Refugee Crisis Highlights Need to Address Lebanon’s Waste Disposal Deficiencies
In the absence of a clear official policy on dealing with the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon, municipalities where refugees have settled are being forced to play a leading role in the management and provision of services. This has placed significant pressure on local infrastructure, with the increase of solid waste generation being one of the most visible effects of the crisis at the local level. The World Bank’s socio-economic impact assessment of the Syrian crisis showed that waste generation has doubled and even tripled in some areas of the country, leading to water contamination and the spread of various types of diseases. However, while the fact that waste generation has increased following the influx of refugees cannot be refuted, the absence of a cohesive and sustainable solid waste strategy is the primary cause of the current waste management crisis.
Already contending with very limited financial and human resources, local authorities collect and manage a significant portion of total solid waste in Lebanon. This, despite the fact that municipalities lack the free will to adopt a consistent solid waste strategy, and remain financially and administratively dependent on the central government and the Independent Municipal Fund’s inadequate and unfair distribution of resources. Such conditions limit their management capacities, especially given often weak coordination between municipalities.
The absence of a national waste strategy and the consequences this has had on local authorities account for the severity of the current problem. Since the civil war, and later between 1998 and 2006, the Ministry of Environment dealt with waste in line with an emergency plan. In 1996, the state gave Sukleen, a private waste management company, permission to open a landfill in Naameh to receive waste from Beirut and Mount Lebanon. While the landfill was slated to offer a temporary solution until a national waste strategy was adopted, the situation developed differently in practice. As a result of the prolongation of the emergency plan, Naameh landfill still receives 3,000 tons of solid waste every day, three times the amount it was designated for. This has prompted protests from local residents against the overuse of the site. The most recent deadline to close the landfill, which has been pushed back several times, is set for 17 July 2015. However, with the failure to find alternative landfill sites, the closure of Naameh will likely further exacerbate problems in processing solid waste.
The various extensions of the emergency period, which prevented the adoption of an agreement on a long-term strategy, left the task of selecting new landfill sites to private stakeholders. Already engaged in waste disposal, these actors have, however, still not identified new locations. Therefore, the overuse of the Naameh landfill and other similar practices by private companies not only offer examples of the absence of a sustainable policy, but are also one reason why municipalities must contend with exorbitant costs to have waste collected from their jurisdictions and disposed of. In the case of Sibline, a village in the Shouf Qada where Sukleen is operating, garbage is only collected from dumpsters by Sukleen, leaving what is thrown outside of them on the streets. To address this, the municipality hires twenty-one workers daily to collect trash from the streets, meaning they pay about twice as much for the same service. In other instances, such as in the Zahrani Municipal Union, financial constraints have left local authorities to deal with garbage collection services on their own. The union was not able to collaborate with the New Trading and Contracting Company (NTCC), which charges $95 per ton to collect and dispose of waste, and two villages refused an offer made by the municipality of Zrariyeh to collect and dispose of their waste for a cost of $50 per ton, three times less the amount Sukleen charges. This has led to the use of informal collectors who pick up trash, which is dumped on the outskirts of villages or in makeshift dumps.
Some municipal leaders claim efforts to formulate a national waste strategy are slowed by an inability to identify new waste sites. The reason, however, appears to be political, since local officials point to conflicting interests among power holders. The mayors of both Sibline and the head of the Zahrani municipal union say the majority of money in their towns is spent on cleaning services and blame the situation on “the absence of proper planning and management.” The mayor of Sibline, among other local officials interviewed, described the agreement between Sukleen and the state as being “imposed.”
While top authorities point to municipalities’ propensity to use illegal dumping sites, local leaders argue that they are engaged in efforts to manage solid waste in responsible ways, be it through forestation such as in Sibline, or in the case of Zrariyeh, a plant that converts garbage into usable fuels. There are many examples of initiatives launched by municipalities across the country to process and properly dispose of solid waste, which demonstrate the potential for local governments to deal with the crisis. However, the prolongation of the garbage crisis by politicians, some of whom have a stake in private waste collection, represent an obstacle to local efforts being supported. The need for central government intervention to address this national waste crisis is pressing, especially when needs generated by the refugee crisis are growing.
It should be recognized, then, that refugees are not the cause of Lebanon’s current waste management crisis. Instead, the influx has certainly added to the crisis, and the refugees’ presence has highlighted systemic problems rather than accounted for the overload of the system, which was already overloaded. Given the scale of the crisis, these problems are unlikely to be solved if private companies do not offer fair prices and, more importantly, if money is not released by the central government allowing local authorities to manage their localities. This suggests that the relationship between local authorities and the central government should be rearranged to empower the former. In the meantime, the government must follow up on its duties to share the burden of both refugee and local communities hosting them. Taking advice from municipal leaders could be a good start since they are the people who most often deal directly with both the refugee crisis and solid waste management.