Beirut has created two giant landfills that are polluting the Mediterranean. Will the EU simply watch the unfolding environmental disaster, or will it act?
After the end of its civil war in 1990, Lebanon found itself facing several urgent problems due to the absence of real government during the previous 15 years of conflict. One of those was garbage. And it wasn’t just local refuse: unscrupulous businessmen in Europe had used the chaos of war to smuggle in toxic waste from countries including Italy, Belgium and Germany. That waste was likely dumped in informal dumps, including in Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud landfills. After the war, in the early nineties, Beirut’s waste continued to be dumped without any treatment.
We are still surprised by the total absence of reaction from the Mediterranean countries.
It took a few years for then-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri to find what he called a “temporary solution”: privatisation of waste disposal, to be managed by a company called Sukleen, and untreated waste dumped in an abandoned quarry, the Naameh landfill. Bourj Hammoud was closed. But dumping at Naameh continued for 20 years before it was closed amid protests from local residents. The temporary solution never evolved into a long-term and sustainable approach – sorting, treating and recycling rather than simply dumping waste.
The closure of Naameh precipitated the 2015 garbage crisis, which saw international news media reporting on Lebanon’s waste travails and the resulting protests. But increased attention didn’t help catalyse a solution. Instead, there were new ‘temporary’ approaches and two new dump sites: a reopened Bourj Hammoud and Costa Brava, south of the capital.
Ominously, both sit on the sea’s edge. Recent reports, photographs and video have shown large amounts of untreated trash being dumped directly into the Mediterranean at Bourj Hammoud as part of a land reclamation process. Plastics litter the beaches around Beirut, fishermen complain that the fish are all dead, and numerous toxins are leaching into the sea – tidal movements mean it’s only a matter of time before they reach coastlines around the Mediterranean, including Greece and other European summer holiday destinations.
Why has this happened? It’s not due to a lack of technical expertise in Lebanon. The reason is corruption. Sukleen – its parent company is Averda – charges a very high cost per tonne for collection and land filling, charges which its owners have justified by saying this would enable an improvement of the process, including the construction of sorting plants and recycling factories. But even though charges were increased, solid waste kept on being dumped in the Naameh landfill and less than ten per cent of the waste was recycled. More likely, the increased charges were used to fund kickbacks and buy political protection from Lebanon’s politicians, who continued to extend Sukleen’s monopolistic licence to collect trash – Averda manages more than half of Lebanon’s waste - without holding it accountable for broken promises. It’s a system that keeps Lebanon in the ‘stone age’ when it comes to solid waste management.
Now, with untreated waste being dumped in two dumps alongside the sea, with some being directly dumped into the sea at Bourj Hammoud (Lebanon’s environment minister called it “part of the plan”), there may be long-lasting effects not just for Lebanon but also for its neighbours and the entire Mediterranean.
Lebanon needs to sort out its current waste system – quickly. Even though the present system looks entrenched, there are solutions. All countries have to manage their waste. It is a matter of finding the political will to put an end to the corrupt and polluting system in Lebanon. In particular, to start with an environmentally friendly strategy for solid waste management, which should be the outcome of a process initiated at the local level. Monopolistic and corrupt behaviour can be prevented if decisions are well-informed, need-based and inspired by citizens.
A comprehensive and sustainable approach is needed. The shortlist of solutions includes building a legislative action plan that constrains the use of non-recyclable products and incentivises the use of recyclable products, aiming at reducing the production of waste; decentralising waste management and empowering municipalities to enable them to oversee this process; promoting the development of sorting plants and recycling factories; and promoting the recycling of organic waste.
Despite the urgency of the waste issue, Lebanese citizens have stopped seeing it as an emergency. They have shifted to other priorities, such as electricity outages, tax increases, security challenges and many other government failures.
As activists in Lebanon, we can easily understand this shift of public opinion, with the huge pressure Lebanese citizens face. However, we are still surprised by the total absence of reaction from the Mediterranean countries, especially the European ones. Anything dumped in the sea, or left too close to it, has an impact on the complete Mediterranean eco-system. Pollution will sooner or later reach Europe.
Despite several contacts, the EU and individual European countries are still reluctant to warn Lebanon seriously, or to use bilateral treaties and the Barcelona Treaty on the protection of the Mediterranean Sea to force the government of Lebanon to adopt a sustainable, more environmentally friendly solid waste management solution. (The EU has committed funds for the construction of new waste management sites, but to date treatment plants have failed to deliver on their potential due to operational mismanagement.)
It is clear that the current approach cannot go on forever. Short-term solutions will lead to a new garbage crisis even bigger than that of 2015. Lebanon could make history: the first regime to fall because of a garbage revolution.
Wadih Al-Asmar is a social activist, the president of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, and a member of the You Stink movement. Follow him on Twitter @walasmar