Lebanon all at sea in face of trash crisis
Written by Malek   

Published in NYT - Beirut: There was once a nice sea view at the Al Jazira beach club, and umbrellas of palm fronds sticking from the sand are reminders of nicer days. Nowadays, the place is surrounded by an ever-growing garbage dump. “It used to be a beach,” said Hassan, a Syrian man who works as a caretaker at the club and insisted on being identified only by his first name because of a lawsuit concerning the city. “There was sea. There were rocks. I used to fish.”

Just up the shoreline, Mohammad Jradi, who has been fishing the waters of the Mediterranean off Beirut for 20 years, said the trash had driven even the fish away. “All over the world, they have solutions for this, but not here,” he said. There is no end, it seems, to Lebanon’s trash crisis, a potent symbol of the dysfunctional, sect-based politics that define this tiny country. When trash piles built up across this city two years ago, enveloping Beirut in a nasty stench, they spawned a protest movement, called ‘You Stink,’ against the political class. Now, the latest episode of the crisis has become a uniquely Lebanese story, entwining bird migration, civil aviation, mysterious gunmen and the long story of Lebanon’s struggle to become a functioning state that can at least take care of its trash, more than 25 years after emerging from a long civil war.

Last year, as a Band-Aid solution to the garbage crisis, the municipality opened the Costa Brava landfill on the shoreline, not far from Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. And so for many visitors to Beirut, a city whose shabby-chic architecture, great cuisine and French colonial influences are otherwise enchanting, the first thing to greet them was a strong whiff of garbage.

The landfill also attracted birds — lots of them — not just the sea gulls that normally fly around the coast, but others on migratory patterns from Europe and North Africa. “In other words,” wrote one local blogger, “a giant free Lebanese restaurant for birds.”

More seriously, this posed a problem to civil aviation. When an airliner with Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines hit a bird this month — an episode that recalled Capt. Chesley Sullenberger’s crash landing in the Hudson River eight years ago after hitting a flock of birds — Lebanon’s trash problem suddenly became a matter of aviation safety.

Almost immediately, gunmen showed up on the coast line, apparently deployed by the government to shoot the birds out of the sky, raising the ire of environmental activists, not to mention the fishermen.

“I used to see sea gulls everywhere,” Jradi said. “But today there are none. They were shot down.”

He added: “Of course, I am missing them. They were entertainment for us. For me, it was an entertaining scene, watching them fly.”

Activists have said that the killing of the birds was in violation of the Barcelona Convention, which aims to protect wildlife in coastal regions of the Mediterranean, and that the government could have found other solutions, like using tranquilizer guns on the birds.

“Lebanon is an important bird area,” said Paul Abi Rashed, a prominent Lebanese environmental activist, noting that millions of birds from Europe and North Africa pass through Lebanon each year on migratory patterns.

“So what you are killing are not Lebanese birds,” he said. “They are the birds of Europe. That is the catastrophe.”

The chairman of Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s national carrier, told an interviewer with the TV channel MTV this month that the safety of airline passengers was more important than the lives of birds, saying that the hunters would continue their work as needed.

The garbage problem has long been a symbol of a failure of Lebanese politics, one that activists say has its roots in the time shortly after the country’s civil war, which ended in 1990. Soon after the war ended, the government set up a trash collection company, called Sukleen, that was connected to political parties and over the years became a vehicle for corruption, say activists. This thwarted the possibility of other solutions, like recycling, and in a country as small as Lebanon it has been hard to find enough space for landfills.

“Lebanon is a very densely populated place,” said Habib Battah, founder of the news website Beirut Report, who has written about the Costa Brava landfill. “Other countries have big, open spaces, but we don’t have that.”

He said that in the long term, recycling was the answer, because when trying to find new places for trash dumps, “wherever you go in Lebanon there is a village nearby.”

Battah said the problems with garbage went back to the decision at the end of the war to privatise trash collection. He said that Lebanon offered a lesson to other post-war societies on the dangers of rushing into privatisation too fast, and that he often wished he could bring free-market libertarians to Lebanon for a field trip to see what can happen in the absence of strong government regulations.

“Basically, when you do that, people in power get richer,” he said.

Public services across the board, not just trash collection, have long suffered in Lebanon, he said, forcing political leaders to confront a difficult question: “What do you fix first? The water? The garbage? The internet?”