Rivers of garbage threaten to turn Beirut’s waste crisis into a public health emergency (VIDEO)

A trash collector removes piles of waste from a street in Beirut on Sept. 10, 2015.
Joseph Eid

BEIRUT, Lebanon — A garbage crisis that has plagued Beirut for months could be about to turn into a health emergency.

Since the country’s largest landfill closed in June, trash has piled up in the streets of the capital while the government has failed to find alternative means of disposal.

Local authorities tried to alleviate the impact on residents by dumping the garbage in industrial areas of the city — but a change in the weather may have scuppered efforts to keep the problem out of sight and out of mind.  

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Flooding caused by heavy rainfall over the weekend sent rivers of garbage flowing down a number of residential streets in Beirut, a development that ministers have warned poses a significant public health risk as the city’s water supply is threatened with contamination.

Videos of trash-currents floating past parked cars spread on social media. 

Lebanon’s health minister, Wael Abu Faour, said the city had reached a “danger point.”

“This is especially true in the long run once the toxic material leaks into the environment,” he said in a statement.

Faour warned as early as August that Lebanon faced a “health catastrophe” unless a solution to the crisis was found, but politicians have been unable to come up with a suitable plan.

The reason behind the delay is a familiar one in Lebanon: a hopelessly divided government that is unable to agree on anything.

The country’s various political parties, which are split along sectarian lines, are by and large strangers to compromise.   

This gridlock comes at a time when Lebanon is beset by crises. It has been without a president for more than a year, electricity is intermittent at best, corruption is rife, the country is hosting more than a million refugees, and militants from Syria threaten the country’s eastern border.

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A total of 30 parliamentary sessions have been held to elect a president, but the country’s major political blocs can't agree on a candidate. Parliament has extended its mandate twice — the last election took place in 2009.

The trash crisis has sparked large-scale protests in the capital, many of which were met with a harsh police response.

Environmental campaigners had warned that the country’s main landfill, Naameh, was full for some time now, yet no preparations for an alternative site were made.

Formed in mid-July as a response to garbage piling up in the streets, a campaign called ‘You Stink’ — which organized the protests — has galvanized a weary public that has grown sick of official inaction and corruption.

The government approved a plan in September to expand two landfills and temporarily reopen the site in Naameh. But critics have called it insufficient, and residents of the towns where the landfills are to be expanded have vowed to prevent it from happening.