The problem of rubbish in Lebanon

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The problem of rubbish in Lebanon


The environmental effects of too much rubbish don’t stop at borders. Daniel Hilton reports from Lebanon

The mornings after winter storms in Lebanon are usually a time of sweet relief.

Commuters find the Beirut streets are easier to use again, skiers look forward to new snow in the mountains, and the wind and rain don’t attack Syrian refugees’ shelters.

But after a winter storm in January, the small Mediterranean country woke up to a different kind of problem.

Lebanon has a terrible rubbish crisis, which now appears to go beyond its shores and into the Mediterranean Sea.

In Zouk Mosbeh, just north of Beirut, metres of rubbish covered the shoreline so that you could not see the sand.

Pictures of the rubbish attracted the attention of Lebanon and countries abroad, and of the international press.

The country’s waste problem began in 2015, when the Naameh landfill serving Beirut and the surrounding area finally closed. This was seven years later than planned and with no other site from the Lebanese government.

With nowhere to take the 3,000 tonnes of rubbish, the rubbish began piling up in Beirut, rotting under the summer sun.

Thousands of protesters went onto the streets calling for a solution.

Lebanon has a broken government, corruption, and poor infrastructure, and so it was impossible to find a solution.

After the experience at Naameh, which was to take in 2 million tonnes of rubbish but they think it held 15 million tonnes when it closed, it was a big problem to find somewhere to replace the landfill.

‘When people saw that it was managed so badly, no-one wanted other people’s rubbish in their region,’ environmental activist Ziad Abi Chaker told the New Internationalist.

‘Then the government decided to try seashore landfilling, which I think is a big environmental “crime”.’

Lebanon is a small, mountainous country, about half the size of Wales. It has few areas of public land to hold large landfills. It only has its 140-mile Mediterranean coast.

So, because of little time and money, the government opened two coastal sites, Costa Brava and Burj Hammoud. This helped the country’s problem. It also started again a policy of using landfill as a form of land reclamation. Lebanon has done this since the end of its 1975-90 civil war.

They say the two landfills are safe. But when lots of rubbish is washing up on the shore every day, it tells a different story. Environmental activists have showed pictures of dead fish in the sea near the coast.

And the Environment Ministry says the two sites did not pass an environmental test.

The environmental and health effects of the rubbish problem are now a human rights issue in the country.

‘Human rights cover many 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 signed an international legal agreement on the right to health of its citizens.’

HRW investigated one of the effects of the problem: the burning of rubbish in 160 sites across Lebanon, which is toxic and can be deadly.

In February 2018, Health Minister Ghassan Hasbani said they are treating more than 6,000 people for illnesses as a result of the problem.

‘We haven’t looked into other effects like on the environment, on sea water, on drinking water,’ says Khawaja.

The rubbish in the waters of the Mediterranean is also a problem for Lebanon’s neighbours. So far other countries have not taken action.

Lebanon is one of 21 Mediterranean countries with the European Union, that signed the Barcelona Convention, a United Nations international convention to protect the sea they all share. But the convention says that the United Nations Environment Programme can only take action when another country’s government asks for it. So the future does not look good with very little money and a Lebanese government that is not working very well.

And of course, Lebanon has other problems which are perhaps bigger than this environmental disaster. There is the seven year old Syrian war with more than a million Syrians moving to find shelter Lebanon, making the population 25 percent bigger.

So when Lebanon goes for help to the international community, such as at the conferences soon in Rome, Paris, and Brussels, security, the economy, and refugees are at the top the list.

And the Lebanese government says they are planning to build incinerators to burn the rubbish in the next two years.

‘I would like to say we can soon see at least the end of the problem,’ says environmental activist, Abi Chaker. ‘But I just don’t see it.’

Hsiao-Hung Pai’s new book is ‘Bordered Lives: How Europe Fails Refugees and Migrants’ (New Internationalist),


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).