Buried in Trash: Why Lebanon’s Garbage Crisis Should be Taken Seriously

Claire Akkaoui


Garbage Piles.
Flickr Creative Commons

March 14, 2005. One million Lebanese – a quarter of the population – turned Martyr’s Square into the boldest most hopeful gathering the country had ever seen. And since, nothing. Yet, it was not that circumstances were lacking, far from it. Far from being routine and satisfactory, Lebanon’s national politics have across the years provided Lebanese people with more than enough opportunities to voice their frustration, ranging from an undermined rule of law to public freedoms stripped away in laughter, not to mention corruption, plain incompetence, even more crippling corruption. Yet until now, almost as if Lebanese were holding their breath for worse, everything seemed like voluntarily-smothered under the umbrella of ‘tolerable’.  Everything up until a household waste crisis. Not a matter of high-level insulated politics anymore, but a question of survival, of common sense almost, an undisputed feeling of public outrage that even the best Lebanese partying scene could not remedy to, a much-needed wake-up call that could not be muffled. Only when disintegrating waste under a forty degrees sun had become a daily unavoidable scenery, when breathing had become a life-threatening move, when walking down the street was starting to resemble a dreaded effort of avoiding the stench of rotting carcasses and burning plastic, only then did the crowd escape its voluntary powerlessness and voiced its contained indignation in the biggest show of civil society Lebanon has witnessed in years.

The Lebanon garbage crisis might until recently have seemed only worthy of hashtag campaigns and angry Facebook statuses, yet if it should be taken seriously, it is because it is both the straw that broke the camel’s back yet only the tip of the iceberg. More than an inconsequential, unfortunate and temporary alteration to the praised Lebanese landscape, the piles of garbage on the side of every road are only one, albeit not the least inconvenient, symptom of a dangerous disease; probably the most representative metaphor for Lebanese politics deficiencies and the new level of dysfunction the caretaker government has managed to reach.

Almost two months have gone by since the mid-July closure of the city’s main and now over-capacitated landfill, leaving hills of garbage to pile up and litter nearly every street of Lebanon’s capital and its surroundings.

For local activists, the initial closure of the Naameh landfill was a victory, a blessing in disguise: the highly-prized capital, often enjoying a preferential treatment, had now fallen from its pedestal and was facing the same fate that had been imposed onto Lebanon’s marginalised more rural areas since the end of the Civil War. For the first time in decades, the capital’s garbage would no longer be exported, as much out-of-sight as out-of-mind, but would stay in Beirut, for everyone to inhale, even the upper middle classes, for so long immune and insulated from national social crises.

Yet the neutralisation of the landfill has coincided with the ending of the contract of the prime garbage collector in the country. And despite recurrent promises made by Prime Minister Tammam Salam and environment minister Mohammad Machnouk to find a quick solution to the crisis, internal disputes have prevented the government to extend its contract with private garbage company Sukleen and despite all wishful thinking, suitable alternative landfills have not been found. And as a result, Beirut became a landfill of its own, the paralysed government proving once again its blatant inaptitude to rule. Yet this time, the people refused to stand by. Mirroring a lengthy dreadlock that has prevented the election of a president, the Lebanese garbage crisis is being used by politicians as a proxy for broader sectarian power struggles and Lebanese citizens have not been slow to see it.

Indeed, despite Lebanon’s eventful – to say the least – political scene, such a crisis is unprecedented in the country’s recent history, both in the scale it is acquiring and the reaction it is provoking. Whereas such protests are usually affiliated to one political party and typically led by a community’s leader, the ongoing and now nearly weekly protests are the product of civil activism and are being organised by an online group: “You Stink” – a name clearly targeting more than the piles of trash – as well as other civil society groups, with names such as “Leave us alone”, “We Want Accountability” or also “We’re Disgusted.”. Whereas at first these protests were mainly organised and attended by Beirut’s activist elite rather the crowd, perhaps coinciding with the piles of rubbish at people’s doorsteps, the number of people taking their anger to the streets has only been rising and reaching an alleged fifty-thousand towards the end of August, regardless of politico-religious affiliation. Unanticipated and colossal achievement? Undoubtedly. Concrete and tangible changes? Less so. Amidst all the rage and disgust driving civil society, it would be hard to show un-nuanced optimism. Saying the crisis is only deepening and the options limited between bad and worse would not be an overstatement.

For anyone living in Lebanon, it is undeniable that more than five hundred days without a president have been felt less harshly than around two months without a garbage collector. Yet, even though the latter seems to be more indispensable and its absence more enraging than that of an acting president, there is more to Lebanon’s garbage crisis than the outrageously repulsive and potentially fatal smell. Under the surface, the situation is the result of long-standing underlying deficiencies that it took Lebanese society intolerable living conditions to denounce on that scale.

On one hand, the inability to agree on a new landfill is not detached, but anchored deep into Lebanon’s inter-sectarian struggles for power and should be seen in light of the country’s socio-political pattern. Indeed, the firmly entrenched refusal of every district to house and bury another community’s waste, if only on a temporary basis, is just one illustration of the deeply-rooted narrow sectarian and communitarian mentality at play in almost every one of Lebanon’s social circles.

On the other, the garbage crisis is a direct product of the excesses of privatisation, dynamics that have remained unchanged even with the end of the Lebanese Civil War and which are now coming back to haunt every dimension of society. The monopoly on waste collection that the privately-owned and associated with Sunni leader Saad el-Hariri garbage company Sukleen enjoys in Lebanon simultaneously reflects the poor supply of government welfare services to its citizens and crystallises how the ruling elite has emptied state institutions of their significance in favour of parallel networks of companies they benefit from.  In the months following the end of the Civil War, aspects of the war economy carried on, with the provision of waste disposal through private firms rather than municipalities and power through bought generators rather than a national electricity grid. Twenty-five years later, at least in regards to public services, leaders still perceive Lebanon like a playground of financial opportunities. In practice, what this translates into is private firms, taking advantage of their connections and capitalising on their near-monopoly to charge as much as double or triple the rates other neighbouring countries pay, and leaving the government with no other choice for it is consequentially unable to find lower-cost replacements.

Furthermore, the trash might have served as a rallying source of inspiration for large-scale demonstrations, yet it is only one amongst a much longer list of grievances. The overpowering and incapacitating stench of rubbish swallowing Lebanon’s streets has become an all-too-known symbol of the political rot littering the country, of all the basic services that Lebanon’s stagnant government has been failing to deliver – now for way too many years – from electricity to health from water to education, not to mention the right to vote for a president.

With posters reading “Some trash should not be recycled” written over portraits of Lebanese politicians, it is clear that the environmental crisis is only the cloth covering the political gridlock at stake. Often admired for its sectarian power-sharing system, in practice the supposed equal representation between the country’s main religious communities more often than not ends up in factional antagonism between the sects, meaning complete paralysis of the cabinet, due to a lack of quorum to meet, let alone reach a decision. The political stalemate leaving parliament to extend its own mandate until 2017 and leaving Lebanon without a president for over a year, unable to vote for a new one since May 2014 due to parliament’s failure to meet a two-thirds quorum required to hold an electoral session is largely due to political polarization roughly between pro-Hezbollah and anti-Hezbollah factions – a divide clearly showing spill-over from the Syrian civil war. As such, although the government was aware of both the state of the landfill and their contract duration with Sukleen and had plenty of time to consult, it never managed to make alternative arrangements.

And if the situation needed more oil to the fire, the relatively pacifist protests turned sour on Saturday August 22nd when armed policemen unleashed tear gas, launched water cannons – ironic to say the least when water shortages are a reason of the protests – and beat back their own people with batons after some protestors tried to make their way through. To that, far from backing down, protesters pushed through the security cordons and shouted slogans inspired from the Arab Spring, such as “the people want to topple the regime”. More than ninety members of the security forces and sixty civilians had been injured in the events. Gradually escalating its repressiveness, the government even erected a concrete wall between the people and the Prime Ministry, a wall which the protesters quickly made a complete joke of, covering it in paintings and murals criticising the status quo and showing political parties silencing the people.

The protests have become a pathway for a variety of Lebanese activists, impoverished and socially-alienated, to express anger at a status quo they no longer tolerate. And despite instances of re-politicisation of the protests by specific confessional groups, the broad grassroots movement taking the streets seems to be breaking away from dividing social-sectarian boxes.

The question remains: how fruitful are these protests, really and where are they leading, if anywhere? The urge to convey a message of frustration is more than understandable. So is being carried away in a crowd of queries. In a month, protestors have requested everything at the same time and with no particular order: that the garbage disappears, that the government resigns, that a president be elected, that same sex marriage be legalised, that corruption ends.  Demanding accountability is comprehensible, even necessary. Yet for these protests to not crumble as fast as they were mounted, direction and preparation are key. If there is one thing the Arab protests have taught us, is that a successful revolution is less a product of inhibited spontaneity let loose and more a science, carefully calculated and calibrated.

Only time will tell how this crisis will unfold, and how quickly it will be forgotten, but the fear that this snowballing protest movement might only be the tip of the iceberg is not unfounded. As Beirut struggles to breathe and is disappearing under mountains of garbage, the same cannot be said of the accumulating grievances of the Lebanese. In a country hobbled by a huge and ever-increasing influx of Syrian refugees and not immune to attacks by Islamist militants, the garbage crisis is coming close to being what pushes Lebanon over the edge of a failed state.


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