Beirut's beaches blighted by the rubbish crisis

The decision to dump mountains of trash at sea could threaten its tourist trade

A truck pours earth into the Mediterranean sea to extend the closed Bourj Hammoud land fill on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital Beirut. The Bourj Hammoud solid waste dump occupies a surface area of 16.3 hectares and rises to about 55 m above sea level. Patrick Baz / AFP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

There is no better way to beat Beirut's stifling summer heat than a relaxing swim in the Mediterranean.
The topic of which is the best beach and how early one should go – important  in a city that likes to party until dawn – provokes lively debate.
But since the revelations about rubbish being dumped in the sea because of the capital's waste-management crisis, there are more important questions – Is it clean? Is it safe?
When Lebanon shut its largest rubbish dump in 2015, piles of refuse flooded the streets and public anger soon turned into mass protests against the government. The eventual solution, introduced last year, was to open two seaside dumps on the edge of Beirut.
Activists and waste management experts railed against the plan, warning that refuse and toxic materials could find their way into the sea and pose a significant health threat to people and marine life.
Those fears, although still relevant, were overshadowed by videos on social media showing lorries dumping waste from a decades-old landfill into the sea last month, and the admission by the environment minister that this was happening.

A dead fish floats in opaque, sheeny water at the Bourj Hammoud fishing port, just outside Beirut. Located next to a disused, decades-old garbage dump and now a new landfill, fishermen are complaining that pollution caused by waste is killing off fish and impacting their profits. Josh Wood for The National

Dr Najat Saliba, a chemistry professor at the American University of Beirut who studies pollution, is taking no chances. She no longer eats fish caught off the coast and refuses to swim at beaches.

While the environmental damage of the seaside dumps is still being assessed, Dr Saliba suspects toxic materials including carcinogens are finding their way into the sea, and into the fish that end up on dinner tables.

“I don’t think people are aware of the severity of the problem, and I think it is the role of the government to make sure people know the dangers of just going to the beach and swimming in the sea,” she said.

The beaches remain packed this summer and one of Lebanon’s most upmarket resorts is advertising that the water off its beach has been tested and declared safe.

The Lebanon Transparency Association has spent recent months exposing what is going on at the rubbish dumps, filming seaside landfills with drones to show water discolouration offshore. The group also shot the footage of lorries dumping waste into the sea.

Filming underwater off the Costa Brava dump next to Lebanon’s only airport, the activists found poor water visibility, which they say is caused by the landfill.

The diver employed by the group vomited five times when he surfaced because of the smell, said Ayman Dandash, the activists’ manager. Filming off the Bourj Hammoud landfill next to the port was considered to be too dangerous.

Mr Dandash said the government hoped to hide the waste problem by putting the dumps in out-of-the-way places.

Construction vehicles dismantle a decades-old mountain of garbage next to the Bourj Hammoud fishing port. Activists and the Lebanon's environment minister have said that the waste is being dumped in the water for land reclamation. Josh Wood for The National

“The Lebanese people do not want to see garbage so any solution – just so that they don’t see garbage in the street – they will agree to,” he said.

In 2015, downtown Beirut was crippled by protests against the waste crisis. The demonstrations, initially against the build-up of rubbish, swiftly evolved into protest against the Lebanese government, corruption and parliamentarians who have cancelled elections.

Now, keeping refuse off the streets is important to the government.

“Until now we didn’t have any long-term plan and there are no promises about the environment in Lebanon,” said Mr Dandash. “What’s happening until now is just a small solution to calm down people on the street.”

He and his group are convinced that Lebanon’s rich and powerful will use the landfill sites for future reclamation projects at the expense of the environment.

Their concern is justified. As services broke down during Lebanon’s 1975 to 1990 civil war, Beirut residents threw everything from household rubbish to war debris into a makeshift landfill site on the Mediterranean on the edge of downtown Beirut.

After the war, the partly submerged dump was used to reclaim land and is today the site of upscale developments.

The fear now is that the Bourj Hammoud garbage mountain, another civil war-era dump next to the new Bourj Hammoud landfill, will be used in the same way.

Coastal pollution is already affecting those whose livelihoods depend on the sea.

The Bourj Hammoud garbage mountain looms over a small fishing port outside Beirut’s city limits.

The stench is unmissable, but the dump is being torn apart by diggers and a stream of lorries carrying away decades of waste, which activists say is being dumped in the sea.

“When there is so much garbage and pollution in the water, the fish run away,” said Kamil, 52, as the crew of his skiff unloaded a modest catch. “The fish are like us. They smell something bad, they move away.”

Abdul Rahman, 32, has been a fisherman since childhood. Life has always been tough, with meagre wages for long nights at sea. But since the seaside dumps opened, things are even tougher.

He used to land between 70 and 100 kilograms of fish a night. These days it is often as little as 20kg, even though he goes further out to sea and uses twice as many nets.

“The garbage affects the sea a lot. It kills the small fish,” he said. “Nobody cares about the fishermen.”

Dead fish floated by on the oily water as he spoke.

The landfills were meant to be an emergency solution to roads blocked by rubbish heaps and the nightly fires at dumps that left Beirut blanketed in a smelly haze. But they are likely to reach capacity within two years.

“Time is passing, there is no clear strategy. It needs a political decision and agreement among all parties,” said Marwan Rizkallah, an expert on waste management with the Lebanon Environmental Pollution Abatement Project.

“I think this is serious and waste will pile in the streets if nothing is done shortly.”

Lebanon’s largest dump, in Naameh, south of Beirut, was opened in 1998. It was meant to operate for only a few years. It was closed after 17 years and then only because activists and residents blocked access to it.

After the Naameh experience, municipalities across the country are reluctant to create new landfills.

Mr Rizkallah is not optimistic. Waste-to-energy plants could clear up the rubbish and help the chronically overloaded electricity grid but they would take years to build. Bringing in measures to minimise waste would also take time.

“This is a process that takes a lot of time and we still haven’t started it yet,” he said. “And we needed to start yesterday.”