Lebanon’s rubbish state: A metaphor comes to life

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The current deluge of trash symbolises the essence of a country built on vast inequality - Lebanon is now both literally and metaphorically rotting

“Either the contracts are extended or you will drown in garbage.”

According to Lebanon’s Al Akhbar newspaper, these were the words of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in October of 2010, when he warned a cabinet session of the repercussions of failing to renew the contract of private waste management company Sukleen, run by Hariri family friends.

Since the 1990s, Sukleen has been responsible for waste disposal in Beirut and the Mount Lebanon governorate.

Now, less than five years after Hariri’s prophecy, the drowning has come to pass: over the last week, the streets of the Lebanese capital have been inundated by heaps of festering garbage.

But the mess has to do with a lot more than contract extensions.

On 17 July, Sukleen’s latest extension expired in tandem with the closure of the Naameh landfill south of Beirut, which has since 1997 absorbed much of Lebanon’s refuse.

Meant to operate for only six years, the landfill was also on the receiving end of its own fair share of extensions, thanks to which it is now at 500 percent capacity.

In an effort to mitigate their own engulfment in garbage, residents of the area have blocked roads to ensure no further Sukleen deliveries to Naameh. Which brings us to the question: why, if the domestic calendar has been marked for quite some time with the impending closure of the landfill, has the government not managed to devise an alternative arrangement?

Granted, Lebanon’s leaders have as of late had their hands full not electing a president, not fixing Lebanon’s dismal electricity situation, and not attending to the needs of the majority of the inhabitants of the country, where the poverty rate exceeds 60 percent in some areas.

Indeed, many media outlets have attributed the garbage situation to the institutionalised dysfunction that passes for a state in Lebanon. Reuters, for example, recently observed: “The stench of uncollected refuse in the streets of Beirut is a stark reminder of the crisis of government afflicting Lebanon, where politicians divided by local and regional conflicts have been unable to agree on where to dump the capital's rubbish.”

And while political and sectarian squabbling no doubt accounts for much of the inertia in sorting out day-to-day chores like garbage disposal, there’s also a (related) socioeconomic angle. As a blog post by the Beirut-based environmental consultancy firm Ecocentra noted last year, the government’s “major difficulties [in] finding an alternative location” for waste stems in part from the fact that poorer regions are justifiably opposed to being used as trash bins for the capital.

According to Lebanon’s Naharnet website, officials from the neglected and underdeveloped northern region of Akkar recently rejected a proposal that would have overseen Akkar’s debut as the new Naameh.

Meanwhile, Lebanese journalist Habib Battah notes that certain politically connected areas like Beirut’s Zaitounay Bay have “been insulated from the mounds of garbage piling up in other parts of the city”.

Although the New York Times described the waterfront promenade as Lebanon’s “new luxury playground” in 2012, the paper nonetheless baulked at the idea that Zaitounay Bay was “just another glittery attraction out of reach to average Lebanese”. After all, it had “hosted an open-air Christmas market, with a lighted olive tree”.

Never mind that the average Lebanese is not Christian, or - more importantly - in possession of the financial wherewithal to be acquiring goodies at high-end Christmas markets.

Incidentally, Zaitounay Bay is itself built on a stabilised landfill. But rather than conceal the putrid foundations of contemporary Lebanon, the aseptic glitz embodies them rather well.

Of course, the current deluge of trash even more aptly symbolises the essence of a country built on vast inequality - a true indicator of systemic filth. Just under the much-vaunted cosmopolitan image of Lebanon, and especially Beirut, lurks a fetid set-up in which sectarian elite bank on the politico-financial oppression of the general population in order to maintain their profitable stranglehold on power.

Given the effective nonexistence of the state as well as of secular options for identity (all Lebanese are officially categorised by their assigned religion, whether they like it or not), there are few avenues of recourse for persons drowning in said oppression. Enter the illusory lifeboat of - what else? - sectarian affiliation.

Obviously, Lebanon is far from the only place on the planet where the value of a human being’s existence enjoys a direct and unobscured relationship with the size of his or her bank account. But the human hierarchy is particularly clear in this diminutive nation, and substantial influxes of Palestinian and Syrian refugees as well as foreign workers have exponentially increased opportunities for discrimination.

Among the maligned foreign worker contingent are Sukleen employees from Bangladesh and elsewhere, whose efforts to keep Beirut clean have traditionally been met with honks and curses from motorists apparently upset that the garbage disposal process cannot take place instantaneously and invisibly.

One is perhaps reminded of acclaimed historian Mike Davis’ analysis in Planet of Slums: “Constant intimacy with other people’s waste… is one of the most profound of social divides. Like the universal prevalence of parasites in the bodies of the poor, living in shit… truly demarcates two existential humanities.”

As for the current intimacy with waste that is threatening the social divide in Beirut and environs, the Lebanese government’s response thus far has been to administer white powder to the trash heaps in an effort to combat vermin and stench. On 26 July, AFP reported that, thanks to a temporary deal, batches of waste were now being carted off to “undisclosed locations”.

Needless to say, a less superficial remedy will be required for a state that’s now both literally and metaphorically rotting.

- Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

Photo: Garbage dumps seen on the streets of capital Beirut, on 21 July (AA)