NOEL KING, HOST:
Lebanon was once a jewel of the Mediterranean coast. But now the small country is most widely known for war - its own history of bloody civil conflict and violence that unfolds across its border in Syria. Unrest there continues with tens of thousands of anti-government protesters taking to the streets over the weekend.
But Lebanon is also facing a new and different issue. Its environment is being destroyed on almost every front. Experts tell NPR's Ruth Sherlock that the country's experience is a cautionary tale about what happens when governments fail to regulate and protect their natural surroundings.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Ask experts in Lebanon which environmental problem keeps them up at night, and everyone seems to give a different answer. Najat Saliba, a scientist with the American University of Beirut, says it's the country's fresh water supply.
NAJAT SALIBA: It's the water because the bad water is now reaching the houses of every single person in Lebanon. It brings tears to my eyes because we were so rich in water. But we managed to contaminate it all.
SHERLOCK: Environmental campaigner Cynthia Choucair says it's the air quality that upsets her.
CYNTHIA CHOUCAIR: I'm really afraid of the pollution. We really need to breathe fresh air. We need a healthy environment for our kids.
SHERLOCK: And Paul Abi Rached (ph) from the environmental charity T.E.R.R.E. Liban says he worries about, well, everything.
PAUL ABI RACHED: Pollution in the water, pollution in the air, pollution in agriculture, in the food. Really, I think - I feel that we are under attack. It's a war.
SHERLOCK: Lebanon, he says, is at war with itself. Its Mediterranean coast is contaminated with raw sewage. Factories dump waste into rivers. Old diesel cars and generators spew carcinogens into the sky. Open trash dumps burn in the countryside. And just recently, mass wildfires tore across forests and mountains.
I meet Abi Rached in a small woods that's one of the few green spaces left near the capital, Beirut. It's shrunk in size in recent years, and construction sounds now compete with the crickets.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRICKETS CHIRPING, CONSTRUCTION NOISE)
SHERLOCK: Rached's charity works to raise environmental awareness in Lebanon. For example, he plays me a song he produced with Lebanese schoolchildren about the country's Bisri Valley, which is soon to be submerged by a dam.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Singing) We're on a planet that has a problem. We got to solve it, get involved and do it now, now, now. We need to save the Bisri Valley, and we need to start right now.
SHERLOCK: Rached says the cause of these problems is that, again and again, Lebanon's politicians prioritize business contracts over the environment.
ABI RACHED: They don't care. They will throw waste in the Mediterranean Sea, but they will be executing their private projects to make more and more money.
SHERLOCK: It's a frustration that's actually shared by the country's environment minister, Fady Jreissati.
FADY JREISSATI: You prefer to sit, or it's OK like this?
SHERLOCK: This is perfect.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.
SHERLOCK: Jreissati tells me perhaps his biggest challenge is fighting what he calls cartels - politically connected business groups that are involved in waste management and quarrying.
JREISSATI: So you're not dealing with clean people. You are dealing with the mafia mentality. And those have a lot of means to block me in so many ways.
SHERLOCK: He claims they can buy influence with the media - or worse. Some activists who oppose the many illegal quarries in Lebanon's mountains have received death threats. Despite the environmental problems, Jreissati says a draft state budget makes his ministry the second-worst-funded in the Lebanese government, just US$8 million.
JREISSATI: I think it's the most ridiculous budget. It's lack of seriousness from the politicians. They don't realize that the environmental crisis is the worst one and it's the most dangerous one.
SHERLOCK: But Jreissati's own policies have also frustrated environmental experts. With most of the country's landfills almost full, he supports a plan that includes burning waste to make electricity. Najat Saliba, the scientist with the American University of Beirut, warns this could worsen Beirut's air quality, which is already many times more polluted than the World Health Organization recommends.
SALIBA: It's because the history of this government and the previous governments have proven to be incapable of doing any emission control.
SHERLOCK: Time and again, she says, attempts at setting regulations have failed.
SALIBA: You know, if somebody wants to see what will happen if you don't do anything to your country, they come to Lebanon and they can look.
SHERLOCK: The problem is not just in the cities.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORN BEEPING)
SHERLOCK: We drive over the mountains from Beirut into the fertile plains of the Beqaa Valley, home to vineyards and much of the country's agriculture.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE DOOR SLAMMING)
SHERLOCK: We're at Qaraoun, one of Lebanon's biggest man-made lakes.
KAMAL SLIM: (Foreign language spoken).
SHERLOCK: Kamal Slim, a Lebanese scientist, says this lake used to irrigate agricultural fields. But these days, it's too contaminated for that. There are heavy metals and other pollutants from hundreds of factories that dump into the river that feeds it, along with sewage from nearby villages. The government has tried to restrict pollution. But for now, the lake is thick and syrupy. It smells and is full of cyanobacteria that turns the water green. Most species of fish here have died.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)
SHERLOCK: Slim takes water samples. To our surprise, a group of women arrive, brightly dressed - some with cameras around their necks.
Just wondering what you guys are doing here.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).
LAMA, BYLINE: They came for tourism.
SHERLOCK: For tourism - on this lake?
LAMA: Yeah, I know (laughter). She said we won't touch the water.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We won't touch the water.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We can't. There is a bad smell, also.
SHERLOCK: Lebanese are nothing if not resilient, and these women are determined to have a good time.
Well, have a nice day out.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you. Same to you.
SHERLOCK: Thank you.
They bought a tourist boat, and the skipper turns on the music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in foreign language).
SHERLOCK: The women dance and clap in unison as they sail off on the thick, poisoned water.
Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Qaraoun Lake, Lebanon.
(SOUNDBITE OF AROVANE'S "TOKYO GHOST STORIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.