Reconstruction: A work in progress

19 October 2007

Much has already been done to rebuild the country since the 2006 conflict with Israel, but more effort is needed.

Lebanon’s post-2006 war reconstruction effort offers a mixed picture. Paris III aid has largely come in - at least for rebuilding shattered infrastructure. The Lebanese government claims to have repaired and reconstructed more than 90 per cent of the damaged infrastructure. Yet many villagers in the south of the country are still waiting to be rehoused more than 14 months after the end of the conflict. The bill for the damage has been high. Initial assessments from the Council for Development & Reconstruction (CDR) evaluated total damages at more than£Leb 3.7 trillion, reflecting damage to infrastructure, housing, industrial companies, petrol stations and military installations. More than 15,000 homes, 80 bridges, 630 roads and other sites were earmarked for reconstruction.

Slow progress

The CDR estimated it would take a minimum of two years to rebuild - and only then if security conditions allowed. Subsequent assessments suggest it may take far longer to patch up the worst of the damage wrought by Israeli artillery. In the south, the widespread use of cluster bombs remains a deadly obstacle. The UN estimates that up to 1 million of the 4 million cluster bomblets dropped by Israel during the war failed to explode on impact. The death of a British explosives expert during the detonation of a cluster bomb on 11 October underlines the continued danger facing the south.

Lebanon faces fresh reconstruction challenges on top of those inflicted during the Hezbollah-Israel standoff last year - for example, the devastation wrought to the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp over four months in mid-2007. More than 5,000 temporary housing units will have to be built to accommodate people displaced in the fighting near Tripoli. Grumbles over the direction of the reconstruction effort, disputes over who is in control,and political feuding have also stymied progress. Wider geo-political battles have caught the reconstruction drive in the crossfire. In August, Sunni religious leaders urged Saudi Arabia to halt aid to residents of southern Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs after a series of outspoken comments from pro-Syrian politicians. The mixed progress has been of little surprise, but donor aid is starting to have an impact. In the first seven months of 2007, more than£Leb 5.1 trillion was received from donor states under the Paris III programme. Multilaterals are increasingly active. The International Finance Corporation is leading World Bank Group efforts on post-conflict private sector development, signing projects worth£Leb 250,000 million. The US Agency for International Development is funding reconstruction of the 70-metre-high Mdairej bridge, linking Beirut and Damascus. Reconstruction of the Jiyyeh power plant finally got under way in October as part of the Egyptian assistance effort for Electricite du Liban following damage to the plant in the 2006 war. This will involve the installation of two water tanks, each with capacity of 4,000 cubic metres, and the laying of pipelines for both water and fuel. Israeli air strikes on a power plant some 30 kilometres away resulted in a 15,000-tonne fuel spill, with devastating environmental consequences. Local finance has also been tapped. Saad Hariri, son of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, has funded work on repairs to a series of bridges, with the Hariri family contracting firm Geneco doing much of the work. Even Casino du Liban - with half an eye on its own survival - has contributed to funding the reconstruction of a bridge in Jounieh, north of Beirut, one of the four bridges to be damaged. along the highway connecting the capital with the northern town of Batroun. Banque du Liban (central bank) governor Riad Salemeh has promised loans to industrialists to cover about 60 per cent of buildings and machineries lost in the war. The bank’s munificence extends even to those who escaped the bombing - sending a circular to all Lebanese banks in which it allows industrialists to postpone the repayment of loans extended prior to the war. Aid has flooded in, but under the Paris III terms there is a focus on conditionality. European donors want reform, but the political stalemate in the past year has prevented any significant progress. Gulf donors are less sniffy about conditionality, but are adamant that their aid should not end up in the wrong hands - specifically anything overseen by Hezbollah. Qatar moved quickest, focusing its aid efforts on the worst-hit border villages: Bint Jbeil, Aita Shaab, Ainata and Khiam. The UAE has poured money into school rehabilitation. Kuwait granted $300 million in October 2006 to rebuild the southern suburbs and Beirut and villages in the south. The Saudi Fund for Development is funding construction of a 15-kilometre-long section of highway from Mdeirej to Taanayel. The flow of reconstruction aid reflects the priorities and links of particular donors. Given the long-standing ties between Hezbollah and Iran, the entry of Iranian project funding comes as no surprise. Iran is reported to have taken on 1,300 projects, including rebuilding mosques and churches, 13 bridges, and roads throughout the Shia-dominated south.

Fuelling controversy

In October, the CDR signed a£Leb 38,000 million deal with the Iranian government for the reconstruction of the 23-kilometre main road connecting Chtaura and Syria. But Iranian involvement in the reconstruction drive has stoked predictable controversy.

Spanish peacekeepers working as part of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) battalion in the south recently came to blows with the Iranian Construction Committee over plans to build an overpass connecting the Wazzani region with the Israeli-occupied Ghajar. Unifil is insisting on the final say on any construction effort in this politically sensitive area. The reconstruction drive has clearly patched up the worst of the damage, but it has yet to yield a wider construction boom in the Lebanese economy. Construction permits were down 40 per cent in the first five months of 2007, reflecting a fall in project activity, according to figures from the Order of Engineers of Beirut & Tripoli. A speedy political resolution would help, but reconstruction is still a work in progress for the Lebanese.

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