The current trash crisis doesn’t bode well for the government’s ability to deal with Lebanon’s other problems.
BEIRUT — On a normal weekend night, the revelers at Floyd the Dog, a bar in one of this city’s rowdiest party neighborhoods, spill onto the sidewalk, drinks in hand, to smoke cigarettes in the warm Mediterranean air.
But Saturday night, the few patrons at the bar remained inside with the windows shut; a newly installed fan near the door whirred, trying to keep the stinky air outside from flowing in.
Across the street a gargantuan pile of trash overwhelmed three dumpsters, and, after a week of baking in the sun, its fumes had drastically reversed the bar’s fortunes.
“Businesswise, last Saturday night at this time was completely full,” said Ibrahim Kadi, a bartender. This week, however, had been, “a disaster.”
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Lebanon is suffering from a spreading garbage crisis that has left huge mounds of trash piling up across Beirut and elsewhere. Many Lebanese see it as a new, more pungent manifestation of the country’s often impotent politics.
“This is a very important indication of how dysfunctional the government is and how incapable it is of dealing with the basic demands of the population,” said Mario Abou Zeid, a research analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
The trash crisis also did not bode well for the government’s ability to deal with the country’s other problems, he said.
“If on such local matters they can’t even function and agree, how can they agree on the bigger issues?” he said.
The civil war in neighboring Syria and the more than 1.2 million refugees who have fled to Lebanon are taxing the economy and the government’s ability to provide services.
Political divisions have left the country without a president for 14 months, and the current parliament extended its own mandate last year, essentially re-electing itself after failing to agree on a law to govern new elections.
Dysfunctional politics are nothing new in Lebanon, a country with 4.2 million people before the Syrian civil war. Since Lebanon’s own civil war ended in 1990, a constellation of mostly sectarian political parties have tried to govern the country through consensus — a commodity often in short supply.
The mounting trash crisis is the most recent example of an issue for which the government has failed to find long-term solutions.
For nearly two decades, garbage from Beirut and much of central Lebanon was sent to a landfill near the town of Naimeh, south of the capital, but by now the disposal site has taken in many times its intended capacity.
The communities around the landfill have complained about its smell and blamed it for health problems. Last year, to protest a new extension of the dumping contract, families from those communities blocked the landfill’s access road, causing trash to pile up in Beirut.
The demonstrators opened the road after the government assured them it would use the next year to find an alternative. It did not, then gave itself two three-month extensions and has still failed to find a new place to put the trash.
So on July 17, the protesters returned, saying they had lost faith in the government and vowing to remain until a new solution could be found.
The mounds of stewing garbage, and public frustration, have only grown.
“To allow this to happen in Beirut, a very congested city, is beyond comprehension,” said Karim El-Jisr, a regional director for the environmental consulting firm Ecodit. “In other countries, the Cabinet would simply resign, but this is a reflection of a dead end in the policymaking environment.”
Lebanon’s Cabinet met on the trash-collection issue last week and adjourned until Tuesday without reporting any progress.
“You just can’t leave it on the street,” Jisr said. “The economic cost and the social implications of that are just huge.”
Some politicians have accused Sukleen, the waste-collection company, of using the crisis to push the government into a lucrative new contract.
Even the leader of the extremist group and political party Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, addressed the crisis, calling it a “massive failure” of government, and said he was “ashamed” to even talk about it.
In a speech over the weekend, Nasrallah chided Hezbollah’s critics in the government who have called for his group to disarm, saying “establish a real state and then come talk to us about that.”
Last Saturday, a few hundred protesters rallied in downtown Beirut, some hurling bags of garbage over the barbed-wire-topped fence erected to protect the government headquarters.
“Take the trash from the streets and put it in the ministries!” they chanted.
Many of the protesters said the trash was only one of the issues that bothered them, also citing poor utility services and rampant government corruption.
“I am not here just because of the trash, but because of the water and the electricity,” said Azza Kabbany, who said the smell of the trash on her Beirut street had infiltrated her home.
“We smell the trash in our house, and then they burn it and we get the bad smell of the plastic,” she said.
Elsewhere in Beirut, some residents have set fire to trash piles to clear sidewalks, and others have burned tires in protest of the trash buildup, filling neighborhoods with acrid smoke. On Monday the state-run telephone company, Ogero, said that damage caused by burning garbage knocked out telephone and Internet service for 6,000 subscribers.
Many Lebanese have taken to social media to share pictures of their local trash piles, post selfies with trash men in their trademark blue uniforms, or mock the country’s politicians. Over the weekend, hundreds of protesters blocked a main highway south of Beirut because of reports that the government planned to dump the trash in their area. Security forces opened the highway Monday after clashes that wounded three activists and four police officers, local news media reported.
At Floyd the Dog, Kadi, the bartender, said he and his colleagues had no choice but to keep working despite the smell.
They tried to make light of the trash pile visible through the bar’s bay windows, hanging a sign that read, “Only because the mountain view is breathtaking.”
The local businesses had hired a man with a small tractor to clean the street, but the fumes had made him sick before he finished the job, Kadi said.
He had little faith that Lebanon’s politicians would do much better in finding a lasting solution.
“They’ll never solve it,” he said. “They’ll just put a Band-Aid on the wound, even if it’s critical.”