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Atlas of Lebanon


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1Over the last thirty years, from the end of the Civil War to the turmoil following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the Israeli war against Hezbollah, and the consequences of the war in Syria, Lebanon has regularly made the headlines, either for being at the heart of conflicts or due to the fact it is always connected to international and Middle Eastern geopolitics, both painfully impacting its people. The recent and ongoing garbage crisis in Beirut and its suburbs, and the popular mobilization it has sparked, seem to tell another kind of story: mismanagement, corruption, environmental hazards, as well as the rise of a middle class torn between consumerism and aspiration for transparency and democracy. Both series of events not only testify of the turbulence of history, but also proves that the turmoil that shakes a society deeply reshapes its material, social and political spaces. In this perspective, deciphering the Lebanese space and its dynamics at several scales is seen as an alternative way to read the country’s transformations. This is what this Atlas intends to do.

Mapping Lebanon’s structural features, transformations and challenges

2This book results from a collaboration of Lebanese and French academics that has been spanning over more than fifteen years. In 2007, we published Atlas of Lebanon, Territories and Society. This large book (about A4 format, 200 pages and the same number of images), aimed to assess the geographical transformations of the country since the beginning of the Civil War (1975-1990) and over the rebuilding years (until the 2006 war). It also included a reflection on the structural features that have shaped the country over more than a century, and that can be defined as follows: a) the (unachieved) building of a State and the imprints this process has left on the territory; b) the insertion of the country in the world’s economy, from the several waves of the diaspora to its economic relations with foreign powers that have used its territory (and its capital) as a relay in their regional endeavours; c) the tensions and geopolitical crises that have decomposed the Ottoman Empire, created new States like Lebanon, and then affected them for over a century, including through the meddling of its two neighbours, Syria and Israel, and of other regional powers, into internal affairs; d) the last feature at play is the changing lifestyles, resulting in increased urbanization and demographical changes, such as access to education and the decrease of the family size. These four intertwined aspects powerfully transformed the Lebanese space.

3In 2016, we released an additional version of this atlas entitled Lebanon, the new challenges. It was not an update, this being impossible due to the lack of data, but rather a complement to the first edition with a focus on missing or understudied topics, and taking into account the effects of the most recent challenges. The most obvious of these challenges is the arrival of more than 1 million Syrian refugees, amounting to about one quarter or one third of the resident population. However, other issues, which have been absent from most tales about the country, have emerged and deserve more attention. The question of climate change and environmental hazards in a context of continuous urbanization arises and an appraisal of these alarming trends is necessary. In addition, the continued infrastructural crises the country is facing and their uneven geographical impact need to be documented. That publication also scrutinized the public, civic and private responses to these threats. This English translation blends the totality of the 2016 edition with some of the most important and structural features identified in the 2007.

Figure In-1: Administrative map of Lebanon

Figure In-1: Administrative map of Lebanon

Critically mapping Lebanon

4While this Atlas is probably the first or one of the first of its kind in English, it is the latest one in a series of similar books that appeared in French and Arabic. It is therefore essential to explain its specificity. Atlases usually display a located inventory of resources and emanate from political powers asserting their sovereignty over a territory and aiming to develop it. It is often a way to perform the State’s legitimacy. At least three such documents can be identified in the history of Lebanon: the Atlas de la Syrie et du Liban, published in 1926 by Khanzadian with the support of French chambers of commerce in the context of the colonial seizure of the country under the French mandate; the Atlas du Liban elaborated by the IRFED mission in 1964, in the framework of the developmental approach followed by President Fouad Chebab, this book providing (poor) visuals supporting the assessment of the “needs and possibilities of Lebanon”; and the Atlas of Lebanon that accompanied the National Masterplan the CDR commissioned in 2002 and published in 2005, elaborated by a team of French and Lebanese consultants. This document provided a visually rich and critical analysis of the reconstruction years and highlighted alternative policies, which however have hardly been implemented.

5Two more academic Atlases of Lebanon can be mentioned: the first one, published in 1998 by Saint Joseph University Press, in French, and the second, authored by Ali Faour, in Arabic (2007). Despite numerous differences in their content and sources, they primarily targeted secondary school and university students. Based on disparate data, they offered a largely static and smooth vision of the country, with few reflections on the historical and political processes that have shaped it, such as external interventions.

6Against this backdrop, the present book results from a research endeavour aiming to produce new data in order to understand the territorial structures and the forces that shape spatial changes, at various scales from the local to the global. In this respect, this book is part of a trend that has spectacularly introduced geographical insights into the French editorial landscape. An academic genre first popularized by Roger Brunet and the GIP Reclus team based in Montpellier, geographic thematic atlases have become popular and offer elegant and convenient handbooks to understand political and contested social issues. Commented maps, charts and other infographics, with selected pictures have become easy shortcuts to decipher complex geopolitical and social situations, away from the reified vision supported by states and political powers.

7In this book, far from performing or even reproducing the point of view of the State, we propose a critical approach of the geographical dynamics that shape Lebanon, informed by social sciences questions and research. We focus on space and territories as contested resources for acquiring wealth and exercising political control. The Lebanese State, obviously, doesn’t have the monopoly over territorial action. It is contested by, and sometimes allies with, business actors, as well as political forces exercising hybrid sovereignties, which have openly challenged the State during the Civil War and, in a renewed way since 2005. We also account for municipal and supra-municipal authorities. Despite many limitations and failures, these authorities plan and manage the territory. In addition, the atlas focuses on civic mobilisations that contest State, business or infrastatal organizations’ projects. Not only is the governance diverse and contested, but the State has no monopoly on the production of information regarding the territory. In the atlas we use data processed by other actors, including NGOs, that document their claims and result in an alternative and critical vision of space. By documenting controversies and unachieved or failed projects, we make the contradictions, negotiations and conflicts over space visible.

Methodological challenges

8Our sources and methodology are in line with these premises. The difficult access to and the lack of reliability of State produced geographical information and statistics in Lebanon is notorious. This is strikingly the case regarding the population living in the country, since there has been no census since 1932. Even if it is less known, the territory itself is poorly delineated both when it comes to the external borders and the internal administrative limits. Our attempt at establishing a reliable and scientific geographical database revealed a series of loopholes. Even the claimed 10452 km² do not fit the scientific data (the digitized surface is about 10250 km²). Despite numerous issues, some data however exist and our team has struggled to gather the ones relevant to this project, surveying various dispersed and unpublished administrative reports to capitalize on the information they conceal. This task proved more difficult than at the beginning of the 2000s, as the National Masterplan project stirred a dynamic of collaboration among administrations that resulted in an exceptionally rich data harvest (for Lebanon).

9We also used private, civic and international data sources, the latter being very useful to compare Lebanon with its neighbours. In addition, our team has produced specific data (for instance through the processing of satellite imagery) or used already existing academic sources, such as in the data base constituted over more than twenty years at the Center for Remote Sensing at the National Council for Scientific Research of Lebanon regarding land use and environment. Our methodology consists in a multiscale reading of space, consciously zooming out and zooming in, to illustrate how phenomena occurring at local, national, regional or international levels can shape territorial dynamics. The analysis of dynamics involves constructing series of historical data, a task hindered by pitfalls similar to those confronted to gather contemporary information. In the atlas, only a few specific examples illustrate this approach, which was more present in the 2007 edition. Maps infographics and comments, which were kept very short, synthetically combine in thematic pages in order to offer the reader a quick appraisal of the issue at stake.

10Our team has also accumulated information thanks to fieldwork surveys. It was particularly the case regarding the infrastructural crises, real estate dynamics in Beirut as well as issues of local governance, involving data on municipal policies. This was undertaken by young researchers in the framework of their masters or doctoral studies, as well as part of a collective research initiated by the Urban Planning department of the Lebanese University under the guidance of Prof. Jihad Farah.

11A short reference list offers the curious reader with an access to the sources or to a first set of works that will help deepen the understanding of the issues at stake.

Book structure

12This book comprises seven chapters. The first one articulates the difficult territorial formation of the Lebanese State with the territorial decompositions and recompositions and unfolding geopolitical tensions in the region, with a focus on the last fifteen years. Chapter two confronts the difficult task of analyzing population trends, relying on scarce, uncertain and imprecise data. It specifically addresses the arrival, spatial distribution and conditions of living of the Syrian refugees in the country. Chapter three deals with the Lebanese economy, highlighting its dependency on foreign investments, specifically the Gulf countries. It also discusses the breathlessness of the economic model promoted by the Lebanese government after the Civil War, which relied on real estate, banking and tourism. Increasing inequalities at all scales and steady out migration that result from this situation are worrisome. The next chapters successively examines the urbanisation trends in the country and its lack of regulation, then the environmental changes that this is causing, discussing its links with global trends such as the climate change. It also documents the risks that threaten the population because of these environmental changes. Chapter six deals with the infrastructural crisis that affect the country with an in-depth focus on the water issue. The last chapter is dedicated to the governance of these issues, and emphasizes the ascent of municipal authorities on the wake of the state roll back.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure In-1: Administrative map of Lebanon
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© Presses de l’Ifpo, 2019

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