As the airplane descends into Beirut airport, eager passengers gazing out their windows are greeted by the sight an apocalyptic garbage-infested city about to implode. This same city which was named by the New York Times as the number one among the 44 places to visit in 2009, was recently featured by the same paper as a nauseating city being eaten by its own garbage.
This abysmal state of the Lebanese capital as well as the country, is mainly due to the failure of the cabinet to manage a political crisis which started when the presidency fell vacant over a year ago. The different Lebanese factions in parliament could not agree on who to elect as their next president.
Up until recently, these same factions banked on the cabinet under Tamam Salam to control and resolve the challenges of everyday governance. However, the cabinet, technically the only functioning constitutional institute, failed to deal with an outwardly simple case of sanitation.
The Lebanese state, starting as early as 1994, commissioned a private company, Sukleen, to collect and process the garbage in and around Beirut. This contract would gradually expand to include processing and recycling the garbage of other areas across Lebanon. While the aforementioned company carried out the provisions of the contract, it was the responsibility of the state to provide it with landfills in which the compacted and processed waste would be buried.
While the government did pass a number of solid waste management plans, the most recent in 2010 under former PM Saad al-Hariri, none of these plans were fully implemented. On 17 July, the main landfill which the state had designated in Naameh, south of Beirut, was closed down. This feat was the result of years of campaigning by local groups to protest at the environmental impact of the dump, which has long exceeded its original capacity.
As a result, Sukleen suspended its garbage collection operations, after the Lebanese authorities failed to provide an alternative to the Naameh landfill. Consequently, Beirut as well as the whole of Lebanon gradually transformed into mountains of garbage.
However, this fiasco goes beyond typical government corruption or incompetence, to a more sinister failure to even manage the system of clientelism and corruption for which Lebanon is so renowned.
Sukleen held a partial monopoly over waste management across Lebanon mainly because of the fact that no other entity presented a rival bid in the past. This recently changed as eleven old and newly established companies, in partnership with leading international waste management firms, applied to five regions excluding Beirut and its suburbs. The reason that none of these firms jumped at the Beirut bid was that they will be faced with the same problem as their predecessors - what to do with the garbage with the Naameh landfill closed.
Coincidently, these 11 companies are, in one way or another, a reflection of predominant political powers in each of these districts. These entities and parties are no longer content with getting mere crumbs from the $128mn yearly contracts previously awarded to Sukleen. In plain terms, these companies and their patrons each want to get paid for the garbage their own communities/sects produce.
Ironically, the calls of decentralisation have been first implemented in the garbage issue rather than with rural development or administrative decentralisation. The federalism of garbage will allow each of these political patrons to distribute his earnings via the respective municipalities and thus ensure the continuity of their hegemony awaiting the next parliamentary elections.
As it sits, the $128mn Sukleen receives is deducted from the Independent Municipal Fund which is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior. In a nutshell, all the reigning political establishment covets these funds and are willing to let the country reek of garbage until they get what they want.
While in the past such standoffs did occur over similar contracts - telecommunication, electricity, public works etc - none was as dangerous as the waste management issue.
The piles of garbage across the country don't only tarnish the somewhat feeble image of Lebanon as a leading tourist destination, but it also brings with it long forgotten diseases and epidemics, malaria being one. This crisis was further augmented as some citizens foolishly believed that setting the garbage ablaze would rid them of the problem, exasperating an already bad situation.
The Lebanese cabinet has convened on a number of occasions since the start of the crisis, but thus far no serious solution seems to be on the horizon. Most of the deliberations have been over where to dump the garbage rather than how it can be processed to produce clean energy for example. One innovative idea was for Lebanon to export its garbage to Sweden or Germany, something which Lebanon's seafaring ancestors the Phoenicians would certainly be proud off.
Waste management, just like governance, is a science rather than an art. The Lebanese ruling junta has thus far failed to grasp this notion and understand that in order for their immoral system of corruption and nepotism to prevail, they must be proactive and ensure that these standoffs do not last as long as the garbage crisis.
While greed and corruption appear to be the main driving force of this junta, what is certain at this stage is that the Lebanese at large cannot bet on anything changing anytime soon, but when election season comes along, they should keep in mind that their ballot doesn’t go to the garbage.
- Makram Rabah is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University’s history department. He is the author of “A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967–1975” and a regular columnist for Now Lebanon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: File photo shows Beirut where visitors today are greeted by the sight an apocalyptic garbage-infested city (AFP)