Beirut’s rubbish crisis piles up evidence of Lebanon’s political failings

Last week I mentioned, almost in passing, the mountains of rubbish in Beirut that had gone uncollected for six days because no one knew where to dispose of it after the Nehmeh landfill south of the city, the traditional home of the capital’s refuse, had formally closed.

During this last week, the situation has grown, literally and metaphorically, from a shameful reflection of a country’s inability to deliver on its basic obligations, into a shining example of the utter uselessness of Lebanon’s political classes. It is one that might have actually begun the process of dislodging the outdated, cynical and exploitative sectarian social contract that has existed between the Lebanese and their “leaders”.

The basic facts of this sorry tale beggar belief. The state, finding itself with nowhere to put tens of thousands of tonnes of unseparated waste, panicked and decided to simply hide it. Lorry drivers were dispatched to surrounding valleys, clearings, parking areas and, one instance, a major underpass, and told to dump the refuse and drive off as if nothing had happened.

The orders, it appears, came straight from the top. This is not just a shocking instance of criminal damage on a national scale, it has at once exposed the breathtaking incompetence of a group of people who really have no business running a country and insulted the intelligence and dignity of an entire country.

It is hard to believe, for example, that Lebanon has an environment minister, even if we readily acknowledge that the position’s existence is based primarily on providing a quiet political sinecure. If the job were offered to a genuine technocrat, instead of an establishment figure like Mohammad Machnouk, we might not be on this mess.

But this is Lebanon, and Ziad Abichaker, a modern day Lebanese hero – an engineer who has devoted his life to helping local municipalities find affordable and efficient ways of dealing with Lebanon’s chronic waste problem – was never in the running.

As well as encouraging households to separate their rubbish, Mr Abichaker has also developed ways to transform waste plastic into solids to be used in replacing wooden and steel panels. In short, he can build structures such as the Colonel brewery in the northern district of Batroun out of shopping bags. Not bad going, eh?

Mr Machnouk would argue that his ministry is powerless to fulfil its mandate, but if the truth be told, in the past quarter of a century, a period when environmental issues have been near the top of most countries’ agendas, his august institution has failed to develop any meaningful green initiatives, not even compulsory recycling. Nor has it clamped down on any of the grotesque environmental abuses that have afflicted our once beautiful natural landscape.

Piles of rubbish are the norm while the sides of mountains have quite literally disappeared into the pockets of politicians that are happy to provide building material for Lebanon’s construction boom. Meanwhile, hunters happily blast away at anything that moves, including rare eagles and migrating birds, leaving hundreds of thousands of empty cartridges to litter the countryside.

Only now that the citizenry of Beirut is suffering are ministers rushing to unveil novel ways of dealing with our rubbish (the Swedes, for example, have apparently run out of their own rubbish and are willing to buy other people’s to heat their homes) but sadly, it is a case of too little too late.

The tourist industry was already looking for a miracle to eke out an existence this summer, but this, along with the seasonal water shortage and a reminder from the World Bank that Lebanese businesses (and presumably homes) experience roughly 150 hours of power cuts a month, has surely destroyed any hopes for a decent “harvest”.

So what to do? Lebanon has always used the “Look at us! What do you expect? We are a dysfunctional country in a tough neighbourhood” argument, but this environmental disaster is a reminder that we have a choice: We can continue to elect nincompoops, gangsters and scoundrels and face a life punctuated by conflict and the odd short-term economic boom, or we can opt for the chance of having a thoroughly modern future shaped by the talent and passion of a new generation of talented Lebanese.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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