Lebanon needs to clean up its act

The country lacks a long-term waste management strategy

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive
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Lebanon is once again staring down a waste management crisis, with news that the Costa Brava and Bourj Hammoud landfills will reach capacity in 2018—two years before the government’s initial estimate of 2020. In response, the cabinet is reportedly considering a proposal to reopen the infamous Naameh landfill, whose closure in 2015 sparked a crisis that left garbage piling up in the streets of Beirut.

The government adopted a temporary fix to the crisis in March 2016, when it began dumping waste from Beirut and Mount Lebanon into the two new coastal landfills. Now that these landfills are filling up faster than expected, the government is discussing yet another emergency solution.

The waste management problem was never actually solved—the government just pushed the garbage out of sight. The 2016 “fix” was just another short-term emergency measure, the latest in a string of emergency plans adopted after the end of the civil war in 1990.

The new landfills have been plagued by controversy and lawsuits since their inception. The Ministry of Environment says that neither landfill had an environmental impact assessment, so it remains unclear what effect they will have on people living nearby. Garbage at the Costa Brava site, which is located near the airport, attracts birds that have become a threat to planes, and therefore, public safety. At the Bourj Hammoud landfill, videos show trucks dumping garbage into the sea, and local fishermen have protested the amount of garbage they are now catching in their nets.

Meanwhile, outside of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, the situation is even worse, but gets far less attention. Lebanon’s garbage crisis didn’t really start in 2015—that’s just the year it reached Beirut and Mount Lebanon; the wealthier parts of the country.

Lebanon has never had a comprehensive waste management system that covers the entire country. The central government contracted two companies, Sukleen and Sukomi, to manage solid waste for most of Beirut and Mount Lebanon under a 1997 emergency plan, but municipalities in the rest of the country have been left largely to their own devices, without the resources or expertise to adequately manage their waste.

A burning problem

A forthcoming report from Human Rights Watch outlines the health implications of openly burning waste. Over the course of my research for the report, I’ve spoken with families who live close to open dumps that have burned continuously for years. Many have told me they have respiratory illnesses, that the smoke has at times driven them from their homes, and that they live in constant fear of a long-term health impact on them and their children. Doctors treating these residents say they believe burning trash was the cause of their respiratory illnesses, and that it could take years for its long-term effects to become clear—including, for example, on the incidence of cancer. And researchers at the American University of Beirut found that burning waste during the 2015 crisis released dangerous particles in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, with potentially severe health effects.

Waste-burning and the garbage crisis are symptoms of a larger problem in Lebanon: a decades-old failure to develop and carry out a long-term national waste management plan that is based on public-health principles and is environmentally sound.

Fortunately, unlike some of the other challenges facing Lebanon, there are clear solutions to waste management: About 90 percent of Lebanon’s solid waste is made up of materials that could be composted or recycled. However, at the moment only 8 percent is being recycled and 15 percent composted. The rest is being landfilled, dumped, or burned; the government has not even taken the basic step of providing a convenient recycling option in Beirut.

Researchers have already put together proposals for a sustainable solid-waste management plan, informed by public-health principles. And environmental organizations such as Cedar Environmental and Terre Liban have already shown that it is possible to apply sustainable waste management practices in Lebanon.

With yet another crisis looming, the government urgently needs to end its reliance on short-term emergency plans. It should finally adopt a sustainable solution that respects the health and environmental rights of its citizens.

Bassam Khawaja is the Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @Bassam_Khawaja