Typically, not much thought is given to trash once it’s removed from the home — out of sight, out of mind. Not so in Lebanon. The problem of garbage disposal in the country has become a chronic and pressing issue. Every couple of years, the issue comes to a head: for one reason or another, trash isn’t removed from the streets, a public outcry ensues and the government devises yet another plan to fix the problem once and for all. Yet somehow, these plans always go unimplemented. Instead, bandaid solutions are applied with the promise that a long term plan will be studied. And once public outrage subsides, the issue is pushed to the side and all but forgotten.
In the latest iteration of this cycle of inaction, last month the government outlined an amended plan for waste management through a short (and hence vague) resolution that organized the country into six regions and called on the finance and environment ministries to launch waste management tenders for trash collection, treatment and disposal in each of these regions within two months. Bidders are to propose treatment and landfill sites themselves; if the winning bids cannot secure the sites within one month of being awarded the contract, a much more bureaucratic process begins, involving the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the Ministry of Environment and the Council of Ministers.
This plan is therefore not ideal. But it has a chance of success if the government remains committed to it — and commitment is perhaps the largest problem in Lebanon’s ongoing waste management fiasco.
[pullquote]The Naameh disaster is not an isolated incident, but the result of a pattern of bad waste management decisions[/pullquote]
Here’s one example: the Naameh dump, in a valley south of Beirut, was intended upon its opening in 1997 to be an interim solution towards developing sanitary landfills across the country. After 17 years, the dump has quintupled its original capacity spilling toxic emissions onto its environ creating what was meant as a stopgap solution into a long term public health and environmental crisis.
The Naameh disaster is not an isolated incident, but the result of a pattern of bad waste management decisions. Lebanon’s government has repeatedly promised that long term, sustainable solutions would be identified, outlined and delivered. These promises have gone unfulfilled. Instead, the government has consistently failed to implement any plans — even when they hold great potential.
To illustrate this point, let’s quickly run through the country’s catastrophic history of waste management. In 1997, the government produced plans to close the Normandy dump — where Biel sits today — while simultaneously constructing two composting plants, two sorting plants and two new landfills. In reality only one smaller composting plant was built, the service provider collecting waste expanded its area of coverage so that the sorting facilities operated beyond capacity, and when the landfills surpassed their planned lifespan, the rate of waste fluid seepage increasing while intensifying the release of odor and gas. In 2003, the Ministry of Environment devised another plan wherein sorting and composting plants and landfills would be built in each of the 26 districts in the country, with most of the chosen site locations for the waste management facilities rejected. In 2006, the plan was resuscitated and altered: 26 landfills became instead seven landfills spread around the country. This amendment was also rejected. In 2010, the government endorsed a plan to adopt waste-to-energy technologies, and in 2012 contracted a consulting firm to study the application of waste incinerators to produce electricity in urban areas. But in 2013, after months of preparation outlining a strategy to implement waste-to-energy incinerators, the government resigned. As part of that plan, the Naameh dump was to be closed this past January, a deadline that has not been met but rather extended for an additional three months with an option to further postpone its closing.
[pullquote]There are now some 700-plus open air dumps in the country[/pullquote]
With no real commitment to a solution, residents have resorted to dumping garbage anywhere they can — there are now some 700-plus open air dumps in the country. These dumps are not only ugly and smelly, they’re ticking public health timebombs. Leaking — and potentially toxic — fluids and gases not only damage the environment by contaminating the soil and groundwater, but also threaten the health of residents living in the vicinity of the dump. According to a September 2014 report by the United Nations Development Program that assessed the environmental impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon, the most common health concerns to nearby populations of these open air dumps are eye irritation, tuberculosis, diarrhea, typhoid, dysentery, coughing and scabies. Open burning of waste at these sites releases toxic air pollutants such as carcinogenic dioxins and furans.
With evidence of public health and environmental concerns piled higher than the garbage itself, the Lebanese government cannot wait to negotiate a new long term solution. It must instead commit to its latest plan — and this time, follow through. Announce the tenders, award the contracts — but only in an open and transparent process — and push through the acquisition of new waste treatment and landfill sites. The current plan is not perfectly designed, but we can no longer allow the best to be the enemy of the good. Because if we do, Naameh and the open air dumps will only grow, and everyone will lose.