BEIRUT, LEBANON —
Across Beirut, rancid mountains of garbage are a testament to Lebanon’s waste management problems.
For the past week, the city’s streets have been clogged with piles of rubbish as politicians and the company officials responsible for waste management exchange barbs and blame one another.
Meanwhile, residents are left to wonder how long they will have to put up with the stink.
“Living in this country is to ignore what’s bad and look at what’s nice," said Ramsi Salman, an architect and builder based in the central district of Geitawi. "And so you can ignore [things] to a certain point, but at some point it gets stinky like this and you can’t ignore it anymore."
Long time coming
The stench is only growing. The daily buildup of refuse, which also affects nearby Mount Lebanon, is the second in two years and has been a long time in the making, triggered by events at Naameh landfill, south of Beirut.
Opened in 1997, Naameh has since become the primary dumping ground for much of greater Beirut, and now holds more than five times its planned capacity.
Unwilling or unable to find another site, government officials pushed back landfill closure dates despite vociferous protests from locals.
But last Friday, activists blocked the road to the landfill to ensure compliance, forcing its closure.
The resulting stench not only blights the surrounding area, says activist Ajwad Ayash, but even causes increased rates of cancer among local residents.
Ayash argues the closure and its subsequent impact will help people focus on addressing the bigger problem: how Lebanon can sustainably deal with its waste.
“What we’re working for here is no landfill, no dumpsites and no incinerators," said Ayash, who vowed to remain camped at the site to prevent the garbage trucks from returning."
“The three ‘Rs’ is the only solution we are for — to reduce, re-use and recycle.”
Municipalities have been asked to dispose of their own waste as the government continues an as-yet unsuccessful search for a new site.
Sukleen — the company that collects garbage across the city — has stopped removing waste, stating that its own storage facilities are now full.
In the fallout from its decision, Sukleen has faced accusations of blackmail, with one party leader accusing it of using the situation to force the extension of current work contracts — a charge Sukleen denies.
Despite the growing severity of the situation and potential health implications, a government regularly mired in political deadlock has been unable to give a coordinated response.
On Wednesday, a governmental cabinet session failed to come up with answers, while frustrated Beirutis have taken to setting fire to piles of rubbish in protest.
“Everybody is angry,” Beirut parliamentary representative Mohammad Kabbani told VOA. “Can anybody be happy when there’s garbage on the streets; with the smells, with the pollution, with the health risks and so on?”
Longer term approach
With a number of regions declining to take on waste from Beirut and Mount Lebanon, Kabbani is calling for more support from municipalities beyond the capital.
He is also stressing the need to adopt a longer-term and sustainable approach to addressing waste.
"This is a result of two things at the same time: short sightedness and not looking and finding long-term solutions — this is number one," he said. "Number two is the chaotic political situation where the government is the weakest player in the country. The political parties are stronger, the local authorities are stronger, and this is why they oppose solutions."
Regardless of whom to blame, the towering piles of litter collecting along many streets will only grow taller until a resolution is found.
And as those piles grow, so will public anger.
Motioning toward another long stretch of festering bin bags blocking the pavement, Salman, the Beirut-based architect, was scathingly philosophical.
“It represents the state of our country, and its deterioration and paralysis,” he said. “We’re a country without a head and it’s a battle on every single issue. It goes down to the dirt.”