Beirut waste disposal dispute part of bigger crisis in Lebanon

Government inaction on rubbish left on streets is blamed on political difficulties

A Lebanese woman covers her nose from the smell as she walks on a street partly blocked by piles of garbage in Beirut. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP

The sky was blue over Beirut yesterday after clearing had been completed of smouldering mounds of rubbish that had remained in the streets for two weeks. But the clearance did not signal the end of the crisis.

On Tuesday, as I descended the green mountain slopes along the Damascus highway to Beirut, the sky was overcast and the city and the azure Mediterranean disappeared in a brown haze of pollution. Black smoke rose from burning rubbish while diesel-fuelled vehicles and generators spewed smoke into the air.

On a popular radio phone-in programme, Madame Mireille greeted callers with "Bonjourein" ("Two good days") before letting them spout. The chief topic was rubbish. One angry man shouted, "We have no electricity, no water, only garbage. Is this Lebanon or Congo?"

Electricity cuts, multiplied by lines burnt by rubbish fires, plague the city as temperatures hover around 40 degrees. Bowsers deliver water, often from illegal boreholes, to homes, businesses and hotels. The government’s supply cannot cope with demand.


Drifts of unrecycled rubbish had piled up on Beirut’s streets due to the closure of the city’s landfill on July 17th. Although smothered in white powder, the rotting rubbish stank, attracted flies, mice and rats, and was a serious health hazard at a time when tourists and tens of thousands of Lebanese expatriates have flooded into the country.

Smoke and birds flying over an illegal dump near the international airport were cited as a danger to flights. Mountains of rubbish festered outside the main flour mill near the port. Temporary dumping sites have been opened for a month but the crisis remains unresolved.

The existing landfill is full to capacity, nothing has been done to develop new sites, and villagers living in mountainous areas reject the creation of new landfills in their neighbourhoods. The Beirut municipality has called on the government to authorise the hiring of specialised firms to dispose of the waste abroad.

Prime minister Tammam Salam blamed cabinet inaction on the domestic political crisis which has left Lebanon without a president for more than a year, with a parliament beyond its expiry date, and politicians locked in bitter disputes over military and security appointments.


Salam warned the cabinet could “hit a dead-end” if solutions were not found to continue work in the absence of a president. Iran-backed Shia


and the secular Shia Amal movement have warned that bringing down the government, which has assumed presidential powers, is a “red line”.

Some Lebanese hold responsible former Saudi-backed prime minister Saad Hariri, who is allied to the owner of Sukleen, the company hired to clean the streets and deal with rubbish disposal. His aim, it is said, is to oust the weak Salam government, initially formed by consensus as a stop-gap measure until a new president is chosen by parliament.