Overflowing garbage bins… waste piling up… burning trash in the middle of the city… some people wearing masks against the smell and the bacteria; others trying to hold their breath while passing mountains of garbage. This is what you could observe in the summer of 2015 in Beirut, when the current garbage crisis broke out in the Lebanese capital.
Until the outbreak of the crisis, the landfill Naameh received the unseparated and untreated waste from Beirut and from the areas of Mount Lebanon, which surround the capital. The Naameh-dumpsite was created in 1997 as an emergency solution to a garbage crisis that shook the country at the time. Back then, residents close to the Bourj Hammoud dumpsite protested, effectively closed the dumpsite, and so waste piled up in the streets – until the Naameh landfill was created as a contingency solution.
This emergency solution was supposed to be a temporary one, as the landfill would be shut down in 2003 and replaced by a proper national waste management plan. The closing date of the landfill, however, was continuously postponed by the authorities. This eventually led to the landfill still receiving waste almost two decades after its inauguration. The residents of Naameh protested having the landfill in their neighbourhood on different occasions and each time they were pacified with promises that the landfill would get closed. New deadlines were set, but never met. This was also the case on July 17, 2015. However, this time the residents would not give in and their protests eventually led to the closure of the landfill. As no alternative solution for the waste disposal was provided by the government, the waste remained in the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, accumulating in mounds of garbage.
After this, it did not take long until the citizens of Beirut and Mount Lebanon joined the residents of Naameh and protested this unsanitary and environmental catastrophe. Soon, the residents of other Lebanese cities joined, demanding a proper treatment of their waste. At the same time, many used the opportunity of this growing social movement to demand, among others, proper electricity supply, public spaces, the end of corruption and a change of the currently sectarian system to a secular political system.
Solid Waste (Mis)Management in Lebanon
Waste mismanagement has a long history in Lebanon. In the years of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), all the waste, including construction waste due to houses being destructed, was dumped at the Normandy landfill. This dumpsite is located along the coast off the capital’s downtown. Originally, the site was situated at a small bay, cutting 200m into the land. However, the waste dumped there accumulated and thus extended the shores for about 600m beyond the original coastline. The usage of the dumpsite was suspended in 1994; by that time, the landfill had reached a volume of 5 million m³. After its closure, the reclaimed land was transformed into an artificial coastline and became a profitable piece of land for private investors, providing possibilities for real estate investments.
The usage of the dumpsite was suspended in 1994; by that time, the landfill had reached a volume of 5 million cubic meters.
Also in 1994, the Council of Ministers contracted the private company Sukleen to provide solid waste management services for Beirut. However, the contract between the government and Sukleen is illegal: the right and duty to organize solid waste collection and disposal lies by law in the hands of the municipalities.
The decision was made nonetheless, even though there was another striking argument for not contracting the company: The Municipality of Beirut had developed a waste management plan in the same years as Sukleen. The municipality’s plan would have cost half of the amount requested by the company. Strangely, the plan elaborated by the municipality was not considered, and Sukleen was awarded instead. The Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, published an interview with the head of Sukleen, which might provide an explanation for the decision made by the Council of Ministers: Maysara Sukkar acknowledged in this interview the need for ties with politicians in order to do business in Lebanon and to flourish: The company’s service area got continuously expanded until including the areas of Mount Lebanon. Between 1994 and 2015, the contracts with the company have been constantly extended, while Sukleen’s costs increased exponentially throughout these years.
The rates the government pays for waste collection and disposal services eventually reached $147 per ton in 2015, which is nearly double the global rate of $75 per ton, and almost four times the regional average of $40 per ton. The company is still being paid through mechanisms that are pending regularization. It is supposed to get paid through the so called “independent monetary fund” that was created in the post-war years to support the financially weak municipalities. However, this fund would have to get paid to the municipalities first, who then would pay for waste management services. Yet, the government centralized waste management and instead of handing the money over to municipalities, Sukleen is currently paid directly from the treasury.
The Lebanese government had set July 17, 2015 for the closure of the Naameh landfill. The same day marked yet another expiration date of the contracts between the Lebanese government and Sukleen. However, the government asked Sukleen to continue to provide its services, even though there was a huge public outcry against the mistrusted company Sukleen. The garbage crisis proved to be a good excuse to extend Sukleen’s contracts, as there was no alternative to a dumpsite, nor for the services. That is, as no other company had the means, expertise nor equipment to substitute Sukleen. This, combined with the urgent character of the crisis, made other companies ineligible candidates for service provision.
The garbage crisis proved to be a good excuse to extend Sukleen’s contracts, as there was no alternative to a dumpsite
However, closer scrutiny suggests other solutions that did not include the Naameh landfill, or Sukleen’s services, has never been the governments’ intention.
The government launched a call for bids for the waste collection and disposal services in 2015. However, the tendering companies had to provide vehicles and a dumpsite. Yet, only short-term contracts were promised by the government, not providing companies with the possibility to recover their investments. Sukleen was provided with both vehicles and a dumpsite when it started its services in the 1990s. In the end, the bidding got cancelled due to the outbreak of the garbage crisis.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind?
The protests grew to a vast social movement, which peaked at an estimated 100 thousand people descending to the streets.
It was and still is very difficult, however, to protest one specific government authority, or against a specific political figure responsiblefor waste management, because the division of waste management is fragmented within the government. By law, the municipalities have the right and duty to deal with their waste. The Ministry of Interior and Municipalities represents the municipalities on a national level and has therefore jurisdiction over the waste sector. The Ministry of Environment has also jurisdiction over the sector. Supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Ministry of Environment has been elaborating waste management plans in the past years. None of these plans, however, has been put into practice: in July 2006 a war broke out with Israel, which itself had horrendous implications on the environment of the country: Israel had attacked a coastal power plant and during this attack, oil tanks were bombed. Thus, 15,000 tons of oil were released into the Mediterranean, causing a damage that the UN estimated to reach $856.4 million. Due to these dramatic months of 2006, the waste problematic yielded to reconstruction plans and clean-up efforts. Another waste plan, proposed in 2010, included incinerators and the burning of trash, which was opposed by the public.
The Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR) has also played a role in the solid waste sector. It has executed and financed (through the European Union – EU) several solid waste projects and awareness campaigns. Finally, the Lebanese government created the Council for Development and Reconstruction in the 1991s and put it in charge for solid waste services. It is this entity that elaborated the contracts with Sukleen, and together with the Ministry of Interior it manages the payment of the company.
Although there are many parties involved, their responsibilities are not clearly defined, making the elaboration of a proper waste management plan difficult. This lack of clearly assigned responsibilities makes it also difficult to elaborate a properly defined law for waste management. In addition, none of these many parties involved can be held fully accountable for crises like the one the country is facing. Each authority points fingers at the others and obviously, none of the government agencies takes responsibility for the ongoing garbage crisis.
Even though it was in the summer of 2015 that garbage severely accumulated in the streets, all the above shows that the country has been reigned by a garbage crisis for the past two decades and even longer. And although the cities have been largely liberated by the waste, the garbage crisis is still continuing: there are still some areas where waste keeps on accumulating. When the trash gets collected, however, it is still not treated and all sorts of waste, whether it consists of medical, industrial, household, or other types of waste, are dumped together- without treatment. Today, the waste of Beirut and Mount Lebanon is dumped in two coastal areas close to the capital (Bourj Hammoud and Costa Brava) and dumped right at the coast. This seems to be a repetition of the situation during the Civil War, when waste was dumped into the sea, enlarging the capital. The end of the garbage crisis was the major demand of the protesters and yet, it was not met. The fulcrum of the protests, with the highest number of followers, was the “You Stink” campaign.
Although there are many parties involved, their responsibilities are not clearly defined, making the elaboration of a proper waste management plan difficult
The citizens of Lebanon kept on protesting against the garbage crisis, the corrupt government, or the poor services, but on a much smaller scale. This social movement resulted in the rise of new parties that challenged the political figures in the municipal elections that took place in May 2016. Even though the new parties did not win the election, their support was very large, especially considering that they formed only a couple of months before the election. Thus, the elections showed that the population was not content with the political leaders and the political system of the country. The social movement and the parties arising from it provide hope for the people who are still facing the Lebanese garbage crisis.
Writer: Julia Strobl
Julia works for the Laimburg Research Centre for Agriculture and Forestry and for the Variety Innovation Consortium South Tyrol as Project Manager for the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project EUFRUIT. She has Master of Science in Environmental Policy Planning from the American University of Beirut. Her Master’s thesis about the Lebanese garbage crisis is entitled: “Social Movements Challenging Environmental Policies? Reframing the Garbage Crisis in Lebanon”.