Commentary - Executive magazine
My fiancé and I recently decided that we’d had enough — the grinding traffic gridlocks, the high-and-rising rent, the ever present noise of construction and the near complete lack of public green space in Beirut were daily agitations we could no longer bear. Our move — to a house with a large garden and mountain views 10 kilometers above Jbeil — was possible, we reasoned, given that we are both able to work remotely, via the Internet.
That was the theory anyway. In reality the infrastructure in our area provided for no functioning Internet network, and so we had to purchase an illegal, snail-speed connection. The other shock was regarding electricity, with power cuts vastly more pervasive than in Beirut, meaning we had to shell out for a UPS system for uninterrupted power — a viable solution but with obvious annoyances. All this made us tangibly aware that while the current government has spoken a great deal about reform — and indeed some progress has been made in the telecommunications sector — Lebanon still has a long way to go. Phone costs here are still among the highest in the world, and while Internet connectivity and pricing has improved — albeit not nearly as much as was promised by the telecommunications minister in October — for much of the country Internet speeds have gone from a snail’s pace to the velocity of a snail after a few energy drinks. Cheap telecommunications and fast Internet are economic essentials in this so-called ‘global village’ we live; when dealings with the rest of the world are fast and efficient, business is invariably stimulated. Jobs are already being created in call centers and related services that tap Lebanon’s skilled and multi-lingual labor force. Better telecommunications would also relieve some of the strain on Beirut as, in principle, more people would be able to work from home or at businesses outside the capital. As it stands, my own move to the countryside will have to be part-time — today’s journalists require high-speed Internet, and for that I will be forced to keep my office in the city and become another commuter clogging Beirut’s traffic arteries.
Successive governments have pledged to promote more equitable development throughout Lebanon, which would require investment in public infrastructure such as telecommunications, electricity, roads and so forth. This investment has not materialized, with the consequence for the northern regions being unemployment by far the highest in the nation, while constituting 46 percent of the poor in the country according to the United Nations. The lack of viable growth areas outside the capital has also concentrated the country’s economic expansion in and around the capital, with 400,000-odd vehicles entering the capital everyday according to air quality researchers, gardens being paved over for car parks, and open spaces disappearing under new tower blocks, among other stressors that have reached such a pitch in recent years that the city is becoming unlivable. Aside from killing productivity and fraying nerves, the increased traffic is also destroying people’s health: recent studies have shown that Beirutis are at high risk of almost constantly inhaling hazardous particulates, mostly from cars. Further statistics highlight the rampant urbanization: some 80 percent of Lebanese live in urban areas and there are an estimated 18,000 people per square kilometer in some areas of Beirut such as Nabaa and Dahyeh— an urban density higher than that of Shanghai or Beijing.
It is apparent that our policy makers are quickly losing the luxury of inaction on public service reforms — the infrastructure that is meant to prop up the country is teetering under dilapidation and deficit, placing pressure on Beirut that has become unsustainable.
Despite the inconveniences my fiancé and I have faced since leaving the city, the move could not have been more timely. The five-story building that collapsed in Beirut’s Fassouh district last month, killing 27 people, was the building my fiancé had lived in until just two weeks prior to the tragedy. If we had not moved when we had… well, I would rather not contemplate that possibility. Preliminary investigations indicate the building’s decrepit structure gave way after sustained heavy rains — a grim reminder of how, when neglected, eroding foundations eventually crumble.PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services