I have read with interest the detailed statement issued by Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb in response to the article I wrote for the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies on solid waste management in Beirut and Mount Lebanon. On the one hand, I was happily surprised that for once, a minister in the Lebanese Government has taken the time to draft a detailed response to an issue raised by a concerned citizen. Yet, on the other hand, I was disappointed that the response contained inaccurate and accusatory statements that do not serve the purpose we are all after, namely, improving the provision of public services in this country.
Minister Chehayeb first laments that my article contained misinformation. I based all my arguments on public information available in official statements, press releases, and local media. For instance, the term “Chehayeb Plan” was widely used by local media to designate the various proposals that the minister of agriculture (as the minister officially in charge of handling the waste management file) presented to the Council of Ministers. It is true that there was an original “plan” in September 2015, but that plan lacked any clear implementation mechanisms, which led to its immediate failure. As for the “new plan” of March 2016, Minister Chehayeb played a key role in facilitating and designing it, and in forging the “political consensus among the parties concerned” with the right incentives this time.
As for other information contained in the article, yes the original tender for Beirut and Mount Lebanon in May 2015 received no bids
, while the next round in August 2015 received bids
, which were deemed inefficient as they were too costly. This begs the question of why the government engaged in two successive bids within the same inefficient framework.
A key point that Minister Chehayeb is trying to push in his response is that the incentives given to municipalities and other public expenses not directly related to the waste management process should not be included in the total cost of this operation. Unfortunately, this view of how public expenses are evaluated demonstrates a limited understanding of public economics. When deciding on the feasibility of delivering a certain public service, authorities typically compute all economic costs associated with the project. These include, on top of the pure accounting operational costs detailed (for the first time) in Minister Chehayeb’s response, the costs that are incurred as a consequence of engaging in the project (what is broadly called social and environmental costs). Transfers to municipalities in the regions surrounding landfills have been explicitly linked to the waste management project, and not to any other expense item. The same is true for the rehabilitation of the Bourj Hammoud dumpsite and the LINORD projects, which were dormant until their revival was explicitly linked to the new project. Additionally, if one needed to have an even more accurate and honest computation, then it would be necessary to include all environmental costs associated with landfills, beyond the four-year timeframe, in a proper environmental cost-benefit analysis based on an environmental impact assessment study. To my knowledge, this was never done for either the Bourj Hammoud or Costa Brava landfills.
Therefore, what Minister Chehayeb calls a “reduction of the cost of handling this file” is in fact an exercise in accounting window dressing, aimed at diverting public opinion from the sad reality: Economic and environmental costs can never be lower under a new “plan” that has two landfills instead of one, irreversibly alters the seafront, and requires “incentive” payments to several more municipalities. All of this is happening despite the fact that everyone knows waste reduction and sorting at the source, coupled with massive public campaigns to promote recycling and composting, do lead to lower costs, both in terms of financial and economic costs.