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Four Years After Garbage Crisis, Lebanon Grappling with Rubbish Stalemate

Garbage crisis lebanon
Workers clean the beach of the coastal town of Zouk Mosbeh, north of Beirut, on January 23, 2018 as garbage washed and piled along the shore after stormy weather. Photo: JOSEPH EID / AFP ©AFP ⁃ JOSEPH EID

Lebanon in 2019 is still grappling with the nation-wide garbage crisis that started four years ago. Back then, the authorities had not prepared any alternative after the exploitation contract of the Naameh landfill, the biggest in the country, came to an end in January 2014.

Rubbish piled up in the streets. In the summer months, the heat aggravated the stench and waste was often incinerated, with harmful consequences for the environment and public health.

On 21 July 2015, activists dumped rubbish outside the government headquarters in the capital Beirut. The widespread anger resulted in the emergence of the ‘You stink’ movement, which called out the government for its inaction, lack of vision and corruption.

In August and September of that year, several large-scale demonstrations were organized and were often met with police brutality.

According to activists and analysts, Lebanon’s endemic corruption is one of the root causes of the crisis. The inability of successive governments to agree on a proper sustainable waste management framework has seemingly been the result of leaders negotiating behind the scenes over which company should be granted profitable waste collection contracts. The bids were apparently launched on a geographic or confessional basis and the companies involved were associated with specific political figures and parties.

Akram Chehayeb, the former agriculture minister, proposed on 11 October 2015 a waste plan that entailed reopening the Naameh landfill to bury the rubbish that had accumulated in the streets. The plan also included the development of two other landfills: one in Akkar in northern Lebanon and one near the Anti-Lebanon Mountains on the Syrian border.

The proposal was met with fierce opposition from local residents in what are the country’s most impoverished areas who were concerned about their land’s conversion into a national dump. At the end of the year, the government announced that the waste from Beirut and Mount Lebanon would be exported to Russia for disposal, but the plan eventually fell through.

Another emergency plan was put forward by the government in March 2016 to expand two coastal landfills in Burj Hammoud, in north-east Beirut, and Costa Brava, in south Beirut. The Naameh landfill, which had been kept open for an additional two months, was permanently closed in May 2016.

The new plan sparked an outcry among environmental activists, politicians and local residents. Environmental groups blocked major roads into Beirut in protest.

One of the main concerns was that the construction of new coastal landfills would be a source of pollution for the marine environment. Activists called the project an ““environmental crime”” and accused the government of not considering  recycling plants.

Kataeb, a Christian political party, organized several sit-ins, but the government argued that the development of the two coastal sites was the only realistic option to avoid a repeat of 2015. In mid-January 2018, a storm littered the coastline from Beirut’s southern beaches to Keserwan in Mount Lebanon with tons of rubbish. Kataeb’s leader, Samy Gemayel, blamed the Costa Brava and Burj Hammoud landfills, claiming that the dykes supposed to protect the landfills had failed to withstand the rough weather.

Tarik al-Khatib, the former environment minister, denied the claim, instead pointing a finger at unregulated garbage dumps and waste thrown into waterways.

Landfills continue to be a contentious issue in Lebanon, with consequences on some unexpected sectors. In May 2019, the Alliance of Lawyers Against Corruption and Green Globe, an organization focusing on environmental issues, climate change and renewable energy, convened a joint news conference in which they presented the findings of a study on the repercussions of the Costa Brava landfill on the surrounding environment. The research showed that gas leaking from the landfill could reach the airport, 7less than 200 metres away, threatening aviation safety.

On 27 August, parliament adopted a waste management plan to establish 25 sanitary landfills throughout the country to replace the numerous unregulated garbage dumps. The new plan also imposes taxes on products such as nylon and plastic and calls for the separation of recyclable and non-recyclable rubbish at the source.

In addition, it foresees the implementation of incinerators. Two areas are particularly concerned by this measure, one in Deir Ammar, northern Lebanon, and one in south Beirut.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report in which it detailed the repercussions of the open burning of waste on the health of local residents. The symptoms included respiratory issues such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coughing, throat irritation and asthma.

Furthermore, incinerated waste produces carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions, which contribute to global warming.

The Waste Management Coalition, a group of 15 non-governmental organizations focusing on a more sustainable Lebanon, launched a campaign in 2018 to raise awareness about the health dangers of incinerators.

Also in 2018, Paula Yacoubian, an independent member of parliament, stated during a press conference, “They [the government] are insisting that European countries are using these [incinerators] in their capitals…. While it is true, these countries are trying to close down their incinerators … and are competing on who is greener. We are responsible for our health, not the Europeans.”

For  Ziad abi Chaker, the CEO of environmental and industrial engineering organization Cedar Environmental, “Incinerators are a cash cow, both on the construction phase and the operation phase.” Building a functional incinerator would cost at least $350 million and operating it would cost between $125 and $140 per ton of waste, he said.

However, incinerators and landfills may both be unnecessary. According to researchers at the American University of Beirut, only 10-12 percent of waste produced cannot be composted or recycled.

Whether it is incinerators or the multiplication of landfills, no long-term sustainable solution for the rubbish crisis seems to have been found at this stage, continuing to put Lebanon’s environment and public health at risk.

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