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A beach where a heavy winds and strong waves washed ashore piles of garbage in Keserwan, north of Beirut, Lebanon, on 23 January 2018.  © 2018 Marwan Naamani/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Beirut) – The Borj Hammoud landfill, one of two principal landfills serving Beirut, Lebanon, is set to reach capacity by the end of July 2019, Human Rights Watch said today. The government had initially estimated that the landfill would be in operation until 2020.

The government has taken no steps to provide an alternative site for Beirut’s solid waste. Instead, a 13-page solid waste roadmap the Environment Ministry submitted to a ministerial committee on June 3 recommends expanding the Borj Hammoud landfill. Experts say that the landfill is affecting nearby residents’ health. Yet, the Environment Ministry has proposed its expansion without an Environmental Impact Assessment or consultation with affected communities, solid waste management experts have said.

“The government has to answer for why Lebanon’s waste management infrastructure has not been improved upon four years after the last waste crisis led to mounds of trash in the streets of Beirut,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The government may be ready to bury its head in the sand but residents don’t want to end up buried in piles of trash.”

The Borj Hammoud landfill is currently emanating particularly strong odors, which an international consultant hired by the Environment Ministry determined was caused by manure and garbage in various states of decomposition that have been dumped there.

Nearby residents and public health experts fear that the odors signal the emission of toxic pollutants. According to air pollution experts, chronic exposure to these strong odors is linked to respiratory diseases, allergies, and the spread of bacteria. Further, experts state that leachate from the Borj Hammoud landfill is being dumped into the sea, polluting the water and making the sea in areas surrounding the landfill dangerous for swimming.

Both Lebanese legislation and international standards stipulate that an Environmental Impact Assessment must be conducted before a project can begin and that measures must be taken to mitigate unavoidable adverse impacts.

The ministerial committee should convene immediately to discuss the roadmap and share its contents with experts and with the public for a broader consultation prior to finalization and submission to the cabinet, Human Rights Watch said.

The roadmap also incorporates core aspects of the Environment Ministry’s strategy on solid waste management, a ministry official who worked on it told Human Rights Watch. The ministry was tasked with establishing the strategy under Lebanon’s Law 80/2018 on integrated solid waste management, the country’s first law on solid waste management, passed on September 24, 2018, and it was supposed to do so by March. However, the ministry official said it is still being finalized in line with the comments from civil society and other stakeholders.

Human Rights Watch reviewed a draft summary of the strategy and on March 20 submitted feedback and recommendations for revisions to better respect residents’ rights. In particular, Human Rights Watch recommended strengthening plans for consultation with the community, creating more effective monitoring and enforcement systems, combatting discrimination in the current waste management practices, and raising public awareness about waste management issues.

The ministry official said that the roadmap also includes a list of decrees and decisions that should be passed so that Lebanon’s integrated waste management law can be carried out and maps of existing facilities and of 24 other proposed sites for new sanitary landfills, along with a draft law outlining fees and taxes that the central government and the municipalities can impose to cover their waste management costs. Without such a law, neither the ministry nor the municipalities will be able to fulfill their commitments as set out in the law and the strategy, Human Rights Watch said.

The proposed expansion of the Borj Hammoud landfill is broadly considered a stopgap measure until the broader solid waste strategy is implemented. The initial establishment of the landfill itself was a supposedly temporary solution to the 2015 trash crisis, until the government found a more sustainable solution.

The 2015 trash crisis was caused by closing the Naameh landfill after years of protests by local residents, without an alternate waste management plan. Without a disposal site, the waste collection company halted its operations, and garbage built up on the streets of Beirut.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch investigated the health problems arising from the increasing open burning of waste as a consequence of the breakdown of existing waste management plans. Human Rights Watch found that the government was failing in its obligations to protect people’s health through its mismanagement of waste. Residents of areas where waste was being dumped and burned reported health problems including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, coughing, throat irritation, skin conditions, and asthma. Air pollution from open waste burning has been linked to heart disease and emphysema, and can expose people to carcinogenic compounds.

Experts fear that the proposed roadmap does not present sustainable solutions. An environmental expert has put forward a proposal that would avert the need to expand the Borj Hammoud landfill. It would cut the amount of waste in half and extend the life of existing landfills by requiring residents to sort their waste at home. This would give the ministry additional time to introduce more long-term solutions.

According to researchers at the American University of Beirut, only 10 to 12 percent of Lebanon’s waste cannot be composted or recycled. However, currently around 85 percent goes to open dumps or landfills. Sustainable waste management solution should focus on reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills rather than expanding existing landfills, Human Rights Watch said.

“There is no excuse for continuing to delay the implementation of a rights-compliant waste management system,” Fakih said. “The ministerial committee should urgently make the tough decisions necessary to solve the problem rather than continuing to adopt temporary half-measures.” 

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