ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Pontifical Mission at 50: Teaming Up in Lebanon

Concern for the environment underlies our village revitalization program in Lebanon.

In the village of Merkebta, in northern Lebanon, everyone is on the project committee – or so it seems. The latest and greatest project completed, a sewage treatment plant, is the only one in the region and now the highlight of the village tour.

Before heading to the project area, the villagers happily show visitors their photo albums. They thumb through the neatly arranged pages, catching glimpses of Christmas feasts, birthdays, first communions – all those dressy days that qualify as Kodak moments.

The men in the pictures are teachers, shopkeepers and accountants. Their wives are educated too. And the children good posture might well result from toting book-laden backpacks up and down the steep village streets.

But here is the page they have been waiting for – these pictures show men at work. Are these the same men? Those gathered around the album laugh as visitors squint in confusion over the vaguely familiar faces.

But to be sure, they are the same men. Clad in shorts, jeans, T-shirts and straw hats, the men smile for the camera as they shovel dirt to fill in the trenches. These are trenches that house 7,218 feet of pipe leading from house to street, then off to the sewage treatment plant.

Merkebta is one of 121 villages in Lebanon benefiting from a successful village revitalization effort, a program spearheaded by CNEWA Pontifical Mission office in Beirut, a program that restores village life devastated during Lebanon 15-year civil war (1975-90).

Everyone from the village pitched in to help with the project. There were no “sidewalk superintendents” during this project, except for Abu Karim, whose venerable face and age earned him that right and title. In some pictures children are featured; they toss good-sized rocks around the pipes to act as filler.

If there were time, the committee members explain, they would show the homemade video of the treatment plant installation. But now it time to visit the site.

Visitors seem to take small, cautious breaths as they approach the bright white building, but quickly it becomes clear the plant works – there is no offensive odor in the area.

A first reaction and comment is that the facility is very small. “Very efficient,” is the villager response. The system, which is brand new, combines standard elements with some original additions.

One committee member explains that the sewage is aerated without ever seeing the light of day. The process works through a system of air compressors, aerators, screen filters and thousands of small, hollow plastic balls that collectively act as a biological filter. This filter produces a high level of sewage purification. The balls are kept on the move by their buoyancy and the aerator. The image that came to mind while listening to this description was of a hot air popcorn popper.

Taking a deep, clean breath, the enthusiastic tour guide continues about hydrostatic pressure, which sends the sewage back to the bottom through the biological filter. He impresses everyone with the fact that one round trip for the entire tank of influent takes about two minutes.

Arabic terms for microbial biomes, sedimentation tanks and such flew through his speech just about as fast as those little balls. Enthusiasm was the verbal equivalent of hydrostatic pressure.

Projects such as this one are joint ventures between CNEWA Pontifical Mission office, which develops and implements the program, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which has awarded CNEWA funding for it. Villagers from villages selected by the Pontifical Mission are asked to present its Beirut staff with a list of projects that would benefit their communities. Those projects chosen must demonstrate effectiveness, cost efficiency and environmental awareness. All approved projects require 20 percent of the village to participate by donating labor or money. Either way they are labors of love.

This participation is intended to encourage community involvement – and with photo albums filled with pictures of happy trench diggers, the idea obviously works.

In a Lebanese interpretation of “mighty oaks from little acorns grow,” one can see great efforts to seed the country fertile lands. In the Bekka Valley, where poppies and marijuana were once common crops, grapevines march upward on wood and wire frames. And in much of the valley flatlands, the more modest potato grows silently under the earth. The grape rules as Lebanon most prolific crop at a yield of 360,000 tons annually, while the potato is a close second at 350,000.

But flat is rare in Lebanon; mountains and valleys dominate the landscape. If you want to know the elevation while driving through the mountains, a fair guess can be made by checking out what growing. Grapes and olives may be found somewhere between 985 and 2,625 feet above sea level. At 2,625 feet and above cherries and apricots thrive. And at 3,281 feet above sea level you’ll see apples and pears.

Since the earliest of days, Lebanese farmers have tamed these slopes by terracing the land. During Lebanon civil war, farming communities isolated from conflicts had a hard time reaching the cities to buy seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. Transporting produce to market meant feeding the militias along the way. Prices fell as markets dwindled and government subsidies shrank with the devaluation of currency. In addition, the allure of the city drew many of Lebanon younger generation.

Some terraces were neglected for so long that finding them is like looking for ancient archaeological ruins. Only a few stones remain from the retaining walls. Root systems of the untended trees have disturbed both the walls and the soil; water erosion has torn away valuable topsoil.

Lebanese skill and determination made it possible to grow just about anything on these terraces, but olive groves, apple trees and wheat were the standard fare. Today these terraces are undergoing rehabilitation. Stone walls are either replaced or repaired; a covering of chicken wire is sometimes added to extend the life of the walls. Fruit trees blossom and bear the fruits of hard labor. The newest member of the “terrace tribe” is the nectarine – once imported, it is now available locally.

The workhorse of the farmer, the donkey, has been literally put out to pasture. His bray has been replaced by the chugging motors of small tractors, which zip around the newer, wider terraces with as much ease as the donkey once did.

Whether flat or hilly, land needs water. This year the rainfall was below half the normal annual level. Irrigation is critical in this land. Another ongoing project for Pontifical Mission engineers is the repairing and extension of irrigation canals. And, whether dry or wet, land has to be worked. Again, CNEWA has helped with the building of agricultural roads.

Young Lebanese who graduate with degrees in agricultural engineering find their skills in high demand. As a result, young villagers are rethinking their fascination with the city and returning to their villages.

The Lebanese government has initiated a new Green Plan and is heavily involved in reforestation. Carob, oak, cypress, evergreen and indigenous trees are being planted in areas where the soil is poor and likely to erode.

In addition, CNEWA Pontifical Mission has distributed 5,500 fruit and olive saplings to farmers living in the cluster villages.

Delivery day is always marked with a red letter. In anticipation, soil is tilled and holes are dug. Farmers carry the bundles of trees-to-be over their shoulders like seasoned skiers. Then the sapling roots are unbound and the little trees are placed in the ground.

These trees require a commitment from the farmers. Years of care are needed before any apricots or olives are harvested. But commitment is the farmer middle name – it is one he will pass to his sons.

Following the tour of Merkebta sewage treatment plant was a tour of the village. Storytellers seemed to breathe more lightly as they described pre-sewage treatment days: sewage would overflow the individual septic tanks and run through the streets.

At the far end of the village the tour paused. Faces turned serious. Then all fingers pointed to the village well, the only source of drinking water for the entire community. It a one-spout affair with a not-so-clean basin. And, judging by the awkward position of a man filling water containers, this was not an easy task to perform. With fingers still pointing the men announced, “This is our next project.”

Through these projects, the residents of all 121 villages involved in Pontifical Mission village restoration program have developed a sense of community pride and respect. And something else has happened. Before this project the villagers were afraid to approach their government representatives. Whom would they ask for help? And what exactly did they want, other than a better life? As part of implementing the sewage treatment project, committee members had to deal with their local deputies. Building permits had to be secured and electrical hookups arranged. But this time they knew what they needed and felt secure in their requests.

The villagers had become empowered. They had the plans in their pockets and their list of needs was neither excessive nor unreasonable. And with Pontifical Mission assistance, the deputies found it advantageous to cooperate. After all, good projects work to everyone advantage.

Now the citizens of Merkebta have all the confidence they need. There no doubt the men of Merkebta will someday know the halls of the Lebanese Parliament in Beirut as well as they do the streets of their own village.

Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.

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