‘Sea’ of rubbish may engulf north Lebanon after landfill closes

Smouldering trash piles and a municipality with no money plague one of the country’s lushest regions

Piles of trash have been building up in Dannieh after the local landfill closed. Sunniva Rose / The National

The region of Dannieh in North Lebanon is known for having some of the country’s most beautiful forests and fertile lands.

Imposing mansions have been built on the mountain tops, towering over Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli. They stand as a tribute to the wealth accumulated by landowners who export nuts, fruits and vegetable to Gulf countries.

But the closure in early April of the local landfill, which had been in use for the past 17 years, means that the region could soon be overwhelmed by a “sea” of trash, warns Muhammad Saadieh, head of the union of Dannieh municipalities.

A combination of persistent mismanagement of funds set aside for municipalities by the state, coupled with a deepening economic crisis and health fears, threaten to cause a new garbage crisis in North Lebanon. Four years ago, demonstrations broke out because of the government’s failure to address a landfill closure near Beirut led to piles of rubbish choking up the streets.

Packed rubbish bags line a street in Jdeideh near Beirut after landfill sites were closed in 2016. REUTERS

Last week, ten days after the Adweh landfill shut down, half burnt piles of plastic bottles, biscuits packages, and Styrofoam food boxes litter the entrance of the village of Bakhoun, a stone’s throw away from the brand-new six-storey building which houses the union of Dannieh municipalities.

“People burn their garbage at night so they don’t get caught”, says a local policeman.

A few kilometres away, on the road to the landfill located close to the village of Adweh, smoke still rose from piles of trash despite the drizzle.

Without proper plans for waste disposal, many areas have turned to trash burning to handle local waste. The practice is illegal in Lebanon and while municipalities often blame private individuals the Health Ministry has issued charges against several local administrations in recent years for turning to the rudimentary and hazardous waste disposal method.

Hidden in the middle of a lush valley, above a river and facing a century-old aqueduct, the landfill near Adweh is out of sight, but the pungent smell seeps up the hill towards the nearby village.

Activity has ground to a halt. The only two men present, covered in grease from cleaning a bulldozer, say that there are normally over 40 employees. One hundred tons of trash used to be delivered here every day.

Locals are divided over the closure of the dumpsite, which operated illegally like 900 others in Lebanon in the absence of a proper state-drive waste management strategy.

Some say they would rather it open again to stop people littering the roads, while others want it to stay closed. One woman, who says she grew up in the area, reports that there has been an important rise in cancer in the village, in addition to nuisances brought by the garbage such as foul smell and mosquitoes.

The owner of the landfill, Moustafa Seif, says he was pressured by locals to close the landfill because of the stench, but denies that the landfill causes cancer.

"There are no cases of cancer but the smell is repulsive in some areas", he told The National.

However, he says adequate measures to tame the odour cannot be taken because local municipalities have not paid him for his services for nearly 7 months.

Mr Seif declined to disclose how much municipalities owed him, but Mr Saadieh said the amount totalled 500 million Lebanese pounds (Dh 1.2 million).

Mr Seif will not open his landfill again. “I’m done”, he says.

The reason municipalities are struggling to honour their payments is because the state fund which collects a dozen taxes on their behalf is not transferring the money.

Mr Saadieh remembers that the last time the union of Dannieh municipalities received a transfer was in January 2018. The state had already accumulated a delay of three years.

“This is the worst the situation has ever been”, he says. Municipalities, particularly small ones, are affected all over the country.

On Tuesday morning, President Michel Aoun approved the transfer of 700 billion Lebanese Pounds (Dh 1.7 billion) to municipalities for the year 2017. Mr Saadieh said that the exact amount attributed to each municipality will be made public later this week, but he expects this will just help cover their debts. In Dennieh, they amount to 200 million Lebanese Pounds just for the landfill (Dh 485,000). The garbage issue remains.

The Finance Ministry, which supervises the fund, has not disclosed why the transfers are late. While it is not uncommon for such disbursements from the central government to be years overdue, experts strongly suspect the worsening economic crisis might the underlying issue this time.

“The government is almost bankrupt right now”, says Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies (LCPS), a Beirut-based think tank. “It is probably not sending money to municipalities because it has huge bills to pay such as salaries in the public sector and transfers to [the national utility company] Electricite du Liban”.

Mr Atallah believes that the situation will only get worse. “Unfortunately, municipalities are not a top priority as the government is trying to tame the public deficit by reducing spending.” Lebanon’s public debt is around the third highest in the world at roughly 150 per cent of GDP – only supposed by the United States and Japan.

There are currently no immediate solutions to Dannieh’s garbage problem, though discussions are ongoing with the Environment Ministry.

The European Union has agreed to fund a 3 million euro (Dh 12.3m) a solid waste treatment plant. However, administrative delays have pushed back its construction date to next year, which means that Dannieh needs to find a temporary solution. Issues with operating previous EU-funded waste projects in Lebanon has shut several multi-million euro facilities and few are holding their breath for the Brussels-backed plan to fix the problem.

If nothing changes, Mr Saadieh says that he fears that the region will end up “covered in trash” like in Beirut three years ago.