Lebanon’s capital drowning in an ocean of trash

Residents are burning garbage in the streets as politicians fail to find a solution for mountains of uncollected trash.

Beirut trash
The stench of uncollected garbage has permeated the streets of Beirut, compounded as some residents have opted to burn the trash [Reuters]

Beirut – Hundreds of protesters showed up in the sweltering summer heat on Saturday evening in downtown Beirut to demonstrate against the sea of garbage taking over the capital’s streets, as Lebanon’s politicians have failed to find a solution.

Using the slogan “You Stink!”, and amid a significant security presence, the protesters called for the government to fall. They chanted about moving the garbage – uncollected for a week now – from the streets to the homes of Lebanon’s parliament members. 

Piles of garbage in some areas of the city have risen to several metres in height, as political bickering has stymied any resolution.

“I’m angry, not just at this, but at the general dysfunction of the country,” local entrepreneur Nasri Atallah told Al Jazeera at the protest.

“Our ‘political class’ has consistently shown complete disregard for our health, our wellbeing, and our rights as citizens of this country.”

Still, some protesters expressed pessimism about the outcome of their demonstration.

“This won’t make a difference,” said Karim, a 30-year-old resident of Gemayze. “It needs to be bigger and angrier.”

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Describing the mountains of trash that had gathered outside his house, he noted: “It’s impossible to breathe; it’s really disgusting, especially as these are the hottest days of the year.”

The stench from the thousands of tonnes of uncollected garbage has permeated the streets of Beirut, and has been compounded as some residents have opted to burn the trash in the cans, releasing toxic gases into the air.

Latest reports from Beirut said waste collection resumed on Sunday after a temporary deal was found to begin taking garbage to several landfills in undisclosed locations.

“Coordination is now under way for trash to be taken from treatment plants to these places and for the restarting of street sweeping and collection of trash from the streets,” the official National News Agency quoted Mouhamad Machnouq, Lebanon’s environment minister, as saying.

He said the resumption came “after an understanding was reached on the areas where the trash will be treated”, without specifying where those areas were.

Earlier, Beirut’s local waste collection company, Sukleen, stopped collecting the trash following the closure of the Naameh landfill due to overcapacity.

You can't sit outside any more, because the smell wafts around you, and wherever you walk you're tripping over garbage.

by Hassan Ali, Beirut resident

“We are literally knee-deep in s***,” said one Beirut resident, 32-year-old Hassan Ali.

“You can’t sit outside any more, because the smell wafts around you, and wherever you walk you’re tripping over garbage.”

The issue of closing Naameh emerged in January 2014, when residents and activists called for the site to close due to overcapacity and environmental hazards.

Blocking the road to incoming garbage trucks, they forced the issue with politicians and officials, who promised to address it in exchange for extending the landfill’s operations for another year.

At the start of this year, activists again blocked the road leading to the landfill, claiming the overflow of garbage was a health hazard as the waste was not being treated properly.

The government again promised to address the issue, vowing to keep the landfill open for another six months, during which they aimed to find an alternative.

But nothing was done, and when the landfill finally shut down on July 17, the garbage – about 3,000 tonnes a day from Beirut and Mount Lebanon – was left uncollected on the streets.

“Everyone knew for the last six months that the landfill would close, but the government did nothing about it,” Ajwad Atrache, an activist for the Closure of Naameh Landfill group, told Al Jazeera.

“We are in the situation we are in today because of the government’s incompetence and its corrupt measures.”

Naameh was originally opened in 1996 as an emergency solution for garbage dumping, with a mandate to hold two million tonnes of waste for a period of two years until a more viable solution could be found.

“It is now almost 20 years later, and 20 million tonnes of trash has been dumped there,” he said.

“This is completely unacceptable, and we will continue to block the roads day and night until we get a decree from the government and an official decision has been taken.”

Lebanon, which has been without a president for over a year, has a parliament that took it upon itself to extend its own mandate by bypassing general elections.

The cabinet is on the brink of collapse. Politicians from opposing sides have been quick to blame each other for the trash crisis, but a cabinet session that was supposed to address the issue on Thursday failed to even broach it.

“The political deadlock is a huge contributing factor to the issue because there is no strong central government who can look at the options and find the most feasible one,” Lama Bashour, director of Ecocentra, an environmental consultancy agency, told Al Jazeera. “They’re not even agreeing to sit down and agree about it.”

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At the same time, other municipalities with other landfills are also refusing to take in Beirut’s trash, “afraid that what happened to Naameh, the overcapacity and continual extensions, will also happen to them”, Bashour said.

Some are also accusing Sukleen, the waste management company in charge of collecting trash from Beirut and Mount Lebanon, of bearing some responsibility.

Salim el-Sayeh, Lebanon’s former minister of social affairs and current vice president of the Kataeb Party, says Sukleen has overcharged taxpayers for its services, but failed to treat the waste properly.

“There is a de facto situation in Lebanon where you have a monopoly of one company treating most of the waste … which has developed a web of interdependence between politics and business, so any opening up of the market or change to the situation leads to resistance [from the monopolising forces],” Sayeh told Al Jazeera.

One suggestion made by Machnouq, the environment minister, involves creating local dump sites in villages and towns across Beirut and Mount Lebanon, the regions most affected by the crisis.

“That’s just ridiculous,” Atrache said. “That basically means 293 more dump sites, which is absolutely not a solution. Instead of educating the people on recycling, he is choosing to pollute all the other villages.”

But according to Sayeh, whose party has political influence in the Mount Lebanon region, this option is one of the most viable for the short term. “The idea is to let each district gather its own trash in a ‘parking’ site away from populated areas.”

For the time being, citizens have taken matters into their own hands, with more than 200 dumpsters set on fire across the city in an attempt to reduce the overflow.

“The fact they are burning the trash in the streets is now more alarming because of the toxic emissions,” Bashour said.

Source: Al Jazeera