Women taking part to the solarization of a waste management facility in Qaraoun, in the Beqaa. (Photo provided by Rise2030)

Lebanon’s Solar Revolution: Q&A with Ryme Assaad

In this Q&A on Lebanon’s climate change and environmental challenges, in addition to the existing financial and political ones, TIMEP interviews Ryme Assaad, a social entrepreneur and activist, president at Sustain the World, an NGO that focuses on finding sustainable solutions.

TIMEP: What would you say are the most pressing climate change issues and their impact on people in Lebanon, including vulnerable and marginalized groups?

RA: Lebanon, just like the rest of the world, has been facing several climate change issues, such as higher temperatures, changes in precipitation, increases in soil aridity, and extreme weather events, all which have a negative impact on the agricultural sector, food security, water resources, biodiversity, and infrastructure. The increasing temperature is my main concern when it comes to climate change.

Unfortunately, vulnerable and marginalized groups—in particular those who are in rural areas, are refugees and women—will experience a higher impact of those challenges, and risk more poverty and social exclusion. They are mostly more affected because realities on the ground in rural areas are not the same as in urban areas, with different backgrounds, capacities, and opportunities, and they are more impacted by both the environmental and economic crises. Climate issues are expected to cause an increase in malnutrition, reduced agricultural output, decreased water supply, and an increase in energy demands, all things that we are seeing more and more in Lebanon.

At the moment in Lebanon, we are facing two crises in parallel, in both the economy and climate. This is why we are feeling a bigger impact and the situation is more dramatic. For instance, the changing temperatures have caused higher demands in energy, but due to the blackouts caused by the economic and financial crisis, people are unable to afford or pay for this, and there is no electricity in the first place to cover this need.

This is why it is good to invest in solutions and set national strategies when you have actual money, because once the crisis starts, you cannot really help everyone.

TIMEP: What does your organization Sustain the World do? Why was it created, and what role has the organization played in advocating for environmental issues?

RA: Sustain the World was created in 2017, with a group of women from Lebanon and the U.S., with the purpose of empowering vulnerable community members through access to education, employment, and entrepreneurship in the sustainability and green sectors. Through it, we wanted to try to impact the role of women in a male dominated sector such as construction. But that was before: everything changed for us after 2019, and we had to adapt our projects and change our scope of work. We had to switch from being environmental activists to adapting into trying to help communities survive this ongoing shock that the country has been going through for the past three years. We never thought we would go through this much and that it would be this hard, with the financial crash, COVID-19, and the Beirut explosion.

With the collapsing economy and the lack of electricity, we realized that solar was proving to be very efficient, so a lot of what we had done before the crisis helped communities and the people we worked with survive it. We had collaborated with numerous municipalities throughout Lebanon on waste water treatment solarization, waste recycling facility solarization, and waste management, among other things. When we first started working, we spent so much time trying to convince donors about the importance of renewable energy from the environmental perspective, but they weren’t really convinced at the time. Now though, everyone is moving toward renewable energy because when it comes to cost, environment, and sustainability, it has been proven to be very efficient.

Through our work, we have managed to create jobs in dozens of rural communities, and impacted thousands of households through our projects in the water, energy, waste, and food sectors, all over the country.

TIMEP: Why have you chosen to tackle climate change using a gender lens? 

RA: Climate change and the economic crisis deepen existing inequalities especially for women living in rural, remote, conflict, and disaster-prone areas. Women often face increased barriers because of their caregiving obligations, lack of financial assets, and limited rights to land and property. But they also face social barriers when it comes to working in some sectors, such as construction in Lebanon.

One of our projects that took place in 2018 was the solarization of a waste management facility in the village of Qaraoun, in the Beqaa. For it, we did some construction and waste management work with a group of 25 trainees and workers who were directly active in the project for a period of 60 days. We hired community members with zero prior experience or technical background, who wanted to learn more about sustainability and renewable energy. The program started by teaching them the basics of electricity and then they installed the system themselves. This project had two aspects we really liked. First, it proved that communities can build sustainable solutions themselves. We do not need to bring contractors from outside the community to execute those projects for them. They can do that on their own, which creates an amazing ripple effect, because once people from the area actually design, develop, and install such a renewable energy project, they can spread awareness and influence their communities, municipalities, families, friends, and schools on their importance. This is a much more powerful awareness tool than bringing a trainer from the city to give a training about renewable energy and then a company to install the project. People were empowered in building their own sustainable solutions and developing the project themselves.

When we first started with this project, we wanted to increase gender representation, since there were barely any women taking part in the project. The project’s trainer and project manager were women, and so we went on-site to recruit more women. What we realized there was that women did want to be part of the sector, but municipalities weren’t giving them opportunities and wanted men to work instead. Women we talked to were actually frustrated because they wanted to work and needed this extra income, but they weren’t allowed by local authorities to do so.

We managed to create a team of 13 women, who were from Qaraoun or refugees living in the area, to see if they could build the project themselves. And they did; they didn’t need men to help them. You’re talking about a construction sector that has less than 1 percent of women participation in Lebanon. For a group for women from the Beqaa to have this much impact was something inspirational. For us, these women were champions and this changed a lot how we operate.

TIMEP: How has the financial crisis affected the type of projects you are currently working on?

RA: Most of the projects we have worked on weren’t created because we were planning on doing them, but were rather a mitigation effort to survive and to keep going.

Currently, the challenges we are facing are getting harder. For instance, we realized that there was a need to find ways to operate off-grid, because of inflation, the unaffordability of fuel, and with how unreliable the electricity has been. Our project Green Circles, which operates in Beirut and the Beqaa, is about recycling and using solar and renewable energy. We realized that with the financial crisis, some of our partners taking part in our waste and recycling efforts were facing trouble affording transportation. Municipalities even stopped collecting recyclables; they simply could no longer break even. What we did was to create a completely off-grid model, where we used electric bikes that operate fully on solar energy to reduce this cost. This helped us operate in this changing economic situation, while being fully green and sustainable.

TIMEP: What is the future for renewable technologies in Lebanon? How has the economic and financial situation influenced their use? What can be done to support this?

RA: The economic and financial crisis caused skyrocketing fuel prices and frequent power outages all over Lebanon, which led an increasing number of Lebanese to resort to solar energy. Renewable energy solutions became an essential part of the solution, and this has been our solar revolution. In the long run, I expect the cost of investing in solar energy to decrease. Yes, the initial investment is definitely higher than using more traditional sources of energy, but if you calculate over 15-20 years, you realize that cost-wise, solar is a better bet, so you would be saving money and the environment at the same time.

The Lebanese government can contribute by significantly scaling up electricity generation from renewable resources. It had set an ambitious target of 30 percent for generating energy through renewables. But Lebanon is facing different challenges than other countries, with the additional burden that the financial crisis is causing. We first have to find solutions to the economic situation, before we can even apply for loans that would support green projects, and find organizations willing to trust us, and the government, with their money. The current problem is the trust, or more like the lack of it, that the international community has in Lebanon and its ability to repay its debt. I see it more of a political issue, not related to climate.