Lebanon has never gotten nation-wide waste management right. In 1971 the government hired a local consultant to help write a plan for treating and disposing of the country’s waste, according to the consultant’s website. While the company declined an interview request, the existence of hundreds of open dumps around the country attest to the fact that it was never implemented. Even if it had been put into practice, it would have been a casualty of the civil war. In the quarter of a century since the war ended, policy makers did very little to soundly manage the nation’s garbage.
In 1997, cabinet enacted an emergency plan for Beirut and its immediate suburbs. It awarded contracts for waste collection and disposal to companies founded by Maysarah Sukkar, a Lebanese who had been successfully operating waste incinerators in Saudi Arabia. His local company began operations which it is still conducting under the name Sukleen. A lesser known sister company, Sukomi, treats and disposes of the waste Sukleen collects. The companies’ service areas expanded to include the capital and five nearby districts (namely Keserwan, Metn, Baabda, Aley and Chouf). By Ministry of Environment estimates, the Sukleen/Sukomi service area accounts for around 50 percent of the nation’s garbage. The vast majority of this waste – over 80 percent according to Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk – ended up in the Naameh landfill, some 20 kilometers southeast of Beirut. While the most common thing one reads about Naameh is that it was filled beyond design capacity, what few report is that new sanitary cells were added as more space was needed. Naameh was not an environmental disaster. It was a properly managed, modern sanitary landfill. The fact that it was receiving 125 trucks of garbage per day – including putrid, rotting organic materials – however, meant it stank. Executive stood on top of the sanitary landfill after it closed and noticed no foul odors. Residents living near it have long wanted it closed and became more forceful in their demands in January 2014. That year, they blocked access to the landfill and uncollected waste piled up on the streets of Sukleen’s service area as there was no place to put the garbage if the company collected it. The result of this street action was a government promise to close Naameh in one year’s time. Simultaneously, cabinet appointed a committee to find an alternative waste management plan for the country. Neither happened as planned.
Looking for solutions
Naameh’s closure was slated for January 2015. Cabinet extended that deadline to July, but dragged its feet on finding a solution. The plan was to tender waste management for the entire country while relying on the tender winners to decide how and where to treat and dispose of waste. As Executive noted in March, the initial tender deadline was far too close to the deadline for closing Naameh for a real solution to be in place in time. Further, finding a location for a new landfill or other waste treatment facility has always been problematic in Lebanon because no one wants to live near them. This problem is only compounded by the country’s sectarian diversity – sect A does not want to accept the waste of sect B. After extending the tender deadlines, Minister Machnouk announced winners on August 24, more than a month after Naameh closed. The following day, after an uproar over the supposedly high fees winners would have charged, the tenders were cancelled. In early September, cabinet approved a new plan that has not yet been implemented at time of writing.
While garbage piles were a common site in administrative Beirut in July, the city soon found a temporary solution and began depositing its waste in a parking lot in Karantina. Indeed, according to the Ministry of Environment’s website, Machnouk instructed all of the nearly 300 municipalities in Sukleen’s service area to inform the company where to dump. Those that could not find land were deprived of collection services and trash continued to pile up on roadsides. The ministry did not compile a comprehensive list of “temporary” dumping grounds, but activist photos and Executive’s observations reveal that municipalities were disposing wherever they could, with no thought of the environmental repercussions. On top of that, open burning of garbage became a national phenomenon. Again, numbers don’t exist, but the Ministry of Environment recognized trash burning as a problem outside of Sukleen’s service area before Naameh closed, and visual evidence, photos and inconsistent reports from Lebanon’s firefighters – the Civil Defense – suggest the problem only worsened after the landfill closed.
What none of the decision makers who closed Naameh with no alternative in place seem to understand is that the trash crisis has serious associated costs. It will be all but impossible to fully clean this mess. The long-term environmental and human health costs will be paid for years to come, even if measuring their exact amounts is impossible. What we do know from Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon is that the opportunity cost in the tourism and hospitality sectors is significant. 2015 could have been a much better year if not for the filth now spread throughout the country.