Lebanese minister pleads for water as forest fires rage near Beirut

Nasser Yassine says climate change and general neglect are leading to more frequent fires

Lebanon’s Environment Minister urged people with access to water tankers to send them to a Beirut suburb on Tuesday as forest fires expanded to threaten local greenery.

Nasser Yassine’s Twitter plea highlighted how Lebanese institutions are struggling to provide basic services, two years into the country's economic crisis.

“The wind is helping spread the fire and firefighters are running out of the water that they pulled from the village well. That’s why I put out a tweet,” Mr Yassine told The National from Bchamoun, 20 kilometres south of the capital.

Mr Yassine rushed to the scene this morning to monitor the firefighting operation.

His plea was echoed by Beirut's fire brigade, which called on “everyone who has the ability in and around the Bchamoun area to secure water to supply fire engines.”

Plumes of smoke rose from the green hills of Bchamoun at noon, leaving patches of scorched earth and burnt pine trees. Army helicopters as well as dozens of volunteers and firefighters raced to the site of the fire on Monday afternoon to help extinguish the flames but a lack of water has hindered their efforts.

Seven fires were raging in Bchamoun in the morning, Lebanon's Civil Defence said, but they are now under control.

Mr Yassine said longer summers, high temperatures and gusts of wind created a “dangerous mix” that make forest fires more frequent.

Wildfires raged for three days earlier this month, destroying large areas of greenery in the Mount Lebanon district.

“The situation doesn’t help. There is climate change, neglect and people throwing rubbish in the forests… This all makes matters worse,” he said, and added that the ministry was trying to focus on fire prevention.

“We’re trying to get water from Beirut and the surrounding areas,” Mr Yassine said.

“Climate change has been affecting us in a worse way than in years before but our response system is also compromised because of the current situation in Lebanon,” he said.

The Bchamoun municipality is working to secure water tankers to extinguish the blaze, he said.

Lebanese authorities have for decades relied heavily on volunteers to extinguish bushfires.

A helicopter picks up water, to douse areas fire trucks cannot reach, at the Deir Al Kalaa monastery near the town of Beit Mery on November 15. Elizabeth Fitt

In the past two years Lebanon’s economic collapse has pushed nearly 80 per cent of the population into poverty and plunged the country into near-darkness as cash-strapped state institutions can no longer provide basic services, including electricity.

Beirut fire brigade chief Col Maher El Azouj said that despite limited means, volunteers had eagerly responded to pleas for help.

“Volunteers giving us water are paying out of pocket for expensive fuel. I know that many more would like to help but cannot afford to do so,” he said.

Water scarcity during this time of year and high fuel prices have hindered cash-strapped authorities' access to water, he said.

After the government lifted fuel subsidies this year, many Lebanese became unable to afford petrol for their water pumps, leaving many unable to provide water for firefighters.

“Our only weapon against fire is water,” he said. “We still may need large amounts if the fires start again.”

Bchamoun residents and people from surrounding areas told The National they had scrambled to bring firefighters the water they needed to save their town.

Hamza Aoun, 30, owns two water pickup trucks. The Bchamoun resident says he cannot count how many times he has gone up and down the hill since Monday evening to provide firefighters with desperately needed water.

“I’m paying from my own pocket but it doesn’t matter. I did it for Bchamoun,” he said.

“As soon as I heard about the fire, I rushed in. What else can we do? Everyone knows there is no state in Lebanon.”

Updated: November 30th 2021, 5:35 PM