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Fresh protests over Lebanon's rubbish crisis despite new deal

Authorities say they have a plan, but some furious residents have set fire to garbage and accidentally set alight infrastructure
Sign reads "no to burning" in reference to the piles of garbage amid protest in downtown Beirut (AA)

Hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Beirut on Tuesday to demand the authorities take urgent action to remove the growing mounds of rubbish left to rot in the city streets amid high summer temperatures.

Some called on parliament to resign due to the crisis, while others demanded a wider “revolution” to take place. Police and armoured vehicles were called in to deal with the protesters but the march appears to have remained largely peaceful.

The demonstration is the second to hit the capital this week, with rubbish being left to pile up in the capital and surrounding districts since last week.

On Monday, protesters rejected the so-called "Plan A" for rubbish removal, causing an earlier makeshift plan – which saw some garbage being removed to undisclosed locations - to be suspended.

Uber, the online ride-hailing service, even waded into the fray, saying that it had partnered with local companies to offer a week of free vans for recyclable waste collection.

Hours later, however, it was reported that a long-lasting deal has been reached following a lengthy emergency ministerial meeting. By 10.30pm local time, employees of Sukleen, the private company responsible for garbage removal in the capital, were spotted taking the garbage away.

The company stopped collecting garbage last week after its main landfill site was declared full and closed. Other municipal authorities with space that could potentially be used to make makeshift landfills had until now refused overtures from the capital to set up alternative dumps, but the Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk said late on Monday that dumps with spare capacity had been identified across the country.

Sidon, previously home to Lebanon’s so-called garbage island, has said that it will take some of the capital’s excess waste in exchange for $20,000 per day worth of developmental aid, although some local politicians have spoken out against the plan.

“Governments since those of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have promised to compensate cities to receive Beirut’s waste, and they have never amounted to a thing,” former Sidon mayor Abdel Rahman Bizri said in a statement.

Similar protests have also happened on the highways leading out of the bustling capital that is home to a quarter of Lebanon’s population.  

Machnouk has now promised that the government will issue contracts to construct rubbish incinerators across the country starting in August, with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri also stepping into the debate on Tuesday to urge the country to develop waste-to-energy technology as a medium and long-term solution.

Previous plans to expand Lebanon’s garbage infrastructure – some of which have been on the books for years – have largely failed to materialise. Saad Hariri is the son of long-time Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2004 in Beirut.

According to Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, Hariri will now urge for the implementation of a cabinet decision taken in 2010 aimed at introducing “thermal decomposition and waste-to-energy technologies in large cities”.

But with Lebanon’s parliament paralysed by an enduring political deadlock, many residents remain sceptical that the situation will be resolved.

Fresh warnings were issued on Tuesday to remind residents to stop burning the garbage in the streets for health and safety reasons. In some cases, the fires had spread and set alight local shops and homes.

Communication and landlines have also been hit by the makeshift fires. Some 6,000 residents were left without internet and phone access on Monday after fires were started near distribution points, the state-run Ogero company said.

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