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Land use master plan marks 10 years missing in action.

Summary: Ten years ago, the Lebanese government endorsed a landmark master plan that for the first time regulated land use across the entire country.

BEIRUT: Ten years ago, the Lebanese government endorsed a landmark master plan that for the first time regulated land use across the entire country. Aiming to protect important natural areas, center the country on a few urban poles and guide major public investments, the National Physical Master Plan could have ushered in a new era in Lebanon's postwar development.

It largely remained ink on paper, ignored and contradicted by successive governments and state institutions that were supposed to steward its implementation.

"In every Cabinet meeting that I attended, we would have two or three items on the agenda clearly contradicting the plan, which the government had formally endorsed," Charbel Nahas, a two-time minister and principal architect of the plan, told The Daily Star.

"This applies to sea resorts, dams, quarries and so on."

Within the exhaustive list of natural areas to be preserved, the plan called for the conservation of the Nahr Ibrahim Valley, the Bisri Valley, Beirut's Ramlet al-Baida beach and the northern coastal plain of Anfeh, with its historic salt pans.

If those places sound familiar, it's because they have since either been developed, are currently being developed or there are concrete plans to do so in the future as part of a series of projects that contradict the plan.

From deforestation of mountains and valleys in Bisri and Janna in Nahr Ibrahim to make way for dams, to the de facto privatization of the coast for resort projects in Ramlet al-Baida and Anfeh, the concerns of many activists today would have been addressed had the NPMP been implemented.

Nahas said the fact that such a progressive plan got through Cabinet in the first place was remarkable, given its implications for the web of closely tied political and business interests that benefit from development projects across the country.

"It doesn't fit at all with the setup of our lords. Logical management is at odds with their political legitimacy," he said.

Indeed, it was only by an extraordinary convergence of circumstances that the plan was endorsed.

It was drafted in the early 2000s, when Lebanon was going through a serious financial crisis and the government had an interest in showing a vision to international donors at the 2002 Paris II conference.

The plan arrived at Cabinet in 2004, but the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri soon after and the chaos of the following years put it on the back burner. Then, Nahas said, in 2009 the plan's proponents played on factional divisions in Cabinet to finally get it endorsed.

In addition to calling for the protection of certain areas, the plan set out in detail how Lebanon's cities and urban poles should be situated in order to maximize efficiency and bring about the interdependence and intermingling of the country's people. This would help erase sectarian barriers reinforced by the small administrative districts that are largely the result of gerrymandering.

For Nahas, that's what makes the NPMP more than just an urban planning project: "It is a path to build a state."

In the plan, Beirut and Tripoli are classified as the country's main cities, with Nabatieh and Zahle-Chtoura as the other main poles.

Sidon and Jbeil were classified as suburbs of Beirut, reflecting the fact that hundreds of thousands commute in and out of Beirut from those two areas every day.

These poles would become the centers of essential services, including universities. "You always hear from politicians, 'We want a Lebanese University in Akkar and Koura and Zgharta,' but this means suppressing the reason why a city exists - to provide essential services," Nahas said.

So who is to blame for the plan's lackluster implementation?

The Council for Development and Reconstruction, the Higher Council for Urban Planning and Cabinet all have a part to play.

Since 1977, the CDR has been Lebanon's primary planning body.

The head of its planning department, Ibrahim Chahrour, told The Daily Star that the CDR regularly turned down or altered projects in accordance with the NPMP.

However, he said such cases were often not made public.

The CDR's role is mainly tied to transport networks and rural areas of Lebanon that remain unclassified by local building codes, where Chahrour said the CDR adhered to NPMP guidelines.

Day-to-day implementation of the NPMP is the responsibility of the Directorate General of Urban Planning, tasked with setting the designs and regulations of cities, villages and zoning codes.

Chahrour said it was this body that regularly failed to abide by the NPMP, as well as Cabinet, which "is making decisions that contradict the [NPMP]."

DGUP head Mohammad Chehabeddine could not be reached for comment before this article went to print.

But even when the DGUP objects to projects, Cabinet sometimes overrules them. This happened last year, when Cabinet approved coastal resorts near the southern town of Damour in Chouf and in Kesrouan's Zouk Mikael, in defiance of the Higher Council for Urban Planning's unanimous objection, and with no justification.

Reflecting on the NPMP's 10-year birthday, Nahas said he was "hurt" by the way it was sidelined, but said it remained indicative that an alternative was possible.

"In Lebanon today, there is a contradiction between the imagined world and the reality of things," he said. "This schizophrenia is what prevents a state from being built in the country, and the National Physical Master Plan addresses this specifically."

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:May 15, 2019
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