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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 January 2019

Out of sight, out of mind, but Lebanon’s rubbish crisis hasn’t gone away

The piles of rubbish have disappeared from most Beirut neighbourhoods, leaving the city’s air a little more breathable. But with the landfill still closed, the rubbish is now ending up in illegal dumps, reports Josh Wood.
Where it all began: last month residents living near the Naameh landfill, pictured, blocked access to the site demanding that the government shut it down. Joseph Eid/AFP Photo
Where it all began: last month residents living near the Naameh landfill, pictured, blocked access to the site demanding that the government shut it down. Joseph Eid/AFP Photo

BEIRUT // Nearly a month after Lebanon’s largest landfill was shut down and mountains of rubbish began piling up on the streets of Beirut and nearby towns, the country has yet to find a permanent solution to the problem.

The piles of rubbish have disappeared from most Beirut neighbourhoods, leaving the city’s air a little more breathable. But with the landfill still closed, no alternative site, and the responsibility of clearing waste thrust on to local municipalities, the rubbish is now ending up in illegal dumps – out of sight and out of mind.

The municipalities are dumping the rubbish wherever they can. Some is being piled up in Karantina, a rundown district of warehouses and destroyed buildings by Beirut’s port. Pictures circulated by activists show rubbish also being dumped off mountain slopes and into rivers.

The crisis began on July 17 when roads leading to the Naameh landfill south of Beirut were blocked by activists. Residents of the town had protested for years about the landfill, which was opened in 1997 and meant to only operate for a few years.

Earlier this year, the government agreed that the landfill would be shut in July. But amid political gridlock, it failed to find an alternative site.

Rubbish piled up in the capital for the better part of two weeks, quickly overflowing neighbourhood bins. In parts of Beirut, residents took to setting the piles of rubbish on fire, creating a smelly, unhealthy haze over the city.

While the streets are now clear and various members of government have promised a permanent solution, experts say the challenge is daunting and that steps taken so far, such as the use of informal dumps, are band-aid measures.

“The ideal solution is to reopen the Naameh landfill so we can [develop] a better solution,” said an employee at the ministry of environment familiar with solid-waste management. Developing a lasting solution would take at least three years, he said.

Marwan Rizkallah, an expert on waste management with the Lebanon Environmental Pollution Abatement Project, said the ideal solution would be for the government to create an appropriate dumping site for rubbish and put collection and treatment in the hands of local municipalities while encouraging reuse and recycling.

The current crisis is largely the result of a lack of a legal framework and a national strategy for handling waste, he said. For Beirut and its environs, waste management falls under the jurisdiction of three different government agencies.

But it is not simply a matter of identifying the technical and administrative problems and finding solutions.

“Part of the problem is [that] politics is involved,” Mr Rizkallah said. “So we can find a technical solution, but it’s difficult to make all parties agree.”

The environment ministry employee agreed. “It’s not about money. It’s the political situation and the conflict in the country,” he said. “It’s a mess, it’s chaos. We cannot work.

“When you prepare strategies in times like this when you have a political crisis, you will not get a realistic one. That’s the problem.”

The rubbish crisis stoked public anger against the government. On several occasions protesters marched in central Beirut, shouting for ministers to resign and hurling bags of rubbish at barricades erected in front of the prime minister’s headquarters. They called their campaign “You Stink”.

The government has proposed few solutions so far. One is exporting Lebanon’s waste, which would be expensive, take time to arrange and, if it was to be shipped to Europe as some have suggested, would require prior treatment and sorting. Others proposals include building incinerators, or finding new landfills.

While incinerators raise concerns about air pollution, landfills could face the same local opposition as was seen in Naameh. In recent weeks residents in several parts of the country have blocked off roads, and even clashed with security forces, when they thought Beirut’s waste was to be sent to their areas.

On Friday, environment minister Mohammad Machnouk said three firms had bid to handle Beirut’s waste and that the government was working to locate a viable landfill. But nothing has been finalised yet.

Many activists insist that Lebanon should find an environmentally friendly waste disposal method that does not rely on landfills or incinerators. Experts, however, say that this is naive and does not help to find an workable solution.

“Civil society is always saying no to landfilling, no to incinerators. We have to eat the waste so they will be happy,” said the environment ministry employee.

Mr Rizkallah does see one possible positive outcome of the rubbish crisis: creating an awareness about the need for sorting waste at home that would have taken years of campaigns to achieve.

“Now people see the problem, they can do something at home,” he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: August 12, 2015 04:00 AM

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