9 March 2018
Mornings after winter storms in Lebanon are usually moments of sweet relief.
Commuters find the Beirut streets negotiable once again, skiers look forward to a new layer of powdery snow in the mountains, and Syrian refugees’ makeshift shelters are no longer battered by winds and torrential rain.
After one such tempest in January, however, the tiny Mediterranean country woke up to a different kind of storm – one usually preceded by a four-letter word.
Lebanon is battling a horrific trash crisis, which now appears to be literally spilling beyond its shores and into the Mediterranean Sea
In Zouk Mosbeh, just north of Beirut, yards of shoreline were covered by a layer of trash so thick the sand below was completely concealed.
Images of the washed-up waste made waves both within the country and abroad, setting off a predictable series of point scoring among politicians and attracting the attention of the international press.
It was a putrid reminder that Lebanon is battling a horrific trash crisis, which now appears to be literally spilling beyond its shores and into the Mediterranean Sea.
The country’s waste woes began in 2015, when the Naameh landfill serving Beirut and the surrounding area finally closed, seven years after the intended date and with no alternative site provided by the Lebanese government.
Without anywhere to take the 3,000 tonnes of trash the government estimates the capital and its suburbs produce daily, piles of refuse began piling up in Beirut, rotting under the summer sun.
These shocking scenes prompted thousands of protesters to take to the streets, railing against a political class deemed corrupt and ineffectual, and calling for a solution.
But in Lebanon, a country plagued by fractured government, corruption, and creaking infrastructure, finding that has proved an impossible task.
After the experience at Naameh, which was slated to take in 2 million tonnes of garbage but is estimated to have held 15 million tonnes by the time of its closure, finding somewhere to replace the notorious landfill was a challenge.
‘When people saw it was mismanaged like that, no-one wanted other people’s trash in their region,’ environmental activist Ziad Abi Chaker told the New Internationalist.
‘Then the government resorted to seashore landfilling, which I think is a completely environmentally “criminal” plan.’
Lebanon is a small, mountainous country, roughly half the size of Wales. It has few areas of public land able to hold large landfills other than its 140-mile Mediterranean coastline.
So, pressed for time and short of cash, the government opened two coastal sites, Costa Brava and Burj Hammoud, easing the country’s burden and reviving a policy of using landfill as a form of land reclamation that Lebanon has practiced since the end of its 1975-90 civil war.
The two landfills are supposed to be safe and sanitary. But heaps of garbage washing ashore every day tell a different story, and environmental activists have shared images of shoals of dead fish in the sea just off the coast.
In fact, according to the Environment Ministry, the sites never even passed an environmental impact assessment in the first place.
The environmental and health effects of the trash crisis are both opaque and deeply concerning, and have been taken up as a human rights issue in the country.
‘Human rights covers a broad range of issues…and that also includes the right to health and the right to a clean environment,’ Bassam Khawaja of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told the New Internationalist.
‘Lebanon has signed international binding legal conventions that create obligations to respect the right to health of its citizens.’
On a national scale, HRW has investigated the effects of one byproduct of the crisis: the large-scale burning of trash in 160 sites across Lebanon, which is hugely toxic and potentially deadly.
Last month, Health Minister Ghassan Hasbani admitted that more than 6,000 people are currently being treated for illnesses related to the crisis.
‘We are raising our voices and ringing the alarm to find solutions to this trash crisis. It is a national priority to ensure treatment for those affected by the several years of government failure to provide a safe environment,’ he told reporters.
‘We haven’t looked into other areas such as its effect on the environment, on sea water, on drinking water, even though there are serious concerns about their effects,’ says Khawaja.
‘Lebanon just hasn’t done the basic job of looking into those types of things, so there’s not enough information for us to make conclusive claims about those dangers.’
The waste-filled waters of the Mediterranean testify to how the issue has become a problem for Lebanon’s neighbours, too.
Abi Chaker says in an ideal situation, international bodies would begin to pressure the Lebanese government into action. ‘Then maybe our leaders would hammer some sense into their heads.’ So far such action seems a slim prospect.
Lebanon is one of 21 Mediterranean countries, plus the European Union, that are signatories of the Barcelona Convention, a United Nations international treaty to protect the sea they all share.
Though legally binding, the convention has severe limitations, as the United Nations Environment Programme can only intervene when requested by a country’s government.
‘There is a need for a positive step to help Lebanon take the measures to solve the crisis,’ Gaetano Leone, coordinator of the Barcelona Convention Secretariat, which leads on the UN Environment Programme’s Mediterranean Action Plan, (UNEP/MAP), told the New Internationalist.
‘But that is also something that needs to be done upon request as far as we’re concerned. It cannot be done unilaterally, forced on a state. It needs to be a long process of discussions, negotiations and then a request for an intervention by a member state.’
Without a proper investigation it is impossible to say how much pollution is entering the Mediterranean from Lebanon, or what its effects may be on the sea and the countries surrounding it.
And with a budget of just $11 million over two years – ‘barely the price of a small to medium yacht you see in the region,’ according to Leone – the UNEP/MAP cannot be expected to undertake such an exploration.
With ineffectual Lebanese governance and hamstrung international institutions the prognosis for the near future looks bleak
Despite this, it is clear that no good can come from thousands of tonnes of waste being routinely dumped along Lebanon’s shore.
‘Around the Mediterranean – which is a small ‘pond’ after all! – the impacts go beyond national boundaries,’ says Leone. ‘It’s not something that can be localized.’
Unfortunately for Lebanon and all other Mediterranean countries, with ineffectual Lebanese governance and hamstrung international institutions the prognosis for the near future looks bleak.
Arguably Lebanon is struggling with more pressing concerns than even this environmental disaster.
Its stability and economy has been buffeted by the Syrian war raging for seven years next door, with the conflict forcing more than a million Syrians to take shelter in Lebanon, swelling the population by some 25 percent.
So when Lebanon goes cap in hand to the international community for assistance, such as at the upcoming donor conferences in Rome, Paris and Brussels, security, the economy and refugees top the list of priorities.
Besides, according to the Lebanese government the seashore landfills are just a temporary solution, with incinerators predicted to be constructed to deal with the waste within two years.
Yet, as Abi Chaker himself has shown in a recent documentary, ‘An Incinerator for Beirut?’, this also threatens significant environmental harm, and attempts to find more environmentally friendly solutions such as waste export appear to have already fallen by the wayside.
‘I wish I could say we can see the light at the end of the tunnel at least,’ says Abi Chaker. ‘But I just don’t see it.’