A month after the storm, state has done little to address failings
- It was a Saturday night when the temperature dropped. Beirut’s skies condensed with the thick gray clouds of January. Talk of wild weather started to snowball off the tongues of Beirutis. Bridges, buildings, highways and walls collapsed, floods reached peoples’ beds, blackouts affecting the whole country occurred and water disappeared from taps. Schools and universities closed their doors, grocery stores were left with empty shelves. At least five people died and the Minister of Interior advised citizens not to leave their houses.
No, this was not a tsunami, an earthquake, or the apocalypse; it was just another winter storm that hit with a bit more force this year. The storm, dubbed arous (bride) by the Lebanese, did not take Lebanon by surprise. This storm, which descended from Russia, was well forecasted; however, in the season of fabricating election laws Lebanese politicians paid little heed to the bride’s wedding march.
As usual it was the poor who paid the steepest price of the state’s ineptitude.
See also: Why does Lebanon flood so badly?
Syrian refugees scattered across the northern slopes sank in pools and shivered in their tents. Refugees in Palestinian camps started burning their shoes for heating while Lebanese from Akkar to Hermel were stranded, besieged in their homes by a thick layer of snow. On the outskirts of Beirut, residents of the impoverished suburb Hay Al Sellom found a forgotten river, Al Ghadir, invading their living rooms; a result of negligence on the part of the Ministry of Energy and Water, which had failed to conduct adequate maintenance of river courses across the country.
The bride laid bare the inadequacies of a state that cannot offer the bare minimum of services to its citizens. But faster than the emergency services struggling to respond were the ministers, ducking accountability and accusing each other of a dereliction of duty. Some leaders blamed Mother Nature, while others, such as Transportation Minister Ghazi Aridi, simply denied reality: “I am content that the transportation ministry has done all rehabilitation work during the summer in anticipation of rainfall,” he told reporters on his way to a cabinet meeting. Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil, who let a dispute over salaries and pensions with workers at the state-run Électricité du Liban power company drag on for almost a year, tried to blame those workers, telling Agence France Presse: “There is a storm, and there is a problem in the grid. The electricity workers are on strike, and they’re not letting anyone fix the problem.”
Yet even while the bride was huffing and puffing, spreading her white dress over Lebanon, the debate amongst Lebanon’s politicians continued to be about the upcoming parliamentary elections in sunny June; the cumulative response to the storm by the Council of Ministers, Lebanon’s cabinet, was to eventually agree to allocate a paltry $2 million for relief.
Abu Mohammad, a 67-year-old taxi driver, said he resented the whole Lebanese political class and vowed that he would not vote in the coming elections. “In 2005, after Hariri died, I urged my wife and said we should vote, it’s an important time. In 2009 I told my wife: ‘Let’s go vote, they will pay us after we cast our votes.’ But this year no matter how many promises [politicians] make, or how much they pay per vote, we are not voting.”
Elie Hana, a 73-year-old taxi driver, who spoke to me from behind the wheel of his 1968 blue Mercedes, came to Beirut from Aley looking for passengers the day the sun finally shone and the storm receded. “I have been driving this taxi for more than 40 years and through that time I have witnessed stronger and colder storms than this Bride, but this was the first time I saw the country paralyzed. This has nothing to do with the storm, it has to do with a state that doesn’t respect or care about its own people. What happened to those $52 billion [the politicians borrowed] to build Lebanon? Our infrastructure is worse than ever — did they spend it all on building luxury apartments in the city center?”
With global climate change, weather patterns are quickly becoming harsher in Lebanon, with colder winters and hotter, dryer, summers, and yet Lebanon lacks the disaster management capacities to cope. Indeed, this Russian bride made clear that the state ministries and institutions are having an affair with negligence and corruption, leaving us out in the cold. In abusive relationships such as this, at some point we will have to ask for a divorce.
- Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut