Wasting away

The endless shovel (Photo: Sam Tarling)

For the most part, a drive out of Beirut down Lebanon’s southern coastal highway offers a scenic respite from the city; to the right lies the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and to the left the mountains of the Chouf. But the natural beauty becomes marred when another mountain emerges to block the seascape. It is the gargantuan massif of garbage just outside the southern city of Saida that has been growing for some 40 years, due to the lack of solid waste planning and program implementation by the government.

“It was a mountain, now its two mountains and there is no place to have a third one,” said Mohamad Seoudi,  head of Saida’s municipality, which is charged with managing Lebanon’s most infamous waste disposal site. “The dump yard is overloaded. It was always overloaded. We have had to deal with this dump yard for over 40 years and the situation is now critical.”

Last month a crisis erupted in the areas around Saida when Seoudi refused to accept the garbage from the city’s surrounding municipalities. He said the reason was that they were not willing to allocate 40 percent of the money they receive from the Independent Municipal Fund to pay for separation and solid waste treatment.

This same process occurs in Beirut, where the money goes to the private waste management company Averda. This arrangement is far from cost effective, however. According to Seoudi the price of processing one metric ton of garbage comes to $170 in the capital when you include sweeping costs; by comparison, the upper estimate of the average cost of waste treatment in Germany ranges between $81 and $91 per metric ton, according to a report published by the European Commission.

Garbage began to pile up on the streets of Saida at levels reminiscent of civil war days, when the lack of functional government left garbage uncollected around the country.

“Nobody pays [for] anything,” said Seoudi “This is the difficulty, you tell them to come and share the burden and let the government manage the plant, and to deduct 40 percent from their budgets, and they don’t accept because they are used to paying nothing.”

What adds to the incredulity of the issue is that a solution is already present. Just next to the dump, a solid waste treatment plant sits idle. The plant belongs to the Lebanese-owned, Saudi funded IBC company, according to Seoudi. He said that an agreement was signed with the company to process the waste as far back as 2003 with operations slated to begin in 2005, yet nothing happened due to a dispute over pricing.

“We asked Prime Minister Hariri to deal with the issue and with the owners and they have to negotiate,” he said, adding that discussions are ongoing between the company and members of the ministries of interior and environment.

The tip of the trash mound

The Saida dump seems to be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Lebanon’s environment issues. The new Country Environmental Analysis (CEA) study on Lebanon currently being compiled by the World Bank sheds light on many of the environmental problems Lebanon faces and will continue to face if action is not taken. The study seeks to identify the difference  between the cost of mitigation and the current level of government financing to recommend policies to improve the country’s environmental standing.

As ever in Lebanon, timely figures are few and far between. But extrapolating the latest figures available (from 2005)  — which set the annual cost of environmental degradation in Lebanon at 3.7 percent of gross domestic product — into a context of today’s economy , poor environmental practices could be costing the country some $1.48 billion per year.

Proportionally, this figure is actually a decrease on the last estimate taken in 2000 when the figure was put at 3.9 percent of GDP, with the fall attributed to the one piece of major environmental policy passed by a post-war government targeting pollution. Before 2002, anyone driving down from the mountains above Beirut could hardly make out the empty Burj Al Murr tower through the thick layer of smog. Thankfully, that is no more the case, after a 2002 decision to ban diesel engines in cars.

Not surprisingly, the CEA document predicts Lebanon will most likely not achieve United Nations Millennium Development Goal Seven, which aims to “ensure environmental sustainability,” mostly due to a lack of adequate reform in reforestation, solid waste and wastewater management. The problem of solid waste was highlighted as a “major environmental problem with more than 700 open dumps used by the municipalities and where some of the waste is still burned.”

The lack of proper solid waste management also weighs down Lebanon’s poor ranking on the World Bank’s 2010 Environment Performance Index. The index ranked the country 90th of 163 countries in the world, according to the CEA study, with a noted rapid decrease in environmental sustainability since 2008.

May Jurdi, director of the department of environmental health at the American University of Beirut, said that in addition to the disease-ridden cockroaches and rodents that come with these open dumps, there are also long-term health risks associated with the lack of action. “When it rains all the garbage goes into the groundwater and into the rivers,” she said.

But getting an accurate reading of the problem and how it affects the population is difficult.

In order to assess how much the issue is affecting public health, real monitoring figures are needed, and these currently don’t exist. Jurdi said the health ministry has collected some data, but it is far from sufficient.

“The problem is that there are no clear indicators,” she said. “In countries like ours [the government is] afraid of indicators. We are a country of conspiracy theories and doubts. Everything is a conspiracy because we don’t have trust.”

Already citizens consider water from the taps undrinkable. Groundwater is the most commonly used source of water in Lebanon because of the widespread prevalence of wells in the country, and the lack of dams. The Ministry of Energy and Water estimates that the total number of private wells exceeds 42,000, compared to the 620 officially sanctioned and government-owned wells. Private wells’ total yield is estimated at around  440 million cubic meters per year while the government wells draw only 260 million cubic meters.

However, due to the fact that most of these wells are illegal, ministry officials admit that the number could be as high as twice the official estimate. As a result, no one really knows how much of the water being consumed by the people is safe or how much is contaminated by garbage.

Wasting water

Probably the most work that has been done in the past decade toward protecting the environment has been in the wastewater sector. At present 11 wastewater treatment plants operate in the country, with six others constructed but not yet connected to a network, according to the CEA study [See page 100]. When the existing facilities are all online, the country will have the capacity to treat 400 million cubic meters a year (CM/yr). At present, only 46.5 million CM/yr are being treated, according to the study.

Furthermore there is dispute over what constitutes a treatment plant and also what is being achieved. “Ghadir is not a plant because it does not have secondary treatment, Saida is a pumping station and at Baalbek, 20 percent is reaching the plant because people are stealing the wastewater for irrigation,” said Jurdi.

That practice is causing widespread public health risks, which at present are not being measured. For starters, when wastewater is used to irrigate plants, carcinogenic trace metals accumulate in the soil; change in the soil’s PH levels can cause them to enter the plants and thus be ingested by humans.

Moreover, spraying fruit and vegetables with wastewater allows fecal material to accumulate on the products, which eventually hit the market, not to mention the parasites, bacteria and viruses that are attracted to such material.

Manfred Scheu, principal advisor at the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), said that the development of the wastewater sector over the past decade is “remarkable,” given that just to find a place for a treatment plant in Europe takes around a decade. “If you are not a dictatorship [that] can expropriate land without worrying about people then this takes time. Its absolutely normal,” he said, adding that by 2020 most of the wastewater discharged in Lebanon should reach a treatable level.

Paying for it

Paying for everything will be a monumental task. At present, just covering operations and maintenance (O&M) in the wastewater sector will require an estimated 50 percent increase in the lump sum tariff that consumers pay, according to Scheu. “That is only O&M. That is not going to cover your investment. But in Lebanon it’s much cheaper, in Europe you have to double [the tariff],” he said.

So far no government official has been willing to stick his or her neck out and propose such an increase on a highly sensitive political issue of this kind.

“People are unhappy if VAT is increased but they don’t want to pay directly for services,” said Fadi Doumani, an environmental analyst and World Bank consultant who worked on the CEA report.

Last month Gebran Bassil, caretaker minister of energy and water,  declined to comment on any increase in the tariff structure associated with building new water infrastructure. When pressed by Executive on whether the plan was to borrow the money needed for water infrastructure, such as dams, he responded that the debt is already mounting due to the subsidies to the regional water establishments.

“Today the treasury is broke, the institutions are broke and the people are broke,” he said. Since Lebanon’s only law protecting the environment was passed nine years ago, no government has issued the implementation decrees needed to put it into effect. The law covers many areas of environmental protection, including mandatory environmental impact assessments for approval of projects that would affect the environment and the formation of a National Environmental Council to protect Lebanon’s natural sustainability. Other laws also call for the environment ministry to house environmental police to implement the law. However, there is currently little legal means or active framework to mitigate the effect of environmentally harmful developments. The environment has “remained a secondary priority characterized by an uncompleted legal and institutional framework as well as by ineffective policies to address the challenges and political constraints to deliver reforms,” states the World Bank report.

Still, even if the Lebanese government does not implement the reforms needed to protect the environment, it is unlikely to affect their ability to attract funding, as World Bank funding has continued despite the lack of substantive reform measures by any post-war government.

First published in Executive Magazine’s May 2011 issue