Wasted opportunities

Lebanon is failing to meet the challenges of its pressing garbage crisis

Lebanon’s waste management problems are worse now than when they began decades ago (Photo: Greg Demarque | Executive)

The lack of transparency in finding a way out of the July 2015 garbage crisis is appalling. Last August, the private sector put forward offers that would have seen modern waste solutions put in place all over the country. The volume of Lebanon’s waste being sent to landfill would have dramatically fallen (see policy story). Contracts for private companies to build real waste solutions, however, were canceled on a whim with a false cry that they were too expensive.

Today, we’re worse off than we were a year ago. Beirut and the districts of Chouf, Aley, Baabda, Metn and Kesourwan are still preparing around 80 percent of their waste to be sent to a landfill. Those landfills (one at Costa Brava, south of Beirut airport, and one near Bourj Hammoud) have not yet been built. And the contract for the Costa Brava landfill was suspended on June 24. It’s only a matter of time before the temporary storage locations fill up and trash once again floods the streets. In the rest of the country (save for Zahle and Sidon), most residents’ waste is being burned or dumped. While a few municipalities are working on or actually implementing their own solutions, they are doing it without assistance from the central government. This is despite the government having approved a plan last September that called for training municipalities – and empowering them financially – to handle their own waste in a sustainable way. The committee that should have helped municipalities prepare for waste devolution met exactly once, according to Nicolas Gharib, who attended as a representative of the UN Development Programme. So much for long-term planning and awareness raising.

Waste management is expensive. The only real way to reduce your garbage bill is to generate less trash. This is not a difficult concept to understand, so it is mind boggling why the government is not doing anything to raise awareness. For example, the government could have the various experts (and they do exist) working inside different ministries on tours of TV stations and town halls to fully explain this to people – but they don’t. When journalists call with real questions, interview requests are ignored or outright denied. Instead of concrete information, we get half-truths and the standard horseshit. After the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) suspended the Costa Brava contract (the winner of which has still not been publically announced), it claimed in a statement that the price was too high. Soon after, a voice of dissent arose. Walid Safi, the government representative working with CDR, claims the cost argument is a red herring. French daily L’Orient du Jour quotes him saying CDR must rescind its statement or else Safi will disclose “many hidden truths” about CDR’s contracting processes. Think about that for a second. He’s claiming special knowledge seemingly related to corruption. Instead of simply exposing it, he’s trying to pressure the CDR.

Safi is as much a part of the problem as every other minister, MP or person of influence who makes the same threat (this formulation of “I know about corruption but will only tell if…” is unfortunately common in this country). We need accountable governance in this country. In the 26 years since the Lebanese Civil War ended, we’ve mismanaged our waste at every opportunity. The only way to move forward is putting in place sustainable systems that involve waste reduction, sorting at source and modern treatment facilities that will have to be built near someone’s back yard. If we don’t we’ll be doomed to choke on our trash every time a landfill is filled to capacity. Executive has said this all before, and we’ll keep saying it until someone in power decides to listen.

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