What’s the deal with garbage decentralization?

The Ministry of Environment has a new strategy to reorganize Lebanon’s waste sector

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Over the past 10 years, the government has attempted and failed to implement plan after plan to end the country’s smoldering trash crisis. With each iteration, politicians criticize government inaction, while disagreeing on what to do with and where to put the garbage. On January 11, Lebanon took another swing at resolving this impasse, when the cabinet endorsed the Policy Summary on Integrated Solid Waste Management. The policy is intended to complement a draft law, which has been studied and refined since 2012 and is currently making its way through Parliament. If passed, it would be the country’s first legal framework specifically dedicated to solid waste management.

Together, these documents outline a waste plan that places responsibility in the hands of local governments. Speaking at a press conference, Minister of Environment Tarek Khatib dubbed the approach “administrative decentralization,” the latest buzzwords among stakeholders throughout the capital. But what this term will mean in practice has confounded both academics and public officials, as most municipalities have long been legally obligated to deal with their waste while being left to their own devices without adequate support from the central government.

“In a way, responsibility was given to municipalities without any prior training, without any preparation, and without any clear vision,” says Majdi Najem, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the American University of Beirut. “So now, municipalities are overly confused. They cannot commit [to investments] for the long term because the ministry did not give them a long-term ultimatum to manage solid waste. At the same time, they don’t have the capacity; they don’t have the necessary skills.”

Municipal councils are hindered by a number of administrative, technical, and financial limitations made worse by their small sizes. A paper by Democracy Reporting International from April 2017 states that Lebanon has 1,108 municipalities, “an extremely high ratio [in terms of population and surface area] by international comparison.” Villages are often too small to raise the funds necessary for proper waste disposal, and may not produce enough rubbish to attract the interest of private sector contractors.

Khalil Gebara, advisor to the minister of interior and municipalities, notes that, “For the past two years, we sent, five times, and [at] different periods, requests to municipalities to inform us whether or not they have any potential plans for a decentralized solid-waste management policy. The answers we received from municipalities don’t exceed 20 out of the 1,100 municipalities in Lebanon. So municipalities, even if they are interested, lack the capabilities to do anything about that.”

The cycle of centralization

The policy summary calls for the Ministry of Environment (MoE) to survey the financial and administrative capacities of every municipality in Lebanon and assess their ability to manage their waste without government intervention. Management practices must meet new guidelines established by the ministry, which entail sorting at the source, street sweeping, and garbage collection. Municipalities shall also be at least partially responsible for waste treatment in their service areas.

Currently, only a few municipalities are independently managing their waste without resorting to open dumping, which would be criminalized by the draft law. In order to address common challenges such as garbage disposal, local administrations often join together in municipal unions, which enables them to pool their resources. Those that launch their own waste projects often rely on stipends from the Independent Municipal Fund (IMF), which is made up of revenues from several local taxes and fees from participating municipalities.

Despite this grant system, municipalities find it difficult to cover the costs of their operations. They frequently complain that IMF disbursements are insufficient and can be delayed by months at a time, undermining their ability to budget for long-term investments or make payments to service providers. The municipal fund itself may struggle with financial pressures from local governments that sign on to waste management contracts they cannot afford. Some waste-related expenses are four or five times higher than the municipalities’ IMF allocation according to Norma Nissir, president of the IMF. Despite this shortfall, the Council of Ministers, which approves disbursements, requires the fund pay the difference.

In order to avoid funding irregularities and finance the high costs of solid waste treatment infrastructure, municipalities and unions have often resorted to tendering their projects through the state, which fronts the necessary capital. In the absence of an institutional framework for solid waste management, this role has largely fallen to the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), an executive body initially established for post-war infrastructure construction and rehabilitation. The most notable of CDR’s contracts were with the collection and treatment companies Sukleen and Sukomi, covering Beirut and, formerly, Mount Lebanon/Chouf.

Over the years, the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR) has also become a major channel for European Union-funded waste management investments across the country. In June, EU Ambassador Christina Lassen declared that the intergovernmental organization has poured over 77 million euros (approximately $94.7 million at the time of writing) into Lebanon’s solid waste sector. Mohamad Baraki, the solid waste program’s project manager at OMSAR, told Executive that if the ministry wasn’t stepping in to pay for the operation and maintenance costs, these municipal waste facilities would be forced to close.

Inside the strategy

Paradoxically, the new plan to decentralize waste management could pave the way for even more centralized operations across the country. Local administrations that are deemed unfit to manage their own waste will be included in state-tendered programs.

In an effort to organize the tendering process, the MoE has established a council of industry stakeholders that includes ministerial, private sector, and academic representatives. The governing body is meant to oversee the implementation of the plan and standardize terms of reference documents for various waste-related services. These documents would also be used by municipalities that attempt to launch their own projects.

Naji Kodeih, an environmental consultant and the lone civil-society appointee to the council, reports that the representatives began convening on February 13. Theoretically, the council will now begin to replace OMSAR and the CDR as the state contracting agency.

Beyond the extension of waste services to villages nationwide, the policy summary features several additional cash-intensive agenda items. Sorting facilities in Karantina and Aamroussieh would be rehabilitated. A composting plant in Burj Hammoud would be upgraded. A national recycling program would be initiated. The almost 940 open-air dumps counted by the MoE around the country would be closed. A MoE  official with knowledge of the new plan says that the ministry estimates the cost of these closures to be $170 million alone. Furthermore, the plan calls for the formation of three interim waste storage facilities for hazardous waste. The MoE source, who was not authorized to speak to press, confirmed that this proposal refers to an expansion of existing landfills in Burj Hammoud and Costa Brava.

Asked how the ministry expects to pay for all of these operations, the source claims that a waste fund would have to be established, financed by the imposition of a new tax regime. Some of these funds might be used to subsidize tipping fees charged to municipalities for the usage of regional treatment facilities offered by the government.

Mixed signals

During the cabinet meeting on January 11, government officials also approved measures that would allow for the use of state-owned incinerators across Lebanon. This has contributed to further confusion among stakeholders who claim that the expansion of publicly owned infrastructure is in contradiction with the principle of decentralization.

According to Najem, who frequently consults with mayors on their solid waste practices in his role as a project manager at AUB’s Nature Conservation Center, municipal leaders feel stuck. On the one hand, the MoE is encouraging them to move forward with their own waste solutions. On the other hand, some municipalities are hesitant to explore long-term investments when the government might build an incinerator in their area later on.

Despite the seemingly mixed signals from the Council of Ministers, the government’s latest plan has earned the guarded blessings of both civil society and legislators for the first time in years. “The Ministry of Environment in Lebanon worked in the last months on an integral strategy,” says Kodeih. “The goal of this strategy is to recuperate or to recover the lost opportunity cost of waste. This is good. We are okay with this concept, but at the level of details, we are not okay with some options, like incineration.”

For now, the potential impact of the plan and the feasibility of passing additional taxes, upon which the MoE’s new approach may depend, remain open questions. The source at the MoE advocates for partial decentralization but remains skeptical about its implementation. “With every new plan or new policy, you have excitement because it’s new. [The government] want[s] to do something. Every minister wants to prove themselves, but at the end I’m not really optimistic about the results. They probably want to do something now to tell the people that they want to do something just for the elections.”