The Syrian refugee crisis is paradoxically helping Lebanon solve its longstanding trash disposal problem. The refugees are themselves producing more garbage, and since Lebanon has long struggled with the problem of where to put much of its refuse, the European Union was prompted to donate €14 million ($18 million) in 2014 to build more landfills along with sorting and treatment plants, much needed infrastructure projects. While change will not come overnight, this money — and a second €21 million ($27 million) grant that the EU is also expected to approve shortly — will mean that 95 percent of Lebanon will be covered by waste management facilities, says Mohamad Baraki, manager of the solid waste management program at the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR), which oversees the spending of the EU money.
Baraki tells Executive that Lebanon will use the EU funding to build five new sanitary landfills (in addition to the three it currently has) and rehabilitate an existing landfill in Zahle. This, in theory, will go a long way toward ending the relatively common practice of simply dumping unsorted, untreated trash onto empty land. A 2011 study by Earth Link and Advanced Resources Development (ELARD), a local consultancy, found there were 670 uncontrolled, open trash dumps spread throughout Lebanon. The vast majority, 504, contained standard household trash, or municipal solid waste in garbage jargon. Construction debris filled the remaining 166 dumps, ELARD found. This rather unsanitary state of affairs predates the influx of more than one million Syrian refugees in the past three years. According to Sweepnet, a regional project focused on waste management funded by Germany, 29 percent of Lebanon’s 2.04 million tons of solid waste was open dumped in 2013. Sweepnet’s numbers do not include waste from informal tented settlements, where 171,476 Syrians refugees were living at the end of August 2014 according to UN estimates.
More open dumps
A study published in late September 2014 by the Ministry of Environment estimated that refugees will produce 889 tons of garbage per day by the end of 2014, equal to 15.7 percent of waste which Lebanon generated per day in 2011, the year used as a baseline for the study. Farouk Merhebi, author of the study’s solid waste section, tells Executive that, because of the refugee crisis “the numbers [of open dumps] have probably increased, but we have no solid data. We assume there are new ones. We have seen that next to some informal tented settlements there are new dumping grounds.” However, Merhebi adds that he did not conduct enough field research to quantify exactly how the crisis is impacting open dumps. He notes, however, that in the settlements he did visit, there was evidence that trash was also being burned to minimize volume.
Once solutions are in place — Baraki from OMSAR estimates it will take two years to build a landfill — it is unclear whether Syrian refugees will still be in Lebanon and, if they are, who will collect their trash. By law, municipalities are responsible for garbage pick up, and Sweepnet reports that — excluding refugee settlements — Lebanon does collect 99 percent of its garbage, even if nearly one third of it is open dumped. The 2014 Ministry of Environment study estimates that 48.4 percent of the garbage created by refugees will end up in open dumps, but as Merhebi, the study’s author notes, limited field visits suggest at least some of the trash is being dumped on the settlement sites, meaning that no one is collecting it. Olivia Maamari, with the local NGO Arcenciel, works on recycling initiatives in settlements and says trash problems vary from settlement to settlement. “You can’t generalize,” she explains. In Tripoli, for example, she says the municipality was not collecting trash from settlements, resulting in mini-landfills within the refugees’ living space. Littering in the settlements was also a problem. “So we lobbied the municipality to collect more and did an anti-littering campaign,” she says, noting that both were successful.
She stressed, however, that trash remains a problem in most of Lebanon’s Syrian refugee settlements. The Lebanese government on October 9 once again deferred a decision to approve a national solid waste management plan, something governments have been vowing to approve for over a decade. While the EU grants will help alleviate Lebanon’s trash problem a few years down the road, until landfills and sorting and treatment plants are completed, the garbage will continue to pile up.