By Simona Sikimic
Monday, January 17, 2011
BEIRUT: National unity hit one of the biggest hurdles Lebanon has faced in years over the last few weeks, but as politicians wrangle in the limelight, less glamorous but no less important work to unify the country continues unabated.
Work on a truly national development strategy has been under way since 2009, when it finally received governmental approval.
The strategy, expressed in the form of a National Physical Master Plan (N.P.M.P.), strives to bring the various regions of Lebanon into greater economic parity with each other, while preserving the cultural and social identity of each.
The N.P.M.P has helped to challenge criticism that insufficient attention is paid to environmental protection in Lebanon, with the the plan attracting both international interest and funding to support its conservation plans, such as the creation of national parks.
Tentatively started but abandoned several times since Independence, the now-completed N.P.M.P takes into account the strengths and weaknesses of the four Lebanese regions: North, South, East and Central (Beirut and Mount Lebanon).
It connects them through an advanced transportation network and designates priorities for each, while carefully balancing the dual needs of economic growth and environmental preservation.
“The Master Plan could have proposed the principle of every region getting all the infrastructure needed to operate independently,” said Council for Development and Reconstruction architect Sami Feghali, who helped in the formulation of the N.P.M.P.
“But such a scenario favors the further fragmentation of society. This is not only is against the principles of the unity of the country [and the Constitution] but is also not economically viable,” he added.
The ad hoc construction approach of the past has created an unbalanced national situation where, for example, services could be placed too close together, giving certain areas too much coverage and others not nearly enough.
The N.P.M.P, however, has sought to “rationalize resources” by making sure that no areas are left behind, with city, town and village working together to improve national productivity.
“There is a necessity for strong service and industrial centers to emerge in different regions,” said Feghali.
“Villages can offer services that cities do not have, mainly those related to the quality of life and their environment. The regions can be complementary,” he added.
Notions about “responsible urbanization” have been slow to catch on in Lebanon, with municipalities sluggish to act, and still overly dependent on central government.
But the N.P.M.P has proved remarkably successful in advancing the establishment of many of its plans, including its proposed environmentally-protected areas, which are expected to spur rural tourism and development, while safeguarding the natural habitat.
Its “National Nature Plan” has encouraged international donors to invest in Lebanon. With four out of eight proposed national parks currently under review thanks to the technical and financial assistance of various European regional developmental agencies, the future of the project looks promising.
The N.P.M.P has big hopes for all peripheral regions and according to its projections would see Tripoli fully regain its reputation as a hub of maritime transport and industry, provided proposed education and transportation reforms are enacted.
Similarly, trade and industry in Nabatieh could be boosted with better transport links to the Syrian border; this would enhance Nabatieh, while also relieving some of the pressure currently faced by coastal areas.
“If more considered planning takes place there is tremendous potential for growth,” said Feghali.
“The development of projects and infrastructure [at a] national rather than local level will permit the periphery to really participate in the economic activities of the country. This will favor the complementarities, the solidarity, and the intermingling of the population,” Feghali added.
For all the ingenuity of the project, however, obstacles remain.
No central authority has been appointed to manage the realization of N.P.M.P, with the municipalities left bidding for assistance largely unassisted.
Although a government-appointed review committee now follows up the implementation of the plan and issues yearly reports, its overall ability to secure regional and sector equality is limited.
With the Lebanese population expected to grow by a whopping one million people in the next 20 years and urban areas projected to expand to 900 square kilometers by 2030 – up from an estimated 700 square kilometers today – agencies working to implement N.P.M.P recommendations will have their hands full.
However, for all the challenges, the authors of the N.P.M.P at least seem certain that the recent political impasse will not hinder progress if stability is maintained. “The political troubles will not stop this trend of regional development,” said Feghali.
“It has its own momentum and I think it will continue regardless.”