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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Lebanon residents wake up to a beach covered in rubbish

The scenes just a few minutes' drive north of the capital, Beirut, were a national embarrassment for a country that once prided itself on its sparkling Mediterranean coastline

The residents of one Lebanese community woke up on Tuesday to find a powerful winter storm had left their beach covered in rubbish — in the latest reminder of the country's waste disposal crisis.

The scenes just a few minutes' drive north of the capital, Beirut, were a national embarrassment for a country that once prided itself on its sparkling Mediterranean coastline.

"Somebody needs to pay for this," said Paul Abi Rached, a local environmentalist who spearheaded a campaign to overhaul the government's waste policies three years ago.

Few issues have driven a wedge between the Lebanese and their leaders like rubbish — the most conspicuous of the government's many failings to provide basic services to its constituents.

Lebanon has long been plagued by daily water and electricity outages, but it was not until rubbish started going uncollected in Beirut that despair erupted into a wave of protests in 2015.

Demonstrators rallied under the banner "You Stink" — a reference not only to the stench accompanying the summer heat, but to the corruption and favouritism that has defined politics and paralysed administrative services in the country.

Civil society groups say officials are making fortunes on shady deals for landfills and incinerators — at the public's expense. They say, too, that the government is using rubbish to fill in land along the coast — a bonanza for politically connected developers who can cash in on the property that's been raised, quite literally, from the sea.

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A fleet of heavy machinery has been working the coastline east of Beirut since 2017, pouring into the sea at a land reclamation site at Dbayeh.

Officials say they are doing nothing untoward, and that the landfills they operate are done to technical specifications.

But the stench is impossible to deny.

Travellers arriving to Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport are greeted with a waft of odours from an expanding landfill at the end of one of the runways. After years of being unused, officials reopened the Costa Brava landfill to absorb the waste left out in 2015.

In December, prime minister Saad Hariri ordered officials to close a waste-sorting plant in the city of Tripoli, built with $1.6 million (Dh5.9m) from the EU, just six months after it was inaugurated. Locals said the odours from the plant and the nearby fill were suffocating.

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The scandal at Zouq Mosbeh beach led Lebanon's nightly news broadcasts on Monday, but environmentalists say they were not surprised by the scene — a pile of cattle bones, footwear, tyres and vast amounts of plastic waste towered over 30 metres high on the beach.

"The sea is regurgitating our trash," said Joslin Kehdy, who heads Recycle Lebanon, an NGO that has organised a clean-up of Zouq Mosbeh beach each year since 2015. The country's official waste management plan provides scant support to recycling initiatives.

Mr Abi Rached said this time, rough waves broke down a faulty retaining wall around a coastal dump just east of Beirut, spilling the waste into the sea.

The rubbish saga is likely to spill into campaigns ahead of parliamentary elections in May. Lawmaker Sami Gemayel, who leads the country's Kataeb party, said he would take the government to international court over the pollution.

Mr Hariri said he ordered authorities to clean the Zouq Mosbeh beach immediately but those efforts may have to wait for another storm to pass through — and bring even more waste ashore.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch launched a campaign last Friday against burning waste at over 150 open-air dumps around Lebanon.

The New York-based watchdog says the Lebanese government is in violation of international human rights law for failing to deal seriously with the pollution from burning waste.

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