Lebanese protest against waste-disposal crisis

Anger mounts in Beirut over government’s failure to act as more than 20,000 tonnes of rubbish fill streets.

Beirut trash
The stench of uncollected refuse in the streets of Beirut is a stark reminder of the crisis of government afflicting Lebanon [AP]

Residents and activists from across Lebanon have protested in Beirut’s downtown district against the government’s perceived failure to address a mounting waste-management crisis.

Garbage has been collecting on the streets of the Lebanese capital following the closure of the main landfill a week ago.

Nour Samaha, reporting for Al Jazeera from Beirut on Saturday, said at least 1,000 protesters gathered in Riad el-Solh Square in the afternoon, demanding the government’s resignation for what they called its inability to overcome political differences and neglect of environmental and health concerns.

Carrying placards, symbolic garbage bags and wearing paper masks, the protesters, which included people from across the sectarian and political spectrum, placed the responsibility on both the government and the main waste-management company, Sukleen.

“I’m here because this issue directly affects me, the garbage is literally outside my front door,” Wael Saleh, a protester, told Al Jazeera.

“I would’ve hoped more people would’ve come, but this is still good. Maybe it will force the government to pay attention.”

Just hours after the protest, Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk announced that the collection of garbage will be resumed, adding that a final decision was reached over the location of new landfill sites.

Residents walking by the rubbish spilling out of dumpsters and into the paths of passing cars have been using their shirts or scarves to cover their noses and protect themselves from the smell.

The growing heaps have been dusted with white poison powder to keep away rats and insects, but the measure does little to combat the odour.

We closed all doors & windows with wet blankets, the smell and smoke are unbearable! my mom is suffocating #Beirut #sukleen

Ordinarily, Beirut’s trash is disposed of at the Naameh landfill in the mountains southeast of the city, the endpoint for waste produced by around half of Lebanon’s four million citizens.

Since the landfill closure, the main waste-management company Sukleen stopped collecting rubbish, saying it had no place to dispose the garbage.

The stench of uncollected refuse in the streets of Beirut is a stark reminder of the crisis of government afflicting Lebanon, where politicians divided by local and regional conflicts have been unable to agree on where to dump the capital’s rubbish.

The tip at Naameh had already been kept open well beyond its planned closure date.

The date set for its final closure – July 17 – was known, but the authorities had no ready alternative when the day came.

Residents in Naameh made sure the landfill remained closed by blocking the roads leading to it.

They say the site cannot take any more rubbish and are fed up living next to the site that opened in 1997.

The landfill was meant to receive only two million tonnes of rubbish from the capital and the heavily populated Mount Lebanon area for only a few years until a comprehensive solution was devised.

It swelled into a trash mountain of over 15 million tonnes.

“In Beirut, it’s only been four or five days of garbage and people already can’t take it. We have been dealing with Lebanon’s trash for the last 17 years,” said Youssef Halabi, a 28-year-old resident of Aramoun village near the landfill.

“We can’t open our windows because of the gases coming off the dump,” Halabi told the AFP news agency. “I’ve invited ministers to come to my place and see if they can tolerate it.”

Marwan Rizkallah, a solid-waste management expert, said that not only a new landfill site will be needed, but Lebanon also has to adopt recycling and better home sorting of trash so the organic matter that he says constitutes more than 50 percent of its garbage can be composted.

All that will require government action, which seems unlikely in the short-term, as the parliament and cabinet both remain politically paralysed and the presidency left vacant for over a year.

The environment minister said the rubbish problem is a reflection of the political stalemate in the country.

He estimated that more than 20,000 tonnes of rubbish were piled up in the streets.

“We reached this crisis because of the current political conflict in Lebanon. We could have solved this subject seven months ago and not have a crisis,” Machnouk said.

“We should cooperate with everyone in Lebanon to find landfills for Beirut and its suburbs because there are no possibilities of land at all in Beirut itself and its suburbs.”

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies