Every minister deserves to be in jail. By closing the Naameh sanitary landfill without an alternative in place, our politicians committed a crime that will continue damaging this country for years to come. And the calamity we are currently living through was predictable – in fact, we foresaw this.
When residents near Naameh clogged Beirut’s streets with trash in January 2014, our elected officials decided to close it one year hence – with a possible three-month extension. In April 2015 (27 months later, or over a year after a ministerial committee had been tasked with organizing a tender to avert the current environmental catastrophe), the first competitive bids to manage solid waste in Lebanon’s post-war history closed. On July 17, 2015, so did Naameh. Chaos ensued.
According to ministry of environment estimates (see story page 20), 99 percent of Lebanon’s garbage gets collected. Apart from the Sukleen service area and select other major cities – Tripoli, Zahle, Saida, etc. – municipalities handle that task. Unable to finance proper waste disposal facilities, facing resident opposition to living near such facilities, or both, our cities generally do not dispose of what they collect in an environmentally sound way. Before Naameh closed, some 26 percent of the country’s waste was simply thrown in – or very near to – someone’s backyard. Unsorted, untreated and sometimes set on fire. Open dumping of trash (which poses risks to human health and can contaminate soil as well as ground and surface water) and the uncontrolled combustion of it (which increases the risk of cancer for those lucky enough to savor the stinking aroma) are well documented, decades-old problems in Lebanon. Closing the country’s largest sanitary landfill added another 2,500 tons PER DAY to the mix.
It’s disappointing that the government cancelled the tenders. Forgetting price – and the inherent accusation of corruption that comes with it here in Lebanon – for just one second, let’s remember that we would have had all of our garbage collected, treated and disposed of for once. On top of that, the prices seem reasonable (see story page 20). We could have had a window into that world. One of the winning joint ventures had pledged to list 30 percent of their capital on the Beirut stock exchange – finally allowing public scrutiny of a waste manager’s financial statements.
But past is past. Going forward we need to act fast and think practically, not ideologically. We’re in an emergency situation. We must all immediately begin reducing the waste we generate and sorting our own recyclables to keep as much trash from the open dumps as possible. To fix our garbage problem once and for all, we must accept the cost and locations of modern waste treatment facilities or else we’ll continue choking on our own trash.