Beirut: Arpi Kruzian has lived on the coastline east of Beirut for three decades. But now her balcony has a different view: a massive mound of trash rising on the Mediterranean.
“This used to be the sea,” she said outside her home. “One day we looked out, we couldn’t see the sea.” Trucks and bulldozers have piled waste at a land reclamation site there since last year. “In the summer, we died from the stench,” she said. “You can’t control the smell ... it seeps in from under the doors.” Landfills and dumpsites — many infamously known as “garbage mountains” — have mushroomed across Lebanon since the 1990s.
The mess peaked in 2015 when the capital’s main landfill shut down, after running well beyond its expiry date.
Heaps of rubbish festered in the summer heat for months.
Politicians wrangled over what to do, and the trash crisis of 2015 sparked a protest movement. It became a glaring symbol of a sectarian power system unable to meet basic needs like electricity and water.
The government has since managed to get the waste off the streets and out of Beirut, partly through more landfills.
But residents and environmentalists accuse it of failing to reach a permanent solution — warning of dire consequences on the Mediterranean and public health.
Last month, the cabinet agreed to expand two seaside landfills at the outskirts of Beirut. Both had started as stop-gaps to resolve the 2015 crisis.
“Lebanon seems to be addicted to these coastal landfills,” said Bassam Khawaja, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“They cannot keep jumping from one emergency solution to the next ... It is remarkable that we don’t have a national law regulating waste.” Authorities have not conducted any studies on the environmental impact of the two dumps, near the Beirut airport and the Bourj Hammoud neighbourhood, he said.
The expansion will include a composting plant at the landfill by the airport — which Khawaja said would be “an important step if it actually happens”.
Lebanon has relied on a string of temporary fixes since an emergency waste plan in the late 1990s, after the end of its 15-year civil war, he said. The government has left local municipal councils to their own devices without the right resources or funding, especially outside the capital.
For residents and activists, the mess stems from corruption and gridlock at the heart of government, where private firms allied to politicians routinely fight over lucrative contracts.
A Human Rights Watch report in December said hundreds of unsanitary, makeshift dumps have spread across the country. The US-based group said 150 of them burn rubbish out in the open every week.
Government officials have repeatedly banned open burning.
The environment ministry could not be reached for comment after repeated requests.
The ministry has crafted an outline for a waste system that focuses on recycling and gradually closing dumpsites, which cabinet approved this month.
Environment Minister Tarek Khatib says his office is fulfilling its duties. “We will launch a garbage plan in cooperation with the municipalities,” he said last week, when piles of refuse washed up on the shore north of Beirut.
Photos circulated widely showed plastic bags and rot covering the beach after a storm. Officials have traded blame over such incidents in the run-up to parliamentary elections in May.
Over the past year, Joe Salem has watched the hill of rubbish growing on the coast east of Beirut from his window. He gave the workers at his aluminium factory surgical masks and filled the place with air fresheners.
“When a customer comes in, the smell of scum and dirt enters,” he said, pointing at the dumpsite behind the mall in the Dora suburbs.
“We can’t open the windows. We spend our time with the rats,” Salem added. “It’s a catastrophe for the environment, for the people who live in the street.” But complaining to authorities is hopeless, he said. “People (object) and shut roads and do this and that. Nobody answers them.” Another mound has also been rising at the edge of a runway at Lebanon’s only airport. In the summer, it sends a pungent smell along the highway, and sticks out in the view from the Costa Brava Beach Resort nearby.
Residents say the facility, known as the Costa Brava landfill, has crippled economic activity and driven customers away from the beach.
“The whole area has been affected,” said Khalid Hammoud, who owns a bakery a few hundred metres away.It makes no difference when the stench subsides in the winter. People have branded it “a landfill district, a district that stinks,” he said. “Nobody goes there.”