Rayan Majed

The possibility of a new Beirut River

Between reality and hope
Beirut River, in its current state.
Another view of Sandra Frem

Residents living on the Beirut River are used to the color of the river changing as often as the seasons – from black, to red, to murky grey-green, to black again, depending on the type of toxic waste that it thrown in it from month to month. Yet despite the inhospitable pH and toxicity levels, recently news broke that at least one crocodile was living in its waters, dumped there by a disgruntled pet owner. More fantastic still, last month a highly-endangered softshell turtle species was spotted in the opaque water. That observers initially thought the turtle was more likely a river monster than a species that actually belonged there indicates the extent to which the river is seen as a natural feature of the city.


What exactly is the Beirut River?


According to Sandra Frem, an architect who has worked for two years on a project seeking to beautify the river and increase its usefulness, “the Beirut River springs from the Western slopes of Mount Lebanon at an altitude of 1,890m and flows westwards from an underwater spring for about twenty kilometers before changing course northwards in the last five kilometers where it crosses a densely-populated coastal plain and flows into the Mediterranean Sea in Beirut. This seasonal river dries out in summertime like most Lebanese rivers, and flows abundantly in winter. Up until 1933, the riverbed was large and wide. It was during that year that Armenian refugees began to settle along its banks, thus causing the riverbed to narrow… Accumulating sediment caused the water level to rise and the river to flood in 1940. In keeping with world developments that year, the state decided back then to dig channels to control the flood. In 1956, concrete was poured onto the riverbed until the Jisr al-Wati area and was extended to Jisr al-Basha in 1988.”


Sandra Frem started working on her project in 2008. The area around the river was not as densely built as it is today. She saw that the open spaces on both sides of the river were of potential benefit in the long run for storing water. “Since we live in a country where the state is unconcerned with embellishing nature so that people may enjoy it, I worked on a project that not only aims to embellish the city, but also to reclaim the river and open it to the city so that it benefits from it and becomes an integral part of Beirut rather than a separate entity as is the case today. Lebanon suffers from water shortages during the summer and if we manage to purify and distribute sewage and rainwater, we will have provided for the city’s water needs and embellished it all at once.”


The architect’s project built bridges between hypothetical gardens along the river banks, and traced special routes for public transportation (buses or tramways). Her objective was to make walking a fun activity for Beirut residents and to transform the river into a space for relaxation for residents of the surrounding poor neighborhoods. “The river can help change the people,” she argues.


For Sandra Frem, a LAU architecture professor, talking about this project is all but unrealistic under these circumstances. She has since recanted “her dream” of carrying out such projects, focusing instead on working in her engineering office on small, more realistic projects. “This project is politically and socially sensitive. There is no political will to carry out such projects in poor residential neighborhoods, as preference now goes to towers,” she said.


Architect Habib Debs opined that poor regions are in most need for green spaces, as their residents do not usually have means of transportation to take their kids for a drive to remote locations. They thus need spaces near their places of residence for children to play and the elderly to take walks.


In a study drafted by his consultations office, Debs concluded that Beirut is one of the worst cities in the world in terms of green spaces. Addressing this situation calls for focusing on public domains. Within the framework of “Plan Vert pour la ville de Beyrouth” (Green plan for the city of Beirut), which was financed by the Ile-de-France region in cooperation with the Beirut Municipality, engineers surveyed the existing green spaces in Beirut and suggested to the municipality a plan with guidelines focusing on exploiting existing opportunities to develop green spaces in the city.


Debs said, “In the study I submitted to the Beirut Municipality, I stressed the need to plant trees in the public domain surrounding the river so that they are turned into a breathing space for the poor neighborhoods along the river banks and provide children with spaces to play and the elderly with a place to go on walks. It is difficult to interfere with the river, hence the fact that the project only focused on planting [greenery] along its banks. Unfortunately, the [new] highway that was built took up all the land. We suggested establishing the park along the [old] railway and part of the land on both sides of the river. One part would be turned into a green space, which we would reclaim by planting olive trees while ameliorating the situation in Sin el-Fil and Burj Hammoud as well. Moreover, Souk al-Ahad (the local Sunday flea market), which is the only location the highway crosses [over the river], can be connected (through a band of greenery) to the Sioufi Garden. This connection, which can be extended all the way to Sin el-Fil, would be a pedestrian-friendly zone rather than a car-exclusive area.”


According to Habib Debs, his generation partly grew up during the Lebanese civil war during which it travelled abroad and came back to the country to help develop and rebuild it. However, he said, “Frustration prevails today, as the political situation is untenable, but if we work on something like the public domain we can inject some vitality into society.”


A lot of opportunities and projects can be implemented to improve public domains and people’s environment and lifestyle. “The civil society has to call for such opportunities and the press should shed a light on these aspects, not to mention the need for political will.” Only then will the Beirut River turn from a river, the colors of which change in accordance with the waste thrown in them, one where dangerous creatures live, into a beautiful and fun place that brings people together and alleviates the burden of life in this country.


This article has been translated from the original Arabic.

Between reality and hope. (Image via Sandra Frem)

“'The river can help change the people.'”

  • fadi c

    I encourage Sandra and Debs and wish you all the best. The fight against commercialization, greed, ignorance and stupidity is a tough one. I hope for the sake of my city (that I still love in spite of all the efforts made to disgust us) that you/we will win. But I won't hold my breath.

    September 11, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Ya rayt... Ya rayt... I grew up in Tawitat el-Nahr in Furn el-Chebbak. As children, we used to play along the Beirut river banks and the railway station, before the highway took it all away. The river bed was huge, and in Spring the water would be "boiling" from the millions of tadpoles swarming about. It wasn't clean then, but it was a river worthy of its name. Creating civilized environments for our children should be a priority in this savage country of garbage and concrete; planting trees, and having promenades along the river would be one major way to mend our hatred of the city from years of war, mayhem, and anarchy. I applaud the efforts of dreamer engineers like Frem and Debs, but we need the political will of the criminals whom we trust to run our lives. We are to blame.

    September 9, 2013