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Beirut’s trash war pushes Lebanon to the brink

Activists shutting down a landfill in the Lebanese town of Naameh has made the trash pile up in the capital, reports Josh Wood.
A Lebanese man throws more trash on a pile of rubbish covered with white pesticide in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra in Beirut on July 23. Bilal Hussein/AP
A Lebanese man throws more trash on a pile of rubbish covered with white pesticide in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra in Beirut on July 23. Bilal Hussein/AP

BEIRUT// Lebanon has weathered 14 months without a president yet still managed to avoid a crisis that sparked mass protests or completely ground its functional anarchy to a halt.

But a week without Beirut’s rubbish being collected? That might be too much for the Lebanese.

On July 17, activists in the town of Naameh, just south of Beirut, forcibly closed Lebanon’s largest landfill, halting trash collection in the capital and its environs and flaring tempers this summer.

For years, residents of Naameh had protested the landfill, which was opened in 1997 and initially only meant to operate for a few years as a temporary solution to Lebanon’s waste problems.

Earlier this year, the government finally agreed that the landfill would be shut down for good this July. But they never agreed on an alternative way to handle the massive amounts of waste produced by Beirut and surrounding communities.

With nowhere to bring the trash and their contract terminated with the closing of the landfill on July 17, Sukleen — the company tasked with garbage pickups — simply stopped collecting rubbish.

Since then garbage has been piling up, turning Beirut’s dumpsters into constantly growing mountains of trash.

The piles of garbage have overtaken sidewalks and some have spilt well into the street, making driving tricky and worsening traffic. Some unlucky cars parked near dumpsters have now been swallowed up by piles of plastic bags. Along one boulevard in an upscale Beirut neighbourhood, a long tarpaulin has been strung up along a sprawling dump — either to hide the sight from passing motorists or in an attempt to control the garbage’s reach. Neither appears to be successful.

Filling the streets

“It’s like a domino,” said Lucien Bourjeily, a theatre director and social activist. “It’s one more thing on top of everything else in this country: No electricity, no water, no proper internet, no roads, corruption and...there’s no president and then you have the garbage.”

On Thursday, environment minister Mohammad Machnouk estimated that 22,000 tons of trash was currently on the streets.

To the activists who shut down the dump, Beirut is just dealing with a small taste of what their town have endured for nearly two decades.

“For three or four days or maybe a week or so they live with it — they have to forgive us,” said Ajwad Ayash an activist with Close Naameh Landfill. “But we have been living with it for years. And the only solution is for them to put pressure on their leaders, their responsible officials to solve this problem in the right way.”

Mr Ayash said the long-term solution to Lebanon’s waste problem is to “reduce, reuse and recycle” more and that activists would not budge from their positions on the road leading to the landfill.

For now, solutions to the trash crisis appear hard to come by.

Lebanon’s cabinet discussed the trash crisis on Thursday, but failed to agree upon a solution and delayed discussions until next Tuesday.

Some politicians have proposed that waste be temporarily deposited in Beirut’s Karantina district — an industrial area known for a 1976 massacre of Palestinians by Christian militias that is today a forgotten quarter of warehouses and buildings shattered by war. Others have proposed building a new landfill in northern Lebanon’s Akkar district.

But any new landfill near a population centre — or at least within smell — will likely face opposition.

The government will also need to find somebody to handle the trash or renegotiate with Sukleen.

Sukleen spokeswoman Pascale Nassar said the company has not applied for a new contract after their previous arrangement expired on July 17. One of the requirements for a new contract was that a waste management company already have its own space for a landfill, something that Sukleen was not held to when it won the contract to operate the temporary landfill in Naameh.

Still, Ms Nassar said, Sukleen continued collecting garbage for two days after their contract expired and depositing it at the company’s Beirut treatment plant until it was full.

“But now there is no more place in our premises. We cannot collect anything anymore. And we can’t do anything because there is no alternative solution,” she said.

While their contract is finished, Ms Nassar said Sukleen would remove waste from the streets of Beirut and the Mount Lebanon district once the government came up with a solution.

“We are ready to help because you know the image of Beirut is changing now. And we don’t want this to happen,” she said.

On their own

The offer of cooperation was not shared by many, with the issue quickly becoming politised.

Politicians from the Free Patriotic Movement — a Hizbollah backed Christian party that has recently accused the state of trying to marginalise Christians — have accused the party’s detractors of manufacturing the garbage crisis to draw the government’s attention away from their demands of discussions about the appointment of an army commander.

The head of the Christian Kataeb party has accused Sukleen of trying to blackmail the Lebanese government by stopping trash collection so it could renew its contract.

For now, communities have been left to deal with the trash heaps where they lay.

In some areas, residents have taken to lighting trash piles on fire, throwing up a stinky haze of smoke into the humid summer air and bringing discomforting smells to those far from the trash heaps.

Sukleen workers have doused many of the piles of trash with a powder disinfectant and pesticide.

Meanwhile, anger toward the government over the mounting hills of garbage and smelly fires that are engulfing neighbourhoods is growing.

Photos posted to social media websites on Wednesday showed activists in downtown Beirut wearing surgical masks hurling bags of garbage over the razor wire barricades leading to parliament.

Activists are now calling for a protest on Saturday where they say they will haul more garbage to parliament.

“We’re going to take the garbage that is filling our streets and take it back to them, to the roots of the problem, to the people who should be dealing with this problem,” said Mr Bourjeily, the theatre director.

Mr Ayash — the anti-landfill activist in Naameh — said protesters there are afraid the government could use force to reopen the road to the landfill, but emphasised that they will not budge.

“We are committed at any cost even if they come here and remove us by force, we are not going away unless we are broken or bloodied or whatever,” he said. “We are going to sit in the road silently, quietly, peacefully and block the road.”


Updated: July 23, 2015 04:00 AM



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