Since the late 1990s, the state of Lebanon’s environment has been stagnant at best,” said president of environmental charity Greenline Ali Darwish, who has been on the frontline of Lebanon’s eco-battle for some 17 years. “In terms of waste, water resources, energy use and green space, we are actually going backward. Perhaps the only ‘good’ news is that Lebanon isn’t different from most countries. Especially since the 2008 crisis, the environment is a non-issue.”
His is a bleak picture, but May Jurdi, professor of environmental health at the American University of Beirut (AUB), could not agree more. “In Lebanon, we face a total lack of vision and strategy,” she said. “That’s why it is so important to introduce a proper monitoring system. Without monitoring there is no data. Without data it is impossible to take measures. However, in developing countries such as Lebanon politicians shy away from monitoring. It is a mentality problem. They don’t like to be held accountable.”
It is difficult to estimate the cost of environmental degradation, as cause and effect often lie so far apart that a direct correlation is tough to prove. Still, after decades of simply ignoring the negative effects of production methods and consumerist behavior, economists in recent years have come up with more conclusive models, in which issues such as the loss of fish stocks and the rise of certain illnesses have been given a price tag.
The only such study regarding Lebanon contains data from the year 2000. A team of economists and ecologists estimated in a World Bank report that the cost of environmental degradation in Lebanon that year amounted to some $500 million, or 3.4 percent of gross domestic product. Most damage, 62 percent, was related to health issues, while 38 percent to degradation of natural resources.
Despite such warning signs, the environment is not a priority in Lebanon, which is arguably the only country in the world where politicians can refer to “the political situation” as a reason for not taking action. But don’t tell that to Professor Jurdi.
“Believe me, people from March 8 and March 14 all breathe the same air and, anyway, the problems are much older than that,” she said. “Since the early 1990s, for example, we have been trying to install a proper waste and wastewater treatment system, and we still have a system that is far from optimal. The Food Safety Bill, which is a very good piece of legislation, has been pending in parliament since 2004, mainly because four ministries are fighting over who is to be in charge.”
Still, if the environment suddenly and unexpectedly were to become a political priority in 2011, the issues that should be dealt with most urgently, according to Jurdi, are waste and wastewater treatment, as well as air pollution. “If you properly deal with waste and wastewater, you directly protect the population from physical harm, and you protect your natural resources, such as groundwater, rivers and coastal waters,” she said. “Scientifically, it is very hard to link environmental hazards with certain diseases. However, ask any mother and she will tell you that diarrhea is more and more common. Ask any medical professional in a hospital and he or she will tell you that the number of cancer cases is increasing.”
A world to waste
According to the Ministry of Environment, Lebanon generates some 335 kilos of waste per inhabitant per year, which is set to increase annually by 7 to 8 percent. (To put that in perspective, the world’s top polluter, the United States, averages more than 700 kilos of waste per American per year.) Nearly half of Lebanon’s total waste of some 1.5 million tons annually stems from the Greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon region. The World Bank estimates that some 46 percent of the country’s waste ends up in sanitary landfills, while 38 percent is dumped in an illegal, uncontrolled manner. Only 14 percent is recycled.
By law, the municipalities are responsible for collecting and treating waste. However, mainly due to a lack of funds, that often implies dumping it on the nearest hillside or in the sea. There are more than 750 illegal dumps in the country, the most prominent of which are the mountains of waste on the coast of Sidon.
Beirut had its own manmade mountains. One, at Normandy Bay, has been excavated and is being gradually transformed into an extension of the city center. The other, at Bourj Hammoud, is closed, but remains as a silent reminder of past practices. Although the area of Ouzai still serves as an illegal dump, most waste in Beirut and the wider Mount Lebanon region is transferred to Naame and Baslim, two of the country’s three sanitary landfills. A third is situated near Zahle.
A controlled or ‘sanitary’ landfill is lined with a membrane to protect the earth and groundwater basin from potentially hazardous and toxic effluents that are created within a waste site. It is for that reason that the Sidon coastal dump is such a threat to marine life. Smaller sites situated further inland are less likely to develop such an effluent. Still, upstream waterways are easily polluted by waste and wastewater, a dangerous prospect when they are used downstream for agricultural purposes.
“I suggest people wash their fruits and vegetables with natural soap before eating, as the use of untreated water for irrigation is common practice,” advised Jurdi.
The sanitary landfills near Beirut were created in the late 1990s as a temporary solution. The idea was to store waste in a controlled manner, while the authorities would formulate a more integrated approach. The latter has hardly happened. In 1998, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) awarded Sukleen’s sister company Sukomi a 10-year contract to treat and recycle waste (see box). But due to a lack in capacity the company is not able to recycle more than 20 percent, while the remainder is transferred to the landfills of Naame and Baslim, which are both rapidly filling up. In fact, the Naame landfill has already been expanded several times.
To deal with the growing mountain of waste, the Ministry of Environment advocates the construction of four incinerators. This technology has several advantages. First of all, Lebanon offers limited space for the construction of new waste sites and most Lebanese, like many citizens of the world, do not want a site in their backyard. Incinerators occupy relatively little space and rapidly reduce waste to a fraction of its initial volume. What’s more, burning (non-toxic) waste can serve as fuel for Lebanon’s power plants: 4,500 tons of waste can produce some 170 megawatts of electricity.
Still, Greenline’s Darwish is not in favor. “This technology is extremely controversial, even in Europe,” he said. “It is still not known what effects incinerating has on the air we breathe. Regarding electricity, I suggest we start to look seriously into solar energy.”
“Incineration itself is not a bad technology, it is only bad if used incorrectly,” said Lama Abdul Samad, an environmental consultant who worked for an Italian non-governmental organization implementing waste and wastewater solutions in Lebanon and is currently doing her PhD at the University of Bern.
“However, I don’t think Lebanon should incinerate its waste, since this technology is only good when state-of-the-art and hence extremely expensive,” she said. “In addition, you are still left with the ashes, while Lebanon to this date does not have a landfill to deal with hazardous or potentially toxic waste. Finally, I would never recommend incineration in a country where emission standards are likely not to be enforced.”
In an ideal world…
In an ideal scenario, according to Abdul Samad, waste treatment should start at a household level, where the first separation should take place to help facilitate recycling. For obvious reasons, chemical residue should not be mixed with organics, while the latter negatively affect the quality of refuse such as paper and carton board. This is beginning to happen in parts of Beirut where Sukleen has introduced some separation in collecting its garbage, but so far the effort has been patchy at best.
The waste should then be collected by vehicle and transported to a solid waste treatment facility, which brings us to the core of the matter. “Solid waste treatment should be available to all municipalities, irrelevant of their remoteness,” said Abdul Samad. “This will stop the haphazard disposal of domestic waste in open dumps, where burning is common practice.”
Abdul Samad calls for a reduction in small waste treatment units with a capacity of 10 to 50 tons a day, as they are inefficient and barely economically viable. A larger regional facility more easily allows for hiring skilled labor and generating income through selling recyclables and compost. In Lebanon, some 40 percent of waste is organic, which could be turned into compost and used to reduce the overwhelming use of pesticides and fertilizers in the country. Another 40 percent of Lebanon’s waste comprises recyclables such as paper, plastic, glass and metal.
“In a perfect system, you are left with only 20 percent of waste that needs to be landfilled or incinerated,” she said. “Don’t believe people who speak of so called “zero-waste technology,” because it simply does not exist.”
Like any malady, prevention is better than cure and a perfect waste treatment system should start with promoting waste reduction and even banning or taxing products that are overly polluting. In the end, the responsibility lies with the consumer in which products they choose to buy.
A common offender would be Beirut’s restaurants, which seem hell-bent on out-packaging their rivals when it comes to deliveries; most meals are served in a plastic container, as are their accompaniments such as salad and bread, with an extra bag solely for drinks (in a plastic bottle) along with a separate plastic bag for the plastic cutlery, all wrapped in another box or bag. That’s a lot of waste for just one meal.
According to Gaby Khalas, Director of the Marine Sciences department at the National Council for Scientific Research (CNSR), research shows that the bacteriological pollution at places such as Ramlet El Baida, Ras Beirut and Antelias on average amount to 100 to 150 times the internationally accepted norm of less than 100 units per milliliter.
“The good news is that there is no chemical pollution and 100 meters off the coast you will find hardly anything,” said Khalas. Despite this, the Ministry of Environment in its one and only “State of the Environment Report,” (published in 2001) said: “Domestic wastewater management is one of the greatest headaches of Lebanese municipalities and ministries.”
Although some improvements have been made, the headache remains. Most of the country’s approximately 250 million annual cubic meters of household wastewater (sewage) still reach the sea untreated, with only 4 percent of total wastewater in the country undergoing minimal treatment. The country’s only major wastewater treatment facility is located at Ghadir, which is equipped with a 2.6-kilometer-long pipeline that releases wastewater at a depth of 60 meters. Three more facilities being built in Tripoli, Batroun and Damour are almost operational. Consequently, most of Lebanon’s waste still reaches the sea through 53 outfalls, 16 of which are located between Dbayeh and Ghadir, north and south of Beirut respectively.
Apart from a lack of planning and initiative from successive governments to rectify the sector, it still lacks an adequate and sustainable business model. As of 2010, there was no independent wastewater tariff to cover the costs of upgrading infrastructure and the only cost recovery vehicle the government had was in the form of a municipal fee. The Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW) is currently compiling a plan to introduce new tariff structures for all water utilities and seems to have adopted a fixed charge, plus a progressive volumetric tariff as the optimal solution. The ministry is still studying the details of pricing.
Further inland, dozens of smaller wastewater treatment facilities have been built, often in cooperation with international aid organizations. In total, international organizations have committed $898 million to wastewater management in the country and $200 million has already been spent. The schemes that have been partially funded are expected to become operational by 2015 with the remainder of allocated funds being dispersed and implemented between 2013 and 2020. The ministry estimates that areas not covered by existing donor schemes will require around $500 million in funding for schemes that could be implemented by 2020.
Even if that funding arrives, many such facilities that have been built as yet remain non-operational, said Abdul Samad. “Most international aid organizations did construct a facility, but not a network, while the majority of Lebanese are not connected to a sewer network.”
A main reason behind this is the lack of proper coordination and cooperation between Lebanese public institutions under the control of opposing political parties. Through 2010 and for years previous, the opposition has controlled the MoEW while the Prime Minister’s party has controlled the CDR.
“Under the current institutional framework, there is no integration between policy-making and investment planning and execution in the WSS [Water Supply and Sanitation] sector,” reads the World Bank’s latest report on the water sector in Lebanon from June 2009. “The MoEW is responsible for setting the strategic direction of the sector, while the CDR is de facto leading the investment planning and execution, given that the bulk of the sector investment is financed by donors,” the report states.
This lack of coordination is further complicated by the fact that the prerogatives of the Council of the South, the Central Fund for the Displaced and the four regional water authorities all have some say, or role, in implementing projects in the sector.
“In addition, some of the technologies introduced are not suitable for the Lebanese context,” said Abdul Samad. “The mandate of most international aid organizations dictates that they use certain technologies that need to be imported from the donor country. One facility was built at an altitude of 1,700 meters near Chekka, while the technology used is meant for the tropics. In addition, maintenance becomes expensive, as spare parts too have to be imported from the donor country.”
The Air Quality Research Unit (AQRU) has monitored air pollution over Beirut since 2008. The results are alarming, as the concentration of gasses and particles in the air is at least twice the norm set by the World Health Organization (WHO). As Beirut has hardly any industry, the city’s ever-growing fleet of cars is regarded as the main culprit. AQRU is a joint research effort by scientists from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Université Saint Joseph (USJ). While the first institution focused on the presence of particulate matter (PM) in the air, the latter researched the prevalence of gasses such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. PM are tiny particles floating in the air, defined according to their size in micrometers — PM10 are particles with a maximum diameter of 10 micrometers, PM2.5 have a maximum of 2.5 micrometers, and so on. “PM10 reach until the throat area and can cause asthmatic reactions, while PM2.5 can reach the lungs,” said Najat Saliba, AQRU coordinator and associate professor of chemistry at the AUB. “PM1 particles are so small they can directly enter on a [cellular] level. We will start our PM1 research only next year.”
The AUB team installed its measuring equipment at three locations across Beirut, near AUB, Basta and the National Museum, and found that the PM10 concentration increased as they went inland. An average of 44 PM10 units per cubic meter (u/m3) was recorded near AUB, which increased to 61u/m3 near the museum. The concentration of PM2.5 varied less, from 19.4u/m3 near the AUB to 21.5u/m3 near the museum.
The bad news is that both averages are significantly higher than the WHO standard, which is set at 20u/m3 and 10u/m3 for PM10 and PM 2.5 respectively. Still, Beirut can take some comfort in that it is a far cry from Cairo, which in 2007 had an overall PM concentration of 169, making it the world’s most air-polluted city.
“We measured pollution at an elevated level, usually at the 3rd or 4th floor,” said Saliba. “Next year we will start research on a street level, where concentrations are likely to be higher.”
Meanwhile, the USJ counterpart measured gas levels at 23 sites across the capital and concluded the presence of nitrogen dioxide exceeded WHO standards by 5 percent in April and by 25 percent from September to December. “Beirut is in a fortunate situation,” said Saliba. “The sea wind normally cleans the air. However, in autumn and winter the opposite is true. When it is cold in the morning and warm in the afternoon, a situation of thermal inversion occurs and the pollution is somehow trapped. That’s when you see most smog on the horizon.”
There is today a growing body of evidence that both indoor and outdoor urban pollution have a significant negative impact on public health and may result in chronic bronchitis, respiratory disorders, cancer and even premature death.
Impacting our lives
With the country generating some 1.5 million tons of waste every year— nearly 40 percent of which is dumped illegally — widespread upstream contamination of drinking water, untreated sewage reaching the sea and high concentrations of harmful particulates in air in urban areas, the impact on our health, though hard to quantify, is invariably negative and affecting a large and growing number of Lebanon’s citizens.
So, despite all the economic growth the country may be experiencing and the constant spree of political crises that consume so much of our collective energies and attentions, if nothing is done to stem the damage being inflicted upon the environment in which we live, it will become a much more salient truism that if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.