Beirut is bracing itself for another trash-pocalypse

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

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Like a bad smell, Beirut’s garbage crisis just won’t go away. 

Residents of the Lebanese capital spent much of last summer navigating their way around mounds of trash on the streets after the city's main landfill ran out of space.

The issue sparked protests in Beirut and elsewhere in the country, which morphed into a wider campaign that attracted people angry at government dysfunction and a host of related problems.

Nearly eight months since the crisis began, the Lebanese government has failed to find a permanent solution. Now the company in charge of managing the trash is threatening to halt collections yet again. 

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The problem this time around is a familiar one. When the landfill that received Beirut’s waste was closed by the authorities in July last year, the private contractor in charge of the city's waste set up a temporary dump within the city. That site, in the port area of east Beirut, is now full.

“The company has not received an answer from the governor of Beirut over an alternative option for us. For this reason, we shall stop collecting trash on the 24th of this month,” Pascal Nassar, a representative of waste management company Sukleen, told Al-Akhbar newspaper on Tuesday.

The governor, Ziad Chebib, responded by insisting that “there will be no piling of the garbage on the streets of Beirut on February 24, and we hope that a quick solution is found for the trash crisis.”

Chebib did not elaborate on what that solution might be, but Lebanon’s environment minister, Mohammad Machnouk, suggested going back to the already full-to-capacity landfill in Naameh — the closing of which sparked the crisis last year. 

“Right now we are facing a crisis which is accumulating on the ground, so we need to get rid of it by any means possible,” Machnouk said, according to the Daily Star.

Protesters stand on a wall that police erected in downtown Beirut to separate cops and protesters. The police took down the wall less then 24 hours after putting it up following an outcry. 

The Naameh dump, south of Beirut, was itself supposed to be a temporary solution to a similar garbage crisis 20 years back. When it opened in 1997, the plan was that it would take around 2 million tons of waste, but today it holds more than 15 million. The site was kept open for years longer than it should have been, despite protests from locals who insisted it was damaging to their health. The authorities eventually closed the site in July last year when residents blockaded it and refused to allow garbage trucks entry. 

Since then the local authorities haveburned trash, dumped it in valleys and on hillsides across the country, and piled it in temporary dumps.

The government has discussed building more landfills, expanding existing sites, and even exporting the trash to a third country, but none of these plans has come to fruition. 

“It’s really a circus,” said Hassan Chamoun, an activist with the YouStink movement that launched the protests last year. “Suddenly after two months of speaking about exporting the garbage the government decides they are not going to do it any more. They are not taking responsibility.”

Many protesters who came out on the streets last year suspect corruption is at the root of the garbage crisis. 

More from GlobalPost: Lebanon's got 99 problems, the trash is just one 

Writing when protests were at their height, Maha Yahya, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, described the protesters’ concerns like this

“Sectarian balance is considered at all levels of government. Even government positions and economic gains from public contracts tend to be distributed on a sectarian basis. The system has facilitated unprecedented public forms of nepotism and clientelism — so much so that Lebanese politicians see no shame in calling for the appointment of their own relatives to public posts and openly demanding their share of the pie.” 

Chamoun and the You Stink movement are calling on the government to allow municipalities to find their own solutions to the crisis, something the government has so far resisted. 

“Those [municipalities] who have been given the resources to act independently already have solutions,” he said.