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