

The electricity crisis, with nearly 12 hours of daily power cuts in most parts of the country (except in the municipality of Beirut) increase sanitary issues (particularly air pollution because of diesel generators) and also weigh heavily on the budget of families and on the economy altogether.

Environmental issues also comprise earthquake threat, which is badly understood but will most probably result in massive damages, as well as the looming climate change, of which the Atlas tries to offer a preliminary assessment.


You mention that local territorial management is marked by a retreat of the state. How does the Atlas allow for the understanding of this phenomenon?

Our colleagues from the Department of Urban Planning at the Lebanese University have indeed analysed in detail the shifting territorial governance. For the last two decades, municipalities and unions of municipalities have played an increasing role in managing not only local issues, such as services or construction, but also major national issues such as the settlement of more than one million Syrian refugees, who represent about one quarter or one third of the resident population today. This is the result of several processes. The decision of the Lebanese government to dissociate itself from the Syrian conflict meant that it left municipalities with the duty to cope with the increasing population. The Lebanese government is now handling this issue mainly through a repressive approach.

The rise of local institutions can also be explained by the actions of foreign governments and international organizations that have tried to bypass government bodies and that have considered that local actors would be more efficient for designing and implementing local development projects and fighting poverty. The result is mixed, to say the least. Local governments lack funding and human resources, and legal framework often prevent them from successfully implementing their objectives. There are also many conflicts at the local level, which often results in unachieved or unsustainable policies.


Who is this Atlas destined to?

The Atlas is indeed a useful format for sharing results of scientific research with a wider audience in order to put facts on the table and to visualize them. The first two versions were written in French, hence the need to translate them into Arabic. They are available in open access thanks to IFPO publishing policy (2007, 2016). This has allowed for a wide dissemination locally, in particular to universities and schools.

The current English translation aims at widening the readership towards international NGOs and scholars. It should also be acknowledged that Lebanese universities increasingly use English as a teaching language, while French recedes. Even though maps and infographics are making their way in several Lebanese press outlets or local think tanks, no similar book was available in English. Therefore, providing a translation of the latest version of the Atlas in addition to a selection of the first one aims at filling a void.

Further readings:

Verdeil, Éric, Ghaleb Faour, and Sébastien Velut, Atlas du Liban. Territoires et société (Beyrouth: IFPO, 2007). Access French and Arabic versions

Access Eric Verdeil’s blog

Access Jadaliyya


Interview by Miriam Périer, CERI

© Photograph: Shutterstock

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