Lebanon: Poverty-stricken villages continue to be neglected

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A man leads his flock of sheep in a rural village in the Bekaa Valley. (Photo: Afif Diab)

By: Dania Hawat

Published Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The economic disparity between Lebanese villages across the country is becoming increasingly noticeable, with some being quasi-abandoned by the government, as money is being poured into the development of neighboring villages.

Whether in the villages of the Minieh-Dannieh district in the north, or in the rural Bint Jbeil villages of the south, or even in the district of Baalbek, the most glaring examples of this ever-increasing gap are apparent. The poor live in huts and brick houses with limited access to clean water, electricity, and even in some cases no access to sewage disposal.

“We only get eight hours of electricity here in Izal while in the village of Assoun, which is barely a 7-minute drive away, they get 20 hours,” Mohammed Khoder, a taxi driver from the district of Minieh-Dannieh, told Al-Akhbar.

Khoder’s income ranges between 60-80 thousand Lebanese Liras ($40-$55) a month, depending on how successful he is in finding customers. Even though his income is low, it is still higher than the average monthly income of a resident of Izal which is 23 thousand LL a month (roughly $15), according to research conducted by Information International, a Lebanese company that carries out market studies, and social and economic research.

“Barely half the village has access to water, we’ve been begging the municipality to help us with our water and electricity issues but they are concentrating more on other villages, the villages of the rich. Bakhoun, Assoun and Sir all have 100 percent access to the resources we all have the right to,” complained Khoder’s wife.

Izal’s mayor, Rahif Mohammed Abdel Rahman, told Al-Akhbar they do not have any water and the Ministry of Energy and Water has not responded to their demands of aid and funding in the past few years. Instead, the government of Kuwait has funded the digging of wells in the area and helped them manage water networks.

“If it wasn’t for Kuwait, we’d have no water at all. It is sad that foreign countries respond to us while our own doesn’t,” commented Abdel Rahman adding that the Ministry of Energy has funded projects in Miryata, Bekaa Safreen and other nearby villages.

According to The National Social Security Fund (NSSF), only five percent of Izal residents have access to the national insurance program, while 40 percent of the villagers in Haret al- Day’a - within the same district - have access to healthcare. Information International’s research revealed that by 2012, almost 70 percent of Izal’s women give birth at home.

Abdel Rahman added that his village has a high rate of unemployment, reaching almost 70 percent. Those who have an income work on their farms, but barely any of his villagers have insurance. The only ones who do are those working for the army. Furthermore, 97 percent of the villagers are not economically independent as some are forced to be indebted to others and some resort to begging on the street when they don't find jobs. The lucky ones have families in nearby cities or in foreign countries that send them money.

“Many of us don’t even know how to read and write, how does the government expect us to develop ourselves?” commented Khoder’s eldest son, Abed.

“I make him read the newspaper for me”

In the southern district of Bint Jbeil, more ignored voices speak out.

“Half of our women don’t have access to hospitals and most deliver at home. What’s even worse is that we men had more access to education 30-40 years ago than the women did and we now realize what a mistake it was and its consequences,” said George Abou Karam from the village of al-Qawzah in the Bint Jbeil district.

Abou Karam’s wife and other women in the village are forced to rely on their husbands to read for them, whether it is the news or books. They feel they have been deprived of a basic right that would otherwise allow them to be more independent.

According to Abou Karam’s wife and her sister Janine, “had there been more awareness on the importance of education around here maybe that would have increased our job opportunities, we could have been secretaries or at least distracted ourselves with reading.”

Janine said that in recent years there has been a concerted effort by the mayor and his municipality to increase awareness of the benefits of education.

According to Information International, 50 percent of female villagers in al-Qawzah were illiterate while 95 percent of the men were literate in 2012.

Youssef Abou Elias, Mayor of al-Qawzah, told Al-Akhbar that most of those registered in al-Qawzah (even the ones who don’t live there) are educated and most of the residents’ income is going to their children’s education.

“We have around 300 residents, almost 55 are kids. They are all attending schools in Rmeish and other neighbouring villages. As a municipality we encourage them to do so in order to increase their cultural knowledge and accept diversity. We want a better future for them,” commented Abou Elias.

“I make him read the newspaper for me every morning,” said Abou Karam’s wife sarcastically. “It is my payback for him for refusing to pay for my education 40 years ago.”

Some families of al-Qawzah have no access to sewages and so 40 percent of them, according to the same source, dispose their waste outdoors, causing the area to be exposed to potential diseases, as well as a putrid smell which clings to the air.

“We face problems and complaints from our neighbours over the way we dispose our sewage but neither the Ministry of Interior nor the Ministry of Health are doing anything about it, why should we?” said Abou Karam.

Abou Elias contradicted the claim and said that all the households have wells to dispose their raw sewage and that he hasn’t had any direct complaints on the issue.

Abou Elias said they have been working on improving the electricity situation and water resources so that the whole village will have complete access to it. Since the village does not have access to water the municipality started a private project a few years ago for the water networks. In the first year, the municipality paid for everything but later on they imposed a 20 thousand L.L. ($13) monthly tax on residents to assure their access to water, since the government has yet to contribute anything to its funding.

Abou Elias also added that the villages’ economic status is unsatisfactory. Some residents make their income from planting tobacco and olives. Al-Qawzah has land that is used for agricultural investments, but unfortunately requires funding from the government.

“We need the approval and funding of the concerned ministries in order to start working on the demands concerning the planting issue but we are not getting any. The ministries aren’t easing our processes and needs. On the contrary, they’re obstructing them.”

No municipality, no government

The situation is also prevalent in the Bekaa district of Baalbek. During an interview with Ali Hussein Sadek, a shepherd from Ham, Sadek expresses remorse over the direction his village is taking.

“The government should raise awareness of the importance of cultivating our land because we could have huge economic revenues,” says Sadek. Most of the land in Ham is being used for pasture instead of agriculture and this, according to Sadek and his family, is due to the “ignorance” blinding the rest of the village. They mostly blame it on the government for not shedding light on the importance of their lands even though many villagers demanded they’d be given “start-up packages” or at least some funding to start their own plantations.

Ham is a peculiar case; while it has a municipality, it has yet to be officially recognized by the government. It is supposed to fall temporarily under the jurisdiction of Britel’s municipality - a town several kilometers away - but they do not recognize it as part of their town.

Moreover, Ham does not have any access to nearby medical care and the village does not have any local doctors. The closest hospital is almost 20 km away in Britel.

“It is not responsibility of Britel’s municipality to take care of Ham and its villagers, but we welcome them here anytime,” mayor of Britel Hajj Abbas Ismail told Al-Akhbar, acknowledging that the Lebanese government has done nothing to help Ham or clarify its municipality issue. Instead, “several private organizations in addition to the UN are attempting to hold projects there to help in its development.”

In the meantime, the town of Britel offers assistance to villagers from Ham for aid, medical care, and water resources.

“During the winter, all the roads close because of the snow and we can’t go to any nearby villages in case of sickness. That is, if we had enough money in our pockets of course,” expressed Sadek's daughter, Fatima.

Despite the Sadek household and other families’ continuous demands to different ministries and municipalities, they still do not have a water network nor a phone network. Britel’s mayor Ismail mentioned that this is due to its proximity to the Syrian border and that it is neglected partly because the village is remote.

“We order our water from nearby towns and transfer them here by tractors,” said Sadek.

Over the past five years, Ham’s registered citizens which add up to almost 1,000, mostly fled to other neighboring towns for the lack of resources they have. Almost two-thirds of Ham’s villagers don't live there anymore.

While politicians speak on behalf of their parties’ interests, the voices of thousands of villagers remain unheard. Khoder, Abou Karam, and Sadek all emphasize one common point, their rights are being stepped on and ignored by the very people who are supposed to be representing them.

“In my 76 years of life, I have always been poor, but I haven’t felt used as I feel now by all those controlling our land and deciding which parts of it they’re going to develop and which parts they’re going to neglect,” said Abou Karam.

Comments

Besides the obvious intent of your article, and the clarity with which the issue has been boarded, you gave me a good lesson in geography too! Having grown up in the Argentine Pampas, and being agriculture the family business, I paid great attention to agriculture possibilities in Lebanon. There are several obstacles to overcome, and water is always key. But, there are many regional examples which show it is not impossible. Also, it is true that state intervention has helped, and "start-up packages" do not sound like a bad in principle -given the costs involved. Any comments aside, GREAT ARTICLE! I will keep looking for more of them :)

Nice article, nice style, nice theme and nice work . Keep up the good work dania

Well done Dania! Chapeau bas!
Being from the Dannieh area, I can relate to all the things you mentioned about the village of Izal, a village we consider as a remote and a deprived one!
The landscapes in Izal are breathtaking but our government is totally unaware of what the people go through everyday!
Again, I salute your initiative!
You have a promising future ahead of you young lady, and hopefully we will make things better!

Best,

Mohamad Issa Jamal

Well said danya❤️

Well said Dania no one could have covered the case better than you .. this should be presented to people in authority to deal with this major case

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