A Shadow Hangs Over Lebanon, and It's Not the Economy, Politics or War

The 'You Stink' protest may have faded, but piles of trash, littered beaches and neglect of international environmental standards remain, spelling disaster for Lebanon

Residents cover their noses as they walk past garbage piled up along a street in Beirut, Lebanon, August 26, 2015.
Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

The wave of protests that brought thousands of Lebanese citizens to the streets in 2015 to demonstrate against the authorities' slack management of garbage and pollution has since faded, but trash continues to pile up on the streets of Beirut and other cities. Inadequate waste management remains a health risk and wastewater contaminates the country's Mediterranean coastline.

"If someone has four or five children, where could he take them? If his salary is $500 or $600 a month, where could he take them?" laments Adnan Daouk in an interview with Middle East Online at Beirut's only public beach. The nicer, cleaner beaches are all private ones that charge entrance fees.

Those who cannot afford to swim at private beaches are left to wade in seawater that takes in whatever is expelled from sewage pipes in Beirut and other coastal cities. Fishermen are also complaining that the fish are being poisoned by the sewage and that water near the shore has turned olive green from the filth. “The day will come when we certainly won't be eating fish anymore,” said fisherman Abou Mahmoud.

>> Read more: Lebanon was once as prosperous as Dubai. So why is it now more like Greece? | Opinion ■ In photos: Trash pollutes Lebanon’s Mediterranean coastline

Under the slogan "You Stink," the 2015 protests urged to government to introduce more efficient waste management measures and correct its lax attitude and mismanagement of the dangerous pollution levels in the country, which far exceeded international standards. The Lebanese government promised to act and even committed to opening several modern landfills, but not much has changed.

A fisherman dangles his line to catch fish in polluted water off Beirut's seaside Corniche, Lebanon, June 23, 2019.
Mohamed Azakir/Reuters

According to a 2014 study conducted by researchers at the American University of Beirut, 77 percent of all waste produced in the country is either openly dumped or buried in landfills. Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 that there are more than 150 open dumps where waste is burned on a regular basis, leading to malignant and chronic diseases.

Lebanon’s Health Ministry reported in 2018 that the incidence of cancer rose 5.5 percent annually between 2005 and 2016 – or 80 percent for the entire period. The average global increase for the same time period was a much lower 33 percent.

But it's not only garbage and sewage that threaten the health of the Lebanese public. Environment Minister Fadi Jreissati admitted in March that he can't control the quarries that mar the landscape and cut through mountains and hills, spreading hazardous dust that leads to lung disease through the air. There are some 1,200 quarries in Lebanon, he said, but only one has applied for a license and only one was granted a license to mine sand. 

"After 40 years of chaos, I am required ... to find a solution in 40 days,” said Jreissati, appointed in late January along with Lebanon's new government after months of deadlock. He called for enforcing the law, implementing the decisions of the National Council for Quarries and Crushers and arresting and prosecuting those who act outside the law – in short, turning Lebanon into a law-abiding state, at least in this area.

But none of this has happened. Years-long habits, franchises and holdings taken by force, fear of police confrontations and ties with those close to the government dictate a polluted reality in the country once considered France’s branch in the region, its capital dubbed the Paris of the Middle East.

A protester holds a poster with Arabic that reads:" No to the death incinerators," during a demonstration in front of the municipality building of Beirut, Lebanon, July 4, 2019.
Bilal Hussein/AP

The various shades of poisonous black and gray also emanate from the thousands of diesel-powered generators that have become an intrinsic part of Lebanon's urbanization, an attempt to overcome the chronic shortage of electricity.

Over the years, the government has invested billions of dollars in the national electricity company, but the money made its way into private pockets while the company's failed management has turned it into the biggest debtor in Lebanon. It represents a significant portion of the national debt, which amounts to more than $85 billion, or 155 percent of the gross domestic product.

'Say no to incinerators'

The public has not remained silent in face of the many environmental dangers it faces, and activists launched a petition in early July, entitled “Keep the risk of cancer away from our children – no to incinerators.” But it was only signed by just over 5,000 people. 

"We don't rely on declaration on the proper operation of incinerators that are going to be set up in Lebanon to the effect that they meet international standards," the petition reads, arguing that "generations of governments hadn't succeeded in dealing with much lesser problems. The government should enforce the law or oversee its implementation."

A crane unloading white bags of waste at a landfill in Ouzai, an impoverished neighborhood in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, Lebanon, July 3, 2019.
Bilal Hussein/AP

The government admitted last year that roughly half of the 6.5 million tons of waste generated in Lebanon every day is dumped at unregulated sites, along the coast and near population centers. But even garbage buried in proper landfills poses a risk, as it doesn't go through adequate treatment before its disposal.

Furthermore, industrial waste, leftovers from construction sites, used batteries and waste from olive presses and slaughterhouses are dumped randomly in any vacant lot. Homes in some seaside communities now overlook mounds of garbage, when only a few years earlier their residents could see the Mediterranean Sea.

It’s not just health and environmental concerns. The pollution also leads to economic damage. Lebanon can no longer offer clean beaches to the many tourists that visit the country, and Jordan has limited imports of agricultural goods from Lebanon over concerns they may have absorbed dangerous substances.

hen recounting dangers to Lebanon’s stability, the war in Syria, sectarian rivalries, a severe economic crisis and Hezbollah’s domination may spring to mind, but it seems that a time bomb ticking in the country’s landfills, air, generators and pulmonary and oncology hospital wards might be the real threat.