The Lebanese waste crisis and the way forward

Protest YouStink Beirut August 29 2015 - 1

Source: A Separate State of Mind Blog

The failure of the government to implement a new Solid Waste Management plan since the closure of the Naameh landfill has caused large protests in Lebanon. One of the main demands of the protestors is a permanent, sustainable and environmental solution for the garbage problem, instead of recurring emergency measures that are implemented to solve each crisis. Protestors are also demanding the resignation of the Minster of Environment for the lack progress on this issue.

For years different Lebanese governments relied on the Naameh landfill to dump the waste of Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Opened in 1997, the Naameh landfill was originally meant to operate for only six years and receive 2 million tons of trash; it ended up running for 18 years and received 15 million tons. This current crisis is a result of years of unsustainable and inadequate solid waste management practices. Not only the current government, but all the previous governments since 1997 are to blame for state the country is in.

The current government was not able to meet two of their self-imposed deadlines for the closure of the Naameh landfill and could not agree on a new solid waste management plan. Political bickering between the main political parties has severely obstructed provision of public services, including in the waste sector. Legally, the government entities responsible for Solid Waste Management are the municipalities (Decree 8735 of 1974). After the civil war, most municipalities had little capacity and resources to undertake their designated responsibilities. As a result, the central government contracted a private company, Sukleen to collect and dispose of waste in the most populated areas in the country, Beirut and Mount Lebanon. The contract was first signed in 1996 and was paid for through the Independent Municipal Fund (IMF), which had been established to fund municipalities. Instead of investing in the municipalities and improving their capacity to carry out basic services, the central government decided to resort to continue to extend Sukleen’s contract such that in 2009, 40% of the funds of the Independent Municipal Fund went to the private company.

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Trash accumulating along Beirut river after closure of Naameh Landfill – Source: Blog Baladi

In addition, the central government failed to monitor and control the performance of the private waste collection company. In 2003, Sukleen breached a very important clause in its contract with the government, which was that 850 tons of organic waste per day was supposed to be composted; however, only 300 tons were composted and the rest was dumped in the Na’ameh landfill. This major breach should have lead to cancellation of the contract, which in fact managed to get an extension of an additional 12 years.

The original post-Naameh plan was to outsource the solid waste management to the private sector throughout the country. A tender was open and contracts awarded, but this was eventually cancelled by the cabinet because of the high prices offered, and probably under pressure from the protests. Even though the conditions of the contract had some limits on how much waste can be land filled, it was not much different from the conditions in Sukleen’s contract. The current head of the solid waste committee, Minister of Agriculture Akram Chehayeb (replacing the Minister of Environment who withdrew from the committee earlier this week), stated that the waste management model needs to be decentralized model. This means municipalities will decide how to manage their waste and that funds from the IMF should be released to help them assume these responsibilities. Chehayeb is also considering solutions proposed by the civil society.

This is a step in the right direction and should be followed by development and adoption of a solid waste management plan and guidelines that incorporate sustainable methods to manage municipal waste with focus on waste reduction. The Ministry of Environment should take the lead on this activity.

There is a high level of mistrust between civil society groups organizing the protests and the central government. It is up to the government to improve this relationship by being more transparent and work towards a positive outcome. Waste infrastructure such as treatment facilities and proper landfills could be shared by municipalities, and a proper decentralized sustainable solid waste management plan would facilitate securing funds, either through grants or low interest loans, from international organizations. Until the government manages to show a waste solution different than the previous model and be held accountable for their actions, protests will continue.

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