How years of illegal construction is shrinking Lebanon's coastline

How illegal construction is shrinking Lebanon's coastline
31 October, 2023

As summer draws to a close, Lebanon’s beachgoers will creep back inside and the rocky and sandy shore of the Mediterranean Sea will be reclaimed by the waves and fishermen of old.

But while the sunseekers disappear, the restaurants, beach resorts and chalets do not. In fact, many of these properties contribute to the swathes of illegal construction which has for years dogged Lebanon’s coastline.

"Luxury beach clubs and hotels — unaffordable for most of the population — have sprung up along the coastline and are often constructed without the correct permit, despite its designation as a public space"

Last week, in an attempt to quantify how many building infringements on public land have taken place, the Lebanese Army began a survey of coastal properties on the instruction of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and the Army’s Directorate of Geographical Affairs.

It was the first survey of its kind since 1996. Ali Hamieh, the Caretaker Minister of Public Works and Transportation said that it would update existing information with the potential to generate millions of dollars of revenue for the state’s shrinking public purse.

Since the country fell into one of the worst economic crises of modern times in 2019, the cash-strapped government has been looking for methods to reinvigorate the economy and avoid dipping its toes into the reforms demanded by international financial bodies.

Lebanon’s tourism industry and the potential economic value found in the country’s sandy beaches and clear blue sea have for years overtaken any government interest in preserving marine life and access to public space.

Luxury beach clubs and hotels — unaffordable for most of the population — have sprung up along the coastline and are often constructed without the correct permit, despite its designation as a public space by a 1925 law.

Law 144/S of 1925 laid out the constituencies for the land constituting Lebanon’s shoreline, known as the ‘Maritime Public Domain’.

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Violations have become so normalised that even the Lebanese Army’s Central Military Club, south of Beirut, where soldiers and their families can enjoy a restaurant, swimming pool and beach cabins, was constructed on public land.

Among Lebanon’s 220 km coastline, as much as 170 km is believed to have been privatised.

Up to 80 percent of the coast is not accessible to the public according to Mohammad Ayoub, director of Lebanese non-profit Nahnoo, a research and advocacy platform for participatory public policy making around public spaces.

Ayoub said that the ministry’s survey was “exhibitionist”.

“Mapping the encroachments is important but not more important than stopping them and demolishing all the violations,” he said to The New Arab.

“Why is the minister more into mapping them now? It is because he is thinking of how much money he can get. They are treating the violations as a source of income.”

In 2021, Nahnoo, together with activists and academics, launched ‘The Coast For All’ campaign for the amendment of Law 64/2017 to limit the right to occupy the Maritime Public Domain to national defence and public interest, rather than private activities which have sought to monopolise the coast’s financial value.

In a step ahead of the army, Nahnoo in 2022 mapped violations from the south to the north of the coastline, creating a valuable public data set.

Ayoub points out that globally studies have shown that open, public beaches have greater potential for circular economic movement. “People travel to see natural spaces,” he said.

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Nahnoo has found that private touristic establishments make up 67 percent of the encroached areas. As a result, civil society groups and residents have fought to keep land free from influential developers.

In June, locals rallied together in Kfar Abida, north Lebanon, which successfully saw the demolition of a house which had been blocking stair access to the public beach Abu Ali for years.

Although summer in Lebanon is nearing its end, the fight for public space is not, with new encroachments continuing to pop up.

The latest violation is from Lebanese businessman Jihad al-Arab, who made a fortune from government contracts and was sanctioned by Washington in 2021. He is busy building a beach resort on public land in Naameh, 20 kilometres south of Beirut.

Rosabel Crean is a freelance journalist based in London

Follow her on Twitter: @CreanRosabel