Lives At Risk: Open Burning of Waste in Lebanon

People living near open burning said they were unable to spend time outside, had difficulty sleeping because of air pollution, or had to vacate their homes when burning was taking place. 

(Beirut) – Nabih Berri, Lebanon’s speaker of parliament, should schedule a vote on a draft waste management law before parliamentary elections on May 6, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. The law has been stuck in parliament since 2012, but came before the joint committees of parliament in January, the final step before a vote by the full parliament.

Human Rights Watch has collected more than 12,000 signatures on a petition calling on parliament and cabinet to pass a national law and develop a strategy on waste management. Lebanon has made some progress on this issue in recent months, but passing a national law is a key step to ending the ongoing crisis. Human Rights Watch found in a December 2017 report that open burning at more than 150 open dumps across Lebanon was risking the health and violating the human rights of nearby residents, leaving Lebanon in breach of its obligations under international law.

“Time is quickly running out for parliament to pass a waste management law,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Lebanon’s residents have made it clear that they expect their elected representatives to take immediate and decisive action to end the ongoing waste crisis.”

Lebanon has never had a national waste management law. Cabinet approved a draft law in 2012 which would create a Solid Waste Management Board headed by the Environment Ministry, responsible for the national-level decision-making and waste treatment. The law would also set clear lines of authority over waste management, ban open dumping and burning of waste, and set penalties for violations.

The draft law came before the joint committees of parliament in January and was sent back to parliament’s environmental committee for further amendments with a three-week deadline. A member of that committee told Human Rights Watch that the amendments were completed, but the speaker of parliament has not referred it back to the joint committees, the final step before scheduling a vote by the full parliament.

Despite a decades long waste crisis, Lebanon has made some recent progress on this issue. In November 2017, the Environment Ministry sent letters to all municipalities in Lebanon, urging them to adopt sustainable waste management practices. In January, Cabinet passed a summary waste management plan, and the environment minister formed a committee on waste management, which includes a civil society representative. The ministry and committee are holding meetings with municipalities to discuss solid waste management options.

Human Rights Watch has urged Cabinet to build on the summary plan by developing a long-term strategy on waste management, outlining how Lebanon can comply with its international obligations to protect the right to a healthy environment.

In January, as part of a decision to expand two temporary coastal landfills, Cabinet approved a composting facility at one of the landfills. In February, the health minister ordered inspections of open dumps to identify violations such as open burning and held a news conference calling for an end to the open burning of waste and a health-conscious solution to the waste crisis. The ministry also created a mobile application to allow residents to report violations.

In February, Cabinet allocated US$20 million for the Environment Ministry to begin closing or rehabilitating the 941 open dumps across Lebanon. However, the decision focuses on Beirut and Mount Lebanon, some of the wealthiest areas in the country and the areas least affected by dangerous open burning. Cabinet and the Environment Ministry should take immediate action to end open dumping and burning across the country, including in poorer areas in Lebanon’s South and Bekaa Valley, some of the areas most affected by open burning of waste.

The government’s lack of effective action to address the issue violates Lebanon’s obligations under international law, including the government’s duties to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to health. The Environment Ministry appears to lack the necessary personnel and financial resources for effective environmental monitoring.

“Lebanon urgently needs a national law on waste management to end this crisis, yet this bill has sat in parliament since 2012,” Fakih said. “It would be inexcusable for parliamentarians to end their 9-year term without tackling this issue.”