UN: Lebanon's development 'annihilated'

"The damage is such that the last 15 years of work on reconstruction and rehabilitation, following the previous problems that Lebanon experienced, are now annihilated," said Jean Fabre, a spokesman for the UN Development Programme (UNDP) on Tuesday.

Lebanon's relatively healthy progress towards the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which cover a range of social and economic targets, "have been brought back to zero," he told journalists.

"Fifteen years of work have been wiped out in a month."

Fabre estimated that overall economic losses for Lebanon from the month-long conflict between Israel and Hezbollah totalled "at least 15 billion dollars, if not more".

Lebanese authorities estimated last week that direct structural damage inflicted by the offensive reached 3.6 billion dollars, including 15,000 housing units, 80 bridges and 94 roads destroyed or damaged.

About 35,000 homes and businesses were destroyed in the conflict, while a quarter of the country's road bridges or flyovers were shattered, according to the UNDP's initial estimate.

Fabre underlined that Lebanon, which had already added to its debt with post-civil war reconstruction, would find it difficult to foot the bill for even more investment.

"The debt of the country was so big already that the capacity to repay it was already insufficent. Now it won't be able to do that," he explained.

UN agencies said it would take weeks to assess the full extent of the damage in south Lebanon and southern Beirut.

The most urgent issues are the need for clean water and sanitation and to clear unexploded munitions, relief agencies said Tuesday.

Underground waterpipes and sewers were destroyed in 10 out of 12 war-struck communities visited by the UN Children's Fund in recent days, and a similar scale of damage was reported elsewhere.

"Everywhere we go... everybody is talking about water and the need for it," said Paul Sherlock, a UNICEF water specialist.

To stave off more immediate needs, 100,000 litres of bottled water will be delivered every week to villages in southern Lebanon where thousands of people have tried to return to their homes, the agency said.

Meanwhile, temporary water tanks will gradually be set up in Nabatiyeh and villages along the Israeli border until water systems are restored.

"There's a huge job to be done on the infrastructure," Sherlock said.

"But access to water also runs into the problem with unexploded ordnance, because you have to dig among the rubble to sort pipework out, so it's a very dangerous game right now," he added.

At least five Lebanese children were killed in recent days when they picked up unexploded munitions, and more than a dozen have been injured, UNICEF said.

Copyright 2006 Agence France Presse.

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