Lebanon’s waste crisis gained international recognition in 2015, when garbage overflowed in the streets of Beirut. But in fact, this is just the tip of the iceberg. My organization, Human Rights Watch, found that Lebanon’s mismanagement of its waste has gone on for decades, particularly in areas outside Beirut and Mount Lebanon. One consequence has been the open burning of waste, a dangerous and avoidable practice, at more than 150 dumps across the country every week, posing health risks to nearby residents.
This is not just a nuisance. It is a legal and human rights issue. Lebanon’s failure to stop the open burning and inform residents of the risks to their health violates its obligations under international human rights law.
An extensive body of scientific research has documented the dangers smoke from the open burning of household waste poses to human health. It’s been linked to heart disease, cancer, skin conditions, and respiratory illnesses. Children and older people are at particular risk.
Our report was based on more than 100 interviews with nearby residents, doctors, environmental experts and government officials. The vast majority of residents we spoke with reported health issues consistent with prolonged exposure to smoke, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coughing, throat irritation, and asthma. One resident said: “We are coughing all the time, unable to breathe. Sometimes we wake up and see ash in our spit.”
Residents we spoke with had almost no information about the dangers of open burning or steps they should take to mitigate the risks to their health. And families said that uncertainty over whether the burning would lead to more serious health effects, such as cancer, for them and their children, was taking a heavy psychological toll.
Open burning appears to disproportionately take place in poorer parts of the country, and almost all of it takes place outside central Beirut and Mount Lebanon. We documented reports of open burning next to schools and even a hospital.
Open burning is a consequence of Lebanon’s broader waste crisis. Lebanon does not have a solid waste management plan for the entire country. Instead, it has jumped from one emergency plan to the next for decades, without putting in place long-term solutions. As a result, there are now more than 900 open dumps across the country.
There is more than enough funding and technical expertise in Lebanon to adopt a nationwide waste management plan that complies with health and environmental best practices and respects international law. The European Union alone has allocated more than 70 million euros to solid waste management in Lebanon in recent years. There are clear solutions to this problem and the only obstacle here is political will. The government should finally end the open burning of waste and put in place long term sustainable solutions that protect the health of all residents.