BY: MARIKA ANNUNZIATA
Every morning the sun rises on the expanse of garbage that covers Zouk Mosbeh beach in the north of Beirut. This umpteenth environmental and health disaster has triggered an eternal and lasting political controversy.
Some apparently believe that the waste and garbage, which extend as far as the eyes can go, has been transported by the streams and water courses that have their origin in the mountain villages under the control of the Catholic party Kataëb. On the other hand, those who strongly criticized the government authorities claim that the sea washed ashore detritus and flotsam coming from the Bourj Hammoud landfill site, in the north-east suburb of the Capital. However, the immense junk heap on the seafront has afflicted the country for the past several years and it is still in need of a long-term solution.
According to “Recycle Lebanon”, a citizen’s initiative meant to coordinate and oversee the measures with regard to environmental protection, assessed that both the waste coming from the mountain villages and the garbage dumped into the landfill hastily built near the coast, float away into the sea unrestrained.
Recycle Lebanon along with the citizens’ organization “Tala’at rihatkoum” have been trying to come up with an environmentally friendly solution to the abnormal amount of waste, which is afflicting the region since August 2015. In fact, the “Tala’at rihatkoum” (which literally means “you stink”) manifesto was launched in 2015 condemned the negligence of the political establishment with regard to the tons of rotting and putrefying garbage in Beirut, exacerbated every year by the summer heat. Nearly seven months after the protests held in Beirut, which were often suppressed by the Lebanese police, the government adopted a contingency plan that involved three coastal landfills in the metropolitan area of Beirut, the energy recovery from waste incineration and the decentralization of those sites.
Groups of civilian volunteers have been cleaning the Zouk Mosbeh beach every weekend since December 2015, but the storms and bad weather continue to carry-over new waste. A real Sisyphean task, which does not deter the mobilization of resources however. Born at the same time as Recycle Lebanon, the Recycle Beirut organization has recycled over one hundred tons of waste each month by employing Syrian refugees.
Regardless, the government still needs to find a solution to the environmental and health crisis, the causes of which go back to civil 1975-1990 Lebanese war. Since the 70s and during the civil war, ruthless dumping of garbage and toxic material started to occur along the shoreline of the capital forging the Normandy landfill, from the name of a nearby luxury hotel, and the Bourj Hammoud dump site, where the Armenian refugees’ camp was located, dating back to the 1915 genocide. At the end of the conflict, the Normandy landfill was dismissed by the Lebanese Company for the Development and the Reconstruction of Beirut Central District “Solidere”, founded in 1994 by the Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. On the other hand, due to the post-war chaos the Bourj Hammoud landfill stayed open until the end of the 1997: the waste mountain reached the height of almost fifty-four meters, the equivalent of a five-stories building. On that date, the Minister of Environment Akram Chehayeb envisaged a seven year-long emergency program, in an attempt to supersede the unlawful deposit of waste, by opening a new sanitary landfill near Naameh in the south of Beirut.
However, in the meantime the mountain of garbage remained untouched. That is where, in 1987, a large number of blue barrels filled with toxic material were dumped. According to Greenpeace “15,800 barrels of different sizes and 20 containers of toxic waste were illegally exported from Italy to Lebanon. Gunmen of the right-wing militia “Lebanese Forces” covered up the operation, bribed by a share of money paid by an Italian company to Lebanese traders. Lebanese authorities did not take notice of the imported waste because the country was ravaged by a civil war from 1975 until 1990.”
The barrels were scattered across the country in stone quarries and disused factories while many were buried in the landfills. A report prepared in 1988 at the request of the Lebanese Minister of Health pointed out the harsh reality: those hundreds of barrels contained a high concentration of dioxin, explosive materials, nitrocellulose and heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium. For the first time that year a permanent bathing prohibition was introduced in Beirut.
However, the authorities in Italy have been claiming since 1989 that all the waste had been retrieved and returned on board one ship, the “Jolly Rosso”. The Italian Ambassador to Lebanon, Mr. Carlo Calia, repeated in 1995 the claim that there was no toxic waste from Italy left in Lebanon.
Nonetheless, Greenpeace discovered afterwards that three other ships carrying Italian waste never arrived back in Italy, hinting that their poisonous cargo was also dumped in the Mediterranean Sea.
Furthermore, during the night of August 29th 1994, the inhabitants of a Kesrouan village prevented the Ministry officials from dumping nineteen barrels into a quarry near the Abraham river. The Minister of Health made fun of the hysteria, which infected the general public and stated that those drums where harmless. Simultaneously, Greenpeace obtained an authorization to collect samples and later published the results proving that those barrels contained the same toxic material of those arrived from Italy.
Another governmental investigation was open, showing the high degree of corruption of the officials of the Lebanese Ministry of Environment and their implication in the Italian barrels’ affair.
In February 1995, Dr. Pierre Malychef was charged with perjury because he publicly declared on television that the toxic materials contained in the blue barrels were dispersed all around the country and into the sea; Dr. Malychef was sentenced to two weeks in prison. No one else at the time was charged of the environmental crimes committed in Lebanon.
The specter of the toxic barrels came back in 2016 after the Lebanese Cabinet implemented a new emergency plan, promoted by the Minister for Agriculture Chehayeb. Planning to employ the Bourj Hammoud site as raw material for the embankment intended to accommodate two of the three new landfills of Beirut, the mountain of waste was loaded onto dozens of dump truck and dumped in open Sea by the Khoury Contracting Company.
As a result of several local fishermen demonstrations, supported by international environmental associations, on June 13th 2017, the Environment Minister Tarek Khatib publicly acknowledged that his government’s main solution to a long-standing rubbish crisis had been to dump it straight into the sea. “The agreement between the contractor and the governmental Council for Development and Reconstruction requires reclaiming the sea. Therefore, waste should be buried in the sea,” Environment Minister admitted to reporters.
Khatib said he had sent letters to the CDR to “rectify” the situation and that he was trying to find the “best way to limit” the damage. The minister made those remarks following a visit to the coastal Burj Hammoud landfill in Beirut’s northern suburbs in June 2017, after videos emerged on social media sites showing trucks dumping rubbish in the Mediterranean Sea, causing widespread outrage.”They are taking garbage from this mountain that has been there for 20 years and throwing it into the sea,” Wadih Asmar, an activist from the “You Stink” campaign behind the garbage protests in 2015.
Following the example of the Naameh landfill, the emergency plan has become a long-term solution: the Costa Brava and the Bourj Hammoud dump sites set up in 2015 have been expanded and their deadline was extended indefinitely, following the decision taken by the Lebanese Government on October 26th 2017. The Cabinet also decided that they would construct an incinerator, a policy that is crowned “les nouveaux rois des déchets” (the new kingdom of waste).
Since 2016, over 600 millions of dollars of public money have been allocated for waste management in Lebanon and in Beirut. Thus it appears clear that in Lebanon nothing is lost, nothing is recycled but everything can be turned into gold.
Marika Annunziata holds a Master’s Degree in law from LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome with a main concentration in European and international law. Marika is currently a trainee attorney and is studying in order to further pursue diplomatic career in Italy.
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