Natural resources and agriculture:
Water and soil
Arsal is considered among the most arid areas in Lebanon. Its land, estimated at 360km2 is divided into three regions: the highland “the higher Jord” (annual rainfall at around 500mm with regular winter snowfall), the midland (annual rainfall at 400-500mm) and the dry northern region with an annual rainfall that does not exceed 300mm (often less than 200mm). The river “Rayan” flows through the southern part of Arsal. It is abundant in spring and dries up in summer, whereas it used to flow all year long in the past. Ground water exists at great depth, which makes well digging very expensive, and thus only affordable to a few. The high elevations have yellow mountainous soils (60%), while the soil in the remaining areas is mostly red soil, with some gray soil in the Northern region.
Fruit trees, especially rainfed stone fruits are the most cultivated crops in Arsal. These are mainly cherry trees (estimated at 2 million trees) the production of which I exported outside Lebanon, followed by apricots and almonds. The cultivation of the local “Obeydi” grape variety, which is spread over a vast area of the northern dry region, has been neglected for years and is presently fro household use only. Landraces for field, crops such as wheat, barley and chickpeas are also mainly grown for household use only.
Pastures and wild vegetation
An estimated 40% of the land in Arsal is used as rangelands. Despite the dry conditions, this area is especially rich in wild plants. The main native plants reported there are wild wheat (Triticum urartu), that is widespread in diverse regions, different kinds of wheat ancestor (especially Aegilops vavilovi) and landraces of garlic and onions (Alium spp.). Legumes are very rare because of the draught and the overgrazing. However, even limited protection of the land from grazing resulted in flushes of wild lentils, chickpeas and several other forage legume such as Vicia, Medicago and Trifolium spp.
Despite the drought and the overgrazing which threaten the vegetation cover, Arsal is still rich in beneficial plants. As identified by the local communities, some plants have medicinal importance such as wild rhubarb, wild mints, barberry and species of Fibigia, Turgenia, Achillia, Astragalus, Plumbago, Onosma, Poterium, Marrubium, Echballium. Several species are considered of chief nutritional importance to grazing animals such as species of Glaucium, Astragalus, Convolvulus, Salicornia, Poterium and several thistles. Though the indigenous knowledge on these plants have been documented by the Agrobiodiversity project, further studies are needed to document the remaining native flora that has not yet been covered but described by the locals.
Pears (Pyrus syriaca) are the most widespread fruit trees in Arsal. Scattered huge old pear trees are still found in the mountainous regions, confirming the claims of the elderly in Arsal that forests of these trees once covered the desertified areas. Arsal is famous for its green and red exceptionally flavoured wild pears, earlier sold in local markets and in neighbouring villages. At least 2 species of wild almond trees (Amygdalus orientalis, A. communis) are also widespread in Arsal, often used as hedges around orchards and vineyards. In the higher elevation special-flavoured red and yellow hawthorn trees are also widespread in addition to a few Atlantic wide pistachio trees, wild plums and cherries, and juniper trees. However, these heavy forests of pears, wild plums, hawthorn and juniper have disappeared almost completely in the last century for many reasons, mainly chopping down.
Arsal still owns the largest herd for cattle in Lebanon, estimated at around 70,000 heads of goats and sheep.160 families live entirely from raising animals. The herders move around all year long, from al-Kaa in winter to the mountainous lands of Arsal in spring, to the Lebanese Western mountain chains in summer and autumn.
Apiculture is not widespread in the region of Arsal with only an estimated 15 bee-keepers owning around 212 hives. The bee race found in this area is the local Syrian bee (Api syriaca).
Social and Institutional conditions
There are ten schools in Arsal with 2809 students and 206 teachers (reference year 2002). The schools are divided as follows: one public high school, three public intermediate school, 5 elementary schools, 3 of which are private and 2 are public, and one technical public high school. Students attending these schools are distributed as follows: 1613 elementary students, 701 intermediate students and 495 high school students. Most schools in Arsal lack libraries and necessary educational support equipment and audio-visual aids. In Arsal, there are an estimated 200 university graduates in the fields of medicine and engineering.
In town, there are two dispensaries, two clinics, and a branch of the “Handicapped union” which supplies the residents with urgent medical services in cooperation with the governmental organization and institutions concerned with this category of people. Medical services are available in Arsal, as there are many private clinics, pharmacies, doctors and nurses. The nearest hospitals are in Baalbeck and Hermel.
Arsal has been very active in the field of social institutions working on many developmental projects such as agriculture, handcrafts, education, environment, food processing, health, and others. Among these active non-governmental organizations are “Arsal Rural Development Association”. “Guidance Association”, “Herders Cooperative”, Food processing cooperative”, and “Public agriculture cooperative”. Over a span of 10nyears, these institutions were able to create partnerships with majors institutions, projects and programs which work in the field of development and research, such as the American University of Beirut, Oxfam, LARI, ICARDA, UNDP, CHF, and other international and non-governmental organization.
Administrative institutions and tenure conditions
There is an active elected municipality in Arsal of 18 council members and 4 “Mukhtars”. Some of the peripheral agricultural lands of Arsal are privately owned (ownership deeds) and others are still common lands that area jointly \owned and are publicly used by convention.
Similar to many other villages and towns of the region, the main infrastructure is missing in Arsal. Even though electricity and telephones are provided, water distribution to homes does not exist, water itself being rare. Residents buy water from tanks trailed by tractors. The paved roads in the village and its neighbourhoods are in bad shape, the agricultural roads are non-existent, and thus the quality of good transported to markets deteriorates in tractors and trucks driving on rough roads. Studies have estimate post-harvest losses in cherries grown in the higher elevation due to rough roads and dust around 30%.
The age and history of the town is obvious through the many ruins found there. In the southern part of town, an old water mill still stands near the remain of the old town inhabited by the residents of Arsal before they moved to the current location of the village. Old traditional houses are also found all over Arsal.
Local and international organizations that cooperated with ARDA and funded its projects:
Green Line (Beirut).
Byblos Ecology (Byblos).
Center for Research and Training on Development (CRTD, Beirut).
Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI).
Lebanese Ministry of Environment.
Lebanese Ministry of Culture.
Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs.
American University in Beirut (Faculty of Agriculture).
Oxfam (United Kingdom).
United Nations Development Program (UNDP, Agrobiodiversity project).
Food and agriculture organization (FAO).
International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).
Middle East Center for the Transfer of Appropriate Technology (MECTAT).
Royal Netherland Embassy in Lebanon.
German Embassy in Lebanon.
Canadian Embassy in Lebanon.