The story of garbage piling up in the streets of Lebanon’s chic capital of Beirut has become headline news around the world. Sadly, the garbage has become an apt metaphor for the “garbage” of Lebanon’s unresponsive governance.
The crisis began when the frustrated residents of the coastal town of Naameh—home to the landfill for Beirut and the Metn region since 1997—forced the landfill to close on July 17, after it had ballooned to five times its intended capacity. On the same day, the contract of Sukleen, Lebanon’s main waste management contractor, expired, compounding the problem. And the problem cannot be overstated. A Lebanese friend living in the US just returned from Lebanon. When asked if he had seen the garbage piles, he scoffed, “Seen them? I climbed over them!” He has already scheduled visits to the pediatrician for his four young children to check for diseases as soon as they return to the US.
The garbage crisis extends throughout Lebanon, and ordinary citizens, humiliated by having to walk along streets narrowed by festering garbage and breathe the acrid fumes of trash illegally burned under cover of darkness, have created an ad hoc grassroots movement to fight it. “You Stink,” as it’s called, is protesting the inability of the government to handle a waste management problem that even small municipalities throughout the world take care of.
The movement could be a blessing: will this finally compel the feuding government ministers to make a decision?
One can certainly hope. But the reality is that even in the best of times, Lebanon’s government is often paralyzed through political boycotts that prevent a quorum—and thus critical policy decisions. Lebanon’s current lapse in governance is exacerbated by the country’s lack of a president—the parliament has yet to elect a president to replace Michel Sleiman, whose term expired more than 15 months ago! Absent a president to countersign decrees, the country’s council of 24 ministers is supposed to make decisions by a simple majority on non-controversial issues, and by unanimity on “sovereign” issues. As a result, issues on which the government cannot reach a consensus are simply neglected. And though the council of ministers is considering the garbage crisis a sovereign issue that must be addressed, some are boycotting the council meetings over disagreements on other policy issues—essentially, holding them hostage to garbage.
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Ironically, ministers have also entered into the fray of which companies get the tenders for the new waste management contracts to replace Sukleen, and allies of certain political blocs were reportedly involved in the bidding. Six companies won regional tenders—but at bids much higher than what other Middle East countries pay per ton of garbage, resulting in such a public outcry that the council of ministers rejected the bids. Though some point out that the bids in Lebanon were for collection, treatment, and landfills (whereas what Jordan pays for waste management, for instance – about a quarter of what Lebanon pays – was just for collection), cynical Lebanese citizens surmise that the discrepancy was for kickbacks.
No matter which companies win the waste management contracts, though, there is now no place to take the garbage, except for “temporary” landfills and illegal dumping.
There are a number of proposed solutions available for Lebanon’s garbage: incineration, export, recycling by sorting at the source, alternative landfills, and rebates for municipalities to operate their own landfills. It is embarrassing for a modern capital to have its streets thronged by mounds of black garbage bags perforated by sharp items, fast food cartons, and putrid vegetable peels, with some unidentified and possibly toxic white “disinfectant” strewn on the trash. It is time for Lebanon’s council of ministers to put aside their squabbles, debate the solutions quickly, and take action to alleviate the misery of their fellow citizens. And any solution to the garbage crisis must clean up the mess of government, as well.