Seagulls at Beirut airport a symptom of Lebanon's crisis

Birds attracted to rotting waste at nearby landfill site pose a safety threat to aircraft

Hunters shoot down seagulls that are attracted by the garbage at the Costa Brava dump, on January 14, 2017 near Beirut's International Airport.
Costa Brava was opened in March last year as one of three "temporary" tips intended to provide an interim solution after the closure of the main landfill receiving waste from Beirut.
The dumps were eventually intended to have waste processing facilities, but that has not happened.
As a result, garbage has piled up in Costa Brava, on the coastline close to the airport runways, reaching nine metres (30 feet) in some places. / AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO
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A long-running saga involving seagulls, Beirut International Airport and Middle East Airlines (MEA) has threatened to rear its head again in Lebanon.

The country’s only international airport sits near the Costa Brava landfill site — described by one observer as an "open dump", a symptom of its repeated waste crises.

The rotting waste has been blamed for attracting a host of scavenging seagulls, which pose a danger to aircraft landing and taking off at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport.

In 2017, after an incoming plane had a near miss with a large flock of the birds, Lebanon's national airline came up with a radical plan to cull them. Then-transport minister Youssef Fenianos had warned of an “emergency … posed to civil aviation movement by the birds”.

Current MEA chairman Mohamad El Hout is now repeating threats of a cull. This month, in an interview with local channel Al Jadeed, he demanded action, urging the Interior Ministry and security forces to intervene “or permit the MEA to bring in hunters”.

But to do so would be an "international environmental crime", said Paul Abi Rached, president of the Lebanon Eco Movement.

“We can find many other ways to push them away from the airport … you should use all the ways you have but you cannot kill them," he told The National.

In 2017, MEA contracted 125 hunters who killed more than 10,000 seagulls. Mr El Hout defended the move at the time, arguing that passenger safety must be the priority.

But it has not turned out to be a long-term solution. Rights groups have for years been warning that Lebanon's repeated short-term measures to remedy its waste management system were simply a stopgap that failed to tackle the heart of the issue.

Costa Brava was opened in 2016 supposedly as a temporary site to provide an interim solution after the closure of the main landfill receiving waste from Beirut.

Mr Abi Rached said it was a “government mistake” to choose this location. “The landfill is the problem, not the seagulls," he said.

He pointed out that the birds' annual winter migration from Europe to Lebanon was part of their natural life cycle.

Environment Minister Nasser Yassin, who did not respond to requests for comment, recently said his ministry had proposed noise machines at the airport to scare off the seagulls — but had not received a response from the interior department.

Environmental groups have pointed out that Lebanon is a signatory to international treaties that protect birds such as seagulls, and they are say the focus should be on what attracts the seagulls — the Lebanese rubbish crisis and the Costa Brava landfill site.

“The right solution would be to eradicate the causes attracting the birds and the closure of the Costa Brava landfill,” the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon said in 2017.

Some unfortunate events have taken place at Beirut’s airport, including celebratory gunfire in nearby areas on December 31 hitting two stationary aircraft.

Lebanon is embroiled in a political crisis, with no president since the end of October and a caretaker government severely stripped of power.

Updated: January 17, 2023, 4:56 PM