Explained: Why Lebanon has an ongoing trash problem

Activists say that the government is too dysfunctional and corrupt to implement long-term solutions

A general view shot taken on March 30, 2016, shows trucks dumping their load at the Naameh landfill, just south of the Lebanese capital, Beirut. (Photo by PATRICK BAZ / AFP)
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Before the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, most of Beirut’s waste was dumped in Qarantina, a run-down neighbourhood near the city's port. But that stopped in 1976 after its majority Muslim inhabitants were massacred by a Christian militia.

As the war continued, Beirut was divided in two and movement became difficult. In 1978, the capital’s municipality decided to dump most of the capital’s garbage in the sea.

East Beirut’s rubbish went to Bourj Hammoud, a poor suburb that housed mainly Armenian refugees who had fled genocide.

The small coastal dump grew exponentially over the following decades, covering Bourj Hammoud’s sandy beaches and standing more than 40 metres high by the mid-1990s.

Environmental NGO Greenpeace reported that in 1987, a Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, dumped 2,000 barrels of smuggled toxic waste from Italy in Bourj Hammoud. The party denies such accusations.

West Beirut’s waste piled up in the city centre in what was known locally as the Normandy dump. By 1994, it had reached 5 million cubic metres. Half of its volume was under sea level, reaching depths of 20m, according to a research paper published in 2000 by Salah Sadek and Mutasem El Fadel, two researchers at the American University of Beirut.

After the end of the war, American engineering firm URS treated the Normandy garbage dump. The refuse was mixed with sand and war-time rubble from downtown Beirut to create the foundation of what was supposed to become the capital’s finance centre.

“This is where the Dubai of Lebanon was supposed to emerge,” said Eric Verdeil, a professor of urban studies at Sciences Po University in Paris and a specialist in Lebanon’s post-war reconstruction.

This has yet to happen. The planned skyscrapers were never built. Apart from an exhibition centre, a few nightclubs and high-end gyms, the area resembles a large concrete car park.

The neighbourhood of Bourj Hammoud was not deemed attractive enough for high-end real estate plans. Its dump, which covered close to 40 hectares, remained open until local protests forced authorities to close it in 1997.

The rubbish was covered with a layer of soil for temporary protection but remained untreated, according to a 2009 report commissioned by the local municipality. It produced “obnoxious smells” and “its leachate infiltrating the sea destroyed sea life within a radius of hundreds [of] metres".

After the closure of Bourj Hammoud dump, the waste from Beirut and its suburbs was sent to a newly opened landfill inland near the southern city of Naameh.

After years of protests by residents, this dump was also closed in 2015. But there was no alternative waste disposal plan, so refuse sat, uncollected, for weeks in the sweltering heat in the streets of the capital, creating the 2015 rubbish crisis.

The government responded by commissioning two private companies to build three new coastal landfills in 2016: one in Bourj Hammoud, one nearby in Jdeideh, and one in the southern suburb of Costa Brava.

At the time, activists and journalists voiced concerns about the two landfills of Bourj Hammoud and Jdeideh which were built on reclaimed land on the sea.

Architect Fadi Mansour, who documented the construction of the landfills for his master’s thesis, said that the toxicity of the landfill was never assessed, and waste was buried in the sea months before the breakwater barrier was completed in 2017.

“God knows what was in that mountain of waste and it was just dumped into the sea,” he said.

Bourj Hammoud landfill closed in February 2019. Today, the Jdeideh and Costa Brava landfills receive waste from the capital and about 250 municipalities in the region.

With a few exceptions, the rest of the country has no proper landfills, just hundreds of illegal dumps.

“The 2016 fix was just another short-term emergency measure, the latest in a string of emergency plans adopted after the end of the civil war in 1990,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2017.

The government never implemented long-term, environment-friendly solutions because it is “dysfunctional”, said Mr Verdeil.

“No municipality wants to bring down the price of its real estate. So dumps end up on the coast in poor areas, whether in Beirut, or other big cities like Saida or Tripoli,” he said.

For Samar Khalil, an environmental management specialist, the government has no interest in a long-term solution because corrupt politicians profit financially from juicy contracts signed with friendly private contractors.

Contractors The National spoke to deny such allegations.

Lebanon’s sectarian politics intensifies squabbling between municipalities over where to dump waste, said Ms Khalil.

“You have people saying I don’t want Sunni garbage in a Shiite area, or I don’t want Christian garbage in a Sunni area, etc.” she said.

“It’s like everything in this country, there is no vision or long-term strategy,” added Ms Khalil.

“Our waste is religious,” agreed a high-level employee of the waste sector in Lebanon who spoke anonymously.

“Everyone is sensitive about the issue because there is a lot of corruption related to waste, the location of dumps and the municipalities involved.”