By Paul Gadalla
Rai Insights Contributor
BEIRUT: Not only is the Lebanese government’s latest solution to the 9-month-old garbage crisis shortsighted, it could spell disaster for the country. Activists and citizens in general should not retreat from the protest movements and instead continue their call for a sustainable solution for the country’s garbage woes.
Lebanon’s environmental record since its civil war, which lasted from 1975-1990, has been nothing short of appalling. Before the Civil War, Lebanon had the reputation of being the greenest country in the Arab East with 35% of its territory forested and its emblematic cedar found in more abundance. Now its forests only cover 13% of its territory due to unbridled construction, lack of legislation protecting the environment and a migration of people towards the capital as little investment has been put in other regions.
The civil war also saw the environment put on the back burner with cases of illegal dumping and quarrying by various militias being rampant during the war years.
Unfortunately, post civil war governments have been just as negligent if not more harmful to the environment. Although there is a Ministry of Environment that oversees environmental affairs, it is practically toothless as it has no way to enforce any environmental laws and lacks any type of security agency to enforce rules. There has also been no forsight used in managing Lebanon’s waste, with only 10% of it recycled.
Successive governments have done little to stop ever expanding real estate developments and quarries that have ate up Greater Beirut and the mountains. To add insult to injury, many Lebanese MPs and ministers were behind much of the destruction due to their links to the business elite or actually owning companies taking part in the environmental destruction.
One such case is Sukleen, the main waste collection company for Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Sukleen charged some of the highest rates in the world for garbage collection that Lebanese municipalities were forced to pay. Sukleen’s policies were rarely challenged and constantly had their contract renewed by the government.
With the streets clean, citizens rarely challenged Sukleen as they dumped tons of trash into landfills whose capacity was stretched to the brink. With such disregard towards the environment and no legislation calling for recycling, a garbage crisis was bound to happen. With the main dump used by Sukleen finally shut by activists in the summer of 2015, trash began to pile up across the country spurring citizens to take to the streets.
Two opportunities were missed here though, both by the protesters and the government. The protesters, although they had every right to demand it, bit off more than they could chew when they called for the resignation of the government, and new elections with a different electoral law. The parliament and the council of ministers are needed to pass laws, and elections and forming new governments can be quite the ordeal in Lebanon and would only delay a solution. Yes, citizens had a right to be angry, but it would have been better to draw up a draft environmental law and focus on getting it passed in parliament instead a of a whole range of demands that were not realistic and scared off possible supporters.
The second missed opportunity was for the government’s chance to actually push necessary reforms that the country desperately needed. The government played foul by dealing with the protesters harshly, marring Lebanon’s image as a more liberal state and holding bids for new trash companies that would only charge more than Sukleen. Also, in such dire economic times in which Lebanon needs more investment and tourist dollars, the government chose instead its age-old method of merely putting a band-aid on the problem instead of solving it. First it began disposing of garbage in makeshift dumps, including next to the Beirut Port and agricultural land. As these makeshift dumps began to overflow with trash and with the threats of more street protests, the government merely decided to reopen two old dumps and build another dump close to the sea and airport.
The ramifications of what the government has done are already being felt. Recent studies show there are more carcinogens in the air, garbage in the sea, and a mosquito and fly infestation. For a country that relies on tourist dollars and wealthy expats, these types of shortsighted solutions will only have a ripple effect across the country as pollution adds up, driving away potential visitors and investment. Unfortunately as the streets and makeshift dumps are being cleaned, once again protests have dried up. Without any pressure, the government will continue its reckless environmental practices, which threatens the entire country.
- A new environmental law that calls for strict waste regulations and recycling across Lebanon and the creation of a security agency tasked to enforce environmental regulations
- Making environmental practices mandatory in Lebanese schools
- De-centralizing waste collection, giving municipalities greater power in waste collection and the money to do so
- Establish more recycling plants across the country
- A clear and transparent tender process for waste management companies for Beirut and Mount Lebanon
These are policies that protesters and activists can swiftly push for. Without quick action, Lebanon’s environment, the very sea we swim in, the air breath and food we eat are at risk.
We should not give up hope yet though. With the oncoming municipal elections, new parties are finally being formed to change the status quo. Yes to be honest, they not make huge victories in the elections as sectarian parties form huge alliances to block any opposition but they can act as an effective opposition as long as they stay focused on realistic demands.
*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon