Lebanon struggles under weight of Syrian refugee influx

Crisis has placed heavy burden on fragile environment, says report

The stench of raw sewage mixed with the perfume of spent aircraft fuel and the salty scent of the Mediterranean greets visitors leaving Lebanon’s international airport.

Traffic along the airport boulevard is slowed by trundling water lorries that create bottlenecks in Beirut’s narrow streets.

The rumble of huge neighbourhoods and clack of small private generators compete with the hooting horns of impatient drivers stuck in jams.

Both generators and vehicles emit fumes and soot. Drifts of rubbish strewn on sidewalks are swept into the maws of roaring garbage lorries blocking streets. Beloved Beirut has become a nightmare city.


A report issued today by the Lebanese environment ministry shows how the influx of refugees from the Syrian conflict has placed a “heavy burden on Lebanon’s fragile environment”.

The document, Lebanon Environmental Assessment of the Syrian Conflict and Priority Interventions, shows that the May figure of 1.087 million UN-registered refugees becomes 1.4 million, or 28.9 per cent of the population, if unregistered Syrian refugees, Palestinians from Syria and Lebanese returning from living in Syria are counted.

By the end of this year, the figure could rise to 1.8 million. The influx has boosted Lebanon’s population density by 37 per cent, from 400 to 520 persons per square kilometre.

Lebanon is overwhelmed by solid waste which is either dumped or burned. Environment minister Mohamed Mashnouk tells The Irish Times that "there are dumping grounds on the outskirts of every village, town and city and some are as large as football fields".

Smouldering rubbish pollutes the land, ground water and atmosphere and creates serious health hazards.

Air pollution has been increased by rising levels of gases emitted by “refugee” vehicles, residential heating plants and electricity production.

Mashnouk says Lebanon buys 589 megawatts of electricity from war-torn Syria at a cost of $150 million (€118 million), but this barely alleviates the shortage. Large areas of the country receive only four hours of government electricity a day – two in the morning and two in the evening – and depend on private generators.

Water shortages

Water resources are being depleted at an accelerating rate and the quality is deteriorating. Mashnouk says Beirut and its environs have a shortage of 50-60,000 cubic metres a day but other regions “can manage”. The “severe shortage” could last through October and November when the seasonal rains are due – if they come.

Water resources – springs and wells – exploited by firms delivering supplies in lorries are also being depleted. The water they provide is often salty and requires filtration. My modest hotel receives two lorry loads every two days. “Good water,” states Mashnouk, “is five times more [expensive] than poor quality water.”

When asked how Lebanon will cope once the World Food Programme (WFP) cuts rations to UN-registered poor refugees by 40 per cent due to a lack of donor support, Mashnouk says: “We cannot manage.”

The influx of refugees is not the cause of Lebanon’s environmental catastrophe. Decades of governmental neglect, inaction and corruption are the main reasons for the current dire state of affairs which the flood of refugees has made worse.

The ministry’s report reveals, significantly, that only 8 per cent of human waste is treated; the rest is discharged in the sea or on land.

Although Lebanese of all social backgrounds argue that the country’s system of governance is broken and must be replaced by new political, economic and social institutions, this is unlikely to happen. There are powerful vested interests in the status quo even though the country’s very existence is jeopardised by Islamic State jihadism in Lebanon because the cabinet is divided over how to deal with the jihadis and their largely Sunni supporters in government and the populace.

Foreign fighters

The western and Saudi-sponsored Sunni-Christian coalition not only backs anti-government insurgents in Syria but has funnelled foreign fighters into Syria, hosted Syrian insurgents and provided recruits for groups trying to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

The competing Iran-backed Shia-Christian alliance bolsters the Syrian government and fighters from its dominant partner, the Shia Hizbullah movement, have helped the Syrian army roll back insurgents from Damascus, Homs, the coastal cities and along the Lebanese border.

While the West, Saudi Arabia and Iran are now on the same side in the war against Islamic State, Lebanon’s government remains deadlocked.

Analyst Marie Nassif-Debs argues that the military council – which handles operations against Islamic State – “cannot take decisions unless all 24 ministers agree”. They disagree.

“We have no president,” she continues, because parliament cannot agree on a candidate. Parliament’s mandate finishes at the end of October but there is no agreement on a date for an election. “Without parliament, civil servants cannot be paid” and could strike, she adds.

Since the conflict in Syria began, jihadi groups connected with those in Syria have formed in Lebanon’s northern port city of Tripoli and the northeastern border towns. The Sunni frontier town of Arsal has become a base for Islamic State and official al-Qaeda offshoot, Jabhat al-Nusra.

These groups clashed with the Lebanese army last month, seizing 29 soldiers and policemen. Five soldiers were freed, three were murdered (two were beheaded and one was shot) and 21 remain captive.

Their families are exerting great pressure on the government to capitulate to the hostage-holders’ demand for the release of imprisoned jihadis, some of whom have been sentenced to hang for bombings.

The government has argued that if they are freed, more soldiers could be abducted and fresh demands made.

Prisoner swap

However, in a surprise reversal of this stand, interior minister

Nouhad Mashnouk

has said that Beirut is prepared to consider an exchange.

This policy shift followed the declaration by Hizbuollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah that the movement is not opposed to a prisoner swap.

On this single issue, there seems to be an accord in a land plagued by environmental deterioration and political discord.