Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Lebanon's garbage crisis reveals political paralysis

Lebanon's garbage crisis reveals political paralysis

It's 2014 and it's a beautiful summer evening in Lebanon. As the heat of the day subsides, and the rubicund sun slowly sinks into the shimmering azure sea, breathe deep and you can inhale a malodorous scent that gently wafts up from the pile of burning trash emanating from the Karantina waste processing plant near the upmarket Christian suburbs of Achrafiyeh. 

Good times. But those days are now over. Lebanon has been suffering from a different challenge to the ones I anticipated it would face this summer. This year the problem is far more personal and a whole lot less savoury.

On 17 July Beirut's residents discovered to their dismay that the city's key landfill site at Naameh was full, and until another one could be procured, their rubbish would stay on the streets. The site at Naameh was in fact not so much full as overflowing. This triggered a protest by nearby residents who blockaded the entrance and prevented access to the site after the Government failed to deliver on an earlier promise to find a new facility. Sukleen, the private waste management contractor, then refused to continue its collection services until a new dumping ground could be located.

Compounding the problem was the fact that Sukleen's contract expired on 17 July and the government had not renewed it.

The garbage strike by Sukleen coincided with a heatwave across the Middle East that pushed temperatures up to 50C° in Beirut. The heatwave clearly did not help stem the stench of an estimated 8000 to 22,000 tonnes of rubbish that piled up on the streets at the height of the crisis.*

At this point it might be worth mentioning that the Lebanese sewage system is unable to process tissue paper, so a great deal of household waste comprises human waste. [fold]

The rubbish mountain got so bad near the airport that it raised concerns that fumes and smoke from burning trash was elevating ground temperatures and risked affecting the ability of aircraft to land and take off. Residents took to burning the rubbish on the streets to help eliminate the smell, but in the process released potentially hazardous toxic gases. One temporary dumpsite was close to the Bakalian Mill (one of Lebanon's larger flour mills), eliciting threats of closure from the company due to health concerns and prompting a brief scare over a bread shortage. 

At the bottom of this crisis is the ever-increasing paralysis of Lebanon's political system. 

The issue at hand is where to locate new landfill sites, and no politician in Lebanon wants to be the one to offer to pollute their constituency. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Naameh landfill was only supposed to have supported 2 million tonnes of rubbish, but until its closure had accepted somewhere between 15 and 20 million tonnes. The area around Naameh already suffers from unacceptable levels of olfactory pollution and residents in other areas are understandably not keen to become victims to the same problem. 

Solutions have been put forward by various political leaders. Hizbullah suggested each region of Lebanon build its own landfill site, but thus far resistance to the idea has come from both local residents and other political leaders. Another proposition advised exporting Lebanon's waste to Germany where processing would be cheaper; but yet again, there has been no agreement from politicians.

The Ministry of the Environment put forward a list of potential sites in areas already destroyed by mining. A nice idea until you factor in the poor suitability of these sites, many of which sit 300m above sea level and thus run the risk of causing toxic waste to sink through into the water table. The suggestion prompted prominent Christian leader Samir Geagea to tweet 'It is not acceptable by any standards to have landfills at an altitude of over 1000 metres, as this would contaminate our underground water and pose a threat to the health of Christians', highlighting the confessional nature of the debate.

Other more ingenious solutions to the problem have emerged. One engineer recently demonstrated his not yet perfected invention in Sassine Square in Beirut: a machine that can compact rubbish and turn it into fuel in 15 minutes. 

To avert a potential health crisis, a temporary solution has now been found, which is to say no real solution at all. As the government continues to disagree and prevaricate, the rubbish has disappeared from the streets. But no one knows quite where it is being dumped.

Public reactions to the garbage crisis have been furious at the individual level but as yet have not gained sufficient collective momentum to unduly concern politicians. Some small protests were held in Beirut and a campaign aptly entitled 'You Stink' was launched. With the current water and electricity shortages, it's hard to know what will be the final straw that breaks the back of Lebanon's beleaguered civilians. 

A recent report by the International Crisis Group highlighted how deep in the proverbial the Lebanese Government currently is. The position of president remains vacant since Michel Sleiman's term ended on 25 May 2014, owing to the inability of politicians to agree on a suitable replacement. The head of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Jean Kahwagi, passed the official retirement age of 60 in September 2013 but has not been replaced, again owing to a lack of agreement on a suitable candidate.

Meanwhile, sub-state organisations like Hizbullah continue to prosecute a war that the state of Lebanon has not signed up to. Islamic parties in Tripoli and surrounds, some of whom support ISIS, are steadily increasing their influence among the local population in the absence of credible Sunni leadership at the national level.

With the high influx of Syrian refugees, high unemployment, a hefty brain drain, a declining economy and a diminishing vision of national unity, the country appears to be moving ever closer to the conditions that triggered the 1975-1990 civil war.

*Correction: Sukleen has stated that the company did not go on strike, but continued collecting after the end of the contract until its plants were at capacity.

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