Thursday, December 6, 2012

Lebanon’s pile of corruption and years of neglect


By: Kaylyn Hlavaty 
Produced and edited by: Leisha Lininger

Lebanon is known for attracting tourists from all over the world to see ancient cities like Tyre and natural wonders like the famous Jeita Grotto caves. Sea travelers can see mountains that stand tall and parallel the coastline with waves brashly hitting the permanent structures.

These mountains do not have snow peaks, cedar trees or rocks. Nor do they have the slightest beauty a natural wonder should exhibit. Rather they represent generations of consumption. Plastic bottles and bags, textiles, organic waste and chemicals pile up into a man-made mountain of trash totaling 40 feet of waste.

In Lebanon, there are 670 mountains of garbage scattered across the country. Both within city limits and on the coastal regions, landfills act like permanent structures failing to blend in with the city landscape. These landfills have acted as the solution to disposing of waste in Lebanon and over the years they became permanent sights among Lebanon residents.

In contrast, 40 municipal landfills are scattered throughout the state of Ohio’s 40,860.69 square miles of land according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. These landfills are monitored and operated to ensure compliance with state and federal regulations. Lebanon’s total area is 4,014 square miles which is roughly two-thirds the size of the state of Connecticut. An Ohio resident can only imagine living in a country this small surrounded by 670 garbage dumps.

Fifi Kallab, president of Byblos Ecologia for Development and Environment has been campaigning and researching for alternatives and improvements to Lebanon’s waste management system since the 1980s.

“There is no long-term strategy for the disposal of solid waste or liquid waste,” said Kallab.

Waste disposal did not become a problem until the government had the first emergency plan put in place in 1997. The government signed a contract with the waste management company, the Averda group - Sukleen and Sukomi. This company controls the collecting of waste in the areas of Beirut and Mount Lebanon.

Two incinerators were placed in the Aamorousieh and Quarantina facility as an alternative form to landfills. The increasing popular objection against incinerators led to the residents burning down the incinerator at the Aamorousieh plant.

“We had to deal with our waste, especially in Beirut, because it’s not like the remote areas where residents burn their organic waste so we had to find a place to put it,” said Kallab.

As trash continues to be dumped in landfills along the coast, Lebanon does not have any legislation to regulate how waste is collected and disposed.

A landfill on fire off the coast of Sidon.
 Photo provided by Mohamed El Sarj
“There is no accountability within the Lebanese government when it comes to managing waste,” said Ziad Abichaker, founder of the organization Cedar Environmental.

Cedar Environmental is making an impact on environmental initiatives. Since 1999, Cedar Environmental has built 11 recycling and composting facilities across Lebanon. Achieving efficiency and sustainability is a main feature of the organization because it sorts, composts and recycles all under one roof. Instead of dumping waste that could be recycled and reused, Cedar Environmental founder Ziad Abichaker researched and developed Eco-Board. It is a durable material made entirely out of breaking down everything from plastic grocery bags to flip flops that many consumers all over the world use on a daily basis. These boards are being developed into products such as benches and bins.

“We are the only organization that builds recycling plants and operates them without sending any residues to the landfill. Everything gets recycled or reused, even clothes and shoes,” said Abichaker.

The two contractors, Sukleen, who is responsible for collecting and sweeping the streets and Sukomi who is responsible for land filling the waste have very little incentive to change the way they collect garbage in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. One concept does make Sukomi and Sukleen act like a monopoly, however. Back in 1995, Averda signed a contract for Sukleen to collect and sweep the streets. Then three years later, two more contracts were signed with Averda for composting and land filling by Sukomi.

In 2012, President Michel Sleiman along with his cabinet didn’t want to renew the contract unless new initiatives to combat the waste management were included in the contract. However, the previous prime minister, Saad Hariri, felt that it was too late to think of other alternatives so the contract was renewed, Kallab said.

“There is no solution without political decisions because we don’t need ideas,” Kallab said.“We need a transparent solution, a transparent politician and accountability for them because in Lebanon there is no accountability. They do what they want and nobody can ask them what they are doing.”

Abichaker says both contractors ran out of space for landfills. He said that both Sukleen and Sukomi managed the solid waste of Beirut and Mt. Lebanon which equals 2,500 tons of waste processed per day, but 1,800 tons of that waste is dumped right in landfills and only 400 tons is actually recycled from the contractor’s recycle containers throughout the city.

The collection of garbage in the city of Beirut and the suburb of Mount Lebanon is a daily routine. Tony Jada, a resident in Mount Lebanon who works as an engineer, says that the collection of garbage is politically based and often not done properly.

“We are not that advanced in technologies. We have some factories that help distribute the waste and some of this is used for agricultural reasons and it sometimes gets back into the ground water which causes more problems for us,” Jada said.

Sukleen and Sukomi usually collect garbage every day, which is different than the U.S. waste management companies once a week routine.

Jada adds, “the collection of garbage is chaos because of the crowded streets and the amount of garbage produced by each household.”

The amount of waste just dumped rather than recycled is costing the government more than just money. The waste produced and the way in which it is disposed is detrimentally affecting the fishing industry and marina life along Lebanon’s coastline.

The coastal region of Sidon is located 25 miles from Beirut. Away from the busy city life of traffic and skyscrapers, this ancient city may sound like it carries a natural awe overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. While it carries natural beauty from the water, this coast carries a burden; it holds a mountain of human garbage.

All the products wasted from day-to-day consumption land up here next to the Mediterranean Sea. The pollution of garbage is affecting the fishing industry and marine inhabitants along the Mediterranean coast.

Mohamed El Sarji is the President of the Lebanese Union of Professional Divers who sees first-hand the daily effects of the landfills on the fishing industry and tourism in Lebanon. Most landfills are prominent along the coastline.

“Nobody would allow garbage to be in their backyard. Most of the land is private except for the coastal area because they are public. They chose it simply because it’s free land for the people. They throw it there because no one will say anything,” said El Sarji.

In the winter the waves pound the bases of garbage piles and thousands of tons of garbage fall into the sea. The fishermen get garbage caught in their nets and as a result they have to keep buying new nets. Another percentage sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor. Then the garbage floats with the current and reaches the coasts of Syria, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.

“For us this is a national crisis. It’s a health problem for all Lebanese,” said El Sarji.
He explains how garbage is one of Lebanon’s biggest and most politically associated problems.

“We have a very corrupt government, very corrupt politicians and they will not solve any problem because they steal the money and bankrupt the country and take so many taxes from the people. It’s a very corrupt country, probably one of the most corrupt.”

There are four major landfills destroying the quality of the water and view of Lebanon’s coast. The landfills are located in Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon and Sour. The fishing industry, once a booming sector during the 1960s and 1970s, but since the civil war has steadily decreased as a major economic sector.
Garbage caught in fishermen's nets.
Photo provided by Mohamed El Sarji
The profits of fishermen are decreasing because of some species living in the region. The caves many fish find shelter is blocked by garbage, making these places inhabitable for the local fish. Once this happens, Lebanon’s most expensive species, the Calico bass and the grouper, will leave the coast of Lebanon causing the fishermen to follow.

El Sarji explains that the coastal areas are losing in two ways. The first victim he describes is not the environment itself but the fisherman because since the sea is full of garbage, waste products are getting caught in the brand new nets. Every time this happens they are losing money. The average fisherman only makes 300-500 dollars a month.

El Sarji said the other victim is tourism in Lebanon. Tourism along with banking is one of the main sectors vital to the economy.

“Nobody wants to come to a country where garbage is covering the whole area of the beach. There are some places where you can see the sand, but there could be a little garbage and this isn’t acceptable. Tourists will not go on beaches that are polluted,” said El Sarji.

The current industries in Lebanon are polluting the environment because they are out of date and have little government regulation. Lebanon is a country of consumption so it is important that the sectors of tourism and fishing stay alive and apparent in the presence of waste dumps.

“We need to make our income from tourist and tourism,” said El Sarji. “The system we have now we are lost between the two. Ministries are trying to encourage industry to grow and we want to preserve the environment. But it’s unacceptable to let industries grow because of the environment.”

Despite the lack of initiatives from the Lebanese government, civic duty has taken over with a number of non-governmental organizations (NGO) and projects trying to defeat this problem that has lasted decades. One NGO working towards a zero waste initiative with participation of local businesses is F.E.R.N, food establishments recycling nutrients.

Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli was inspired to start a project where waste was sorted and collected at the source while studying resource management at New York University. She worked with restaurants to help compost and recycle their waste into bins, which would then be taken off to an appropriate facility for recycling.

“It is an uphill battle. We just have meetings with people trying to get the word out and trying to explain what we do,” said Danberg-Ficarelli.

The project is still in its startup phase and with everything finalized in March, Danberg-Ficarelli said there are currently three restaurants working with them. She explains how one of the hardest parts is getting employees to agree with the new process because many already have their own routine figured out.

Danberg said it has been difficult to convince residents to change their household practices. When she proposes her plan to restaurants, the biggest barrier is convincing the employees that it isn’t a waste of time and explaining the reasoning behind her ideas.

“It is something people don’t know how to do because there is no opportunity to do it,” Danberg-Ficarelli said. “If you see the owners or managers enthusiastic about it than their employees will be willing to follow.”

While there is participation in the movement to reduce waste and find alternative disposal, methods, a country that has a corrupt political system makes the move toward progress long and difficult. Until the government steps up their role and takes responsibility for their country, then Lebanon risks sinking in the piles of garbage they built unless something is done soon.

“You would go nuts because you would be upset,” said El Sarji. “You have no understanding of why any human would do this to themselves and their country. We don’t understand. It’s lack of responsibility from our politicians and failure to manage a country properly.”

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