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Republic of Rubbish

Trash crisis in Lebanon
Lebanese protesters wear garbage bags with masks of the Lebanese Cabinet ministers during a demonstration against the ongoing trash crisis, at the Martyrs square in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, 8 August 2015. Photo Bilal Hussein

On 17 July 2015, the al-Naameh dumpsite in Lebanon was forced by the area’s residents to close. The dumpsite in al-Naameh was supposed to be temporary: it had been chosen in 1998 to hold 2 million tonnes of waste for six years, in an arrangement made by the Lebanese government to give itself enough time to come up with a long-term waste-management plan after the closure of the Bourj Hammoud dump in 1997.

Seventeen years later, the al-Naameh dump had exceeded its capacity by 13 million tonnes. After years of complaints from the residents of the area that were totally ignored by consecutive governments, the people were fed up and in 2014 blocked the road to the dump to prevent trucks of Sukleen (the company contracted to manage the waste of Beirut and Mount Lebanone since 1994) from dumping rubbish there. The government promised them that it would come up with a solution within one year.

The year passed, and nothing changed, so the residents of al-Naameh and the surrounding villages blocked the dumpsite entrance again in January 2015. This time, the government convinced the protestors to clear the road and promised that a solution would be presented within six months, but again the government failed to keep its word.

The latest closure of the dumpsite, in July 2015, has triggered outbursts of popular anger in Lebanon, with protests organized outside the parliament building and a media outcry against the government’s incompetence in dealing with the crisis. But it has become evident that, for the past 18 years, the government not only found no proper waste-management solution, it never looked for one in the first place.

The result is that the Lebanese capital and Mount Lebanon are now drowning in rubbish, and the unbearable stench that has arisen under the summer sun is devastating the citizenry and damaging the already barely functional touristic and night-life sectors.

Government accountability

Lebanon has been without a president since May 2014, and parliament has extended its own mandate twice, unconstitutionally, after the government failed to agree on a new election law that was supposed to govern the parliamentary elections of 2012, which ended up being postponed indefinitely. The current caretaker government has certainly failed to address the rubbish issue, but its failure is only part of the problem.

The main culprit in the rubbish crisis is the Lebanese political and social system. The rubbish crisis is a two-decade problem that was never truly addressed, as consecutive Lebanese governments have failed to maintain international standards, be they environmental, economic, social, or in security. The accumulation of crises as a result of this continuous failure has resulted in today’s rubbish issue.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that Lebanon suffers from a lack of government accountability. The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Competitiveness report ranked Lebanon fourth in the world in terms of government inefficiency and worst or just above worst in the world in the categories of “ethics and corruption,” “public trust in politicians,” and “wastefulness of government spending,” while a new report by the International Crisis Group has flagged corruption in Lebanon as a continuing malady affecting government and society alike.

In a country in which politicians are frequently reported to engage in disputes over personal gain while paying scant attention to governance, Lebanon has come to lack a proper infrastructure to deal with crises. The lack of accountability by all previous governments is a major factor in the way the current government has behaved in the face of the rubbish crisis. The extension of the life span of the al-Naameh dump for one year and then for another six months was never intended to solve the problem but simply to forget it, as has been the habit in Lebanon for decades.

According to former minister Charbel Nahas, the main problem is that Sukleen was a state within a state, “maintained by common interests from all political parties” from all sectarian and ideological affiliations, “but that system [of political pie sharing] started collapsing” because individual interests prevailed. Consequently, the politicians in the current government rushed to divide this centralized semi-state into separate states in which “each has his own Sukleen.”

According to Nahas, this led to a dispute between the beneficiaries, and some have used the al-Naameh dumpsite issue as a tool to apply pressure. Nahas has questioned why this issue has come up only now, despite having been a problem for more than 11 years. In his view, this is simply a matter of political pressure between the disputing parties: “they don’t care if people are overwhelmed with rubbish, they don’t care that 3000 employees are now unemployed because Sukleen is closing down, they don’t care that no one knows who exactly all those trucks and equipment and containers belong to…. People should wake up and start being aware that this is not just a matter of rubbish.”

The protestors on the streets, who are increasing in number with each protest, albeit slowly, are aware of those disputes.

The absence of governance

Had the political governance system in Lebanon not been broken, an urgent crisis committee would have been formed to deal with the situation, control the damage, come up with a short-term solution, and then devise a long-term plan and begin to implement it.

Even though this crisis has not been caused directly by the current crippled government, it has been magnified by it, and ordinary Lebanese citizens are clearly feeling the utter incompetence of their political leaders.

The future of this issue, like the future of the whole country, seems totally unknown. Many fear a domino effect, in which the country plunges into a series of economic, political, and humanitarian crises with no mechanism to contain them.

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