In 2015, Lebanon hit the international headlines because its streets, public spaces and shores were covered with garbage. The scale of the crisis was illustrated by a memorable photograph depicting a river of trash, winding through the Beirut suburb of Jdeideh. Today, the situation may have improved slightly, but it is far from resolved.
The crisis began in July 2015 with the closure of a landfill in Naameh, 18km south of the capital, which had reached capacity. The shutdown of that one site left the waste-collection company Sukleen without anywhere to put the tons of garbage it collected and forced it to halt operations. Beirut was overcome by the stench of a broken system. Rotting waste piled up on the streets and angry citizens marched on parliament. Directing their anger at politicians, whose inaction now threatened to bury the country in its own filth, they rallied under the slogan "You stink!" and demanded an overhaul of the entire political system.
But how did rubbish collection become such a hot-button issue in the first place? The root of the problem is that there has never been a concerted effort to properly manage this vital public service in Lebanon. Since the end of the country’s civil war in 1990, the nation relied on a plan that boiled down to dumping half of its refuse – mainly that produced by the capital – in Naameh. Cash-strapped municipalities elsewhere were left to fend for themselves, often working with illegal dumping sites and openly burning vast amounts of garbage. This situation has been clearly unsustainable for many years. The limited capacity of the Naameh landfill, for instance, was well known to experts and members of the government, but contingencies for its eventual closure were never drawn up.
Unfortunately, that is not surprising. Like many other public services in Lebanon – most notably electricity and water – waste disposal is rife with mismanagement and corruption. In fact, it has a long and unenviable history as such. In 1987, at the height of the civil war, the right-wing Lebanese Forces party took millions of dollars from the Italian mafia to dispose of toxic waste in the heavily populated Mount Lebanon area. After an amnesty on crimes committed during the war was passed in 1992, the culprits were absolved, while the party now sits in the Lebanese government.
Lebanon is a nation dominated by sectarian politics and a confessional parliamentary system. This makes consensus difficult to reach on even the most basic matters. Its public services are crumbling and the government is preparing to impose an austerity budget, which includes pay cuts for public-sector employees. The prospect of this has brought workers at the national bank out on strike this week.
Successive iterations of Lebanon’s government have failed to provide a long-term solution to the country’s waste-management crisis. Measures such as an effective recycling programme that limits the amount of refuse that has to be dumped have barely even been discussed. Instead, a quick fix has been agreed. The opening of new regulated landfill sites has been announced and, in September, a law was passed allowing the use of incinerators.
Plans for the construction of these facilities, which have been postponed until next year, have been met with widespread public concern. Managing them is a costly, high-maintenance task. Then there is the fact that most of Lebanon’s waste, which is not sorted or processed in any way, is not suitable for burning and could create serious health hazards if it were to be handled in this manner.
That much is already known, though. The September law also banned the open dumping and the burning of waste. Yet, 900 illegal landfills still operate in Lebanon, and the burning of rubbish remains common practice for private individuals and some municipalities. The resulting fumes are highly toxic, contain a range of carcinogens and have been shown to increase the incidence of respiratory problems in those who live nearby.
In a recent report titled "As If You're Inhaling Your Death": The Health Risks of Burning Waste in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch stated that 150 landfill sites across the country are openly burning garbage every week. "We are coughing all the time, unable to breathe," said Othman, a man who lives near one such dump. "Sometimes we wake up and see ash in our spit." The NGO also found that the open burning of waste disproportionately affects the poorest areas in Lebanon, where many residents lack proper access to healthcare.
Just last week, large garbage fires were lit in Dinnieh, east of Tripoli, following the closure of the area's only illegal landfill site. The owner told The National that he was forced to cease operations, thanks to an unpaid Dh1.2 million bill racked up by the local authorities. The closure of the dump has fuelled a wider problem in north Lebanon, with uncollected rubbish now piling up in streets and town squares.
Beirut has not fully addressed its waste issues, either. Last August, parliament decided to widen landfills in the districts of Bourj Hammoud and Jdeideh, which dealt with nearly half of the waste produced by the capital and the Mount Lebanon area. However, both of those sites will reach capacity by August 2019.
This, in turn, raises the question of what to do with landfill sites that have outlived their usefulness. The infamous 52-metre “garbage mountain” that towered over the southern coastal city of Sidon provides a perfect example. In 2016, this colossal heap of rubbish, which could once be smelled from miles away, was turned into a verdant public park, in a Dh91m project overseen by the United Nations Development Programme.
This successful initiative could be replicated in other areas of Lebanon and the blight of illegal landfills and burning sites removed from the lives of thousands of citizens. However, right now, the public has little faith in the government’s ability to safely manage the new incinerators and draw up a workable plan to keep yet more piles of putrefying waste off the nation’s streets.