(Beirut) – Lebanon’s ministerial committee tasked with solving Lebanon’s waste management emergency has yet to act despite a four-month trash crisis in the north, Human Rights Watch said today. The crisis has resulted in trash in the streets and harmful open burning of waste.
Absent action by the central government, the Environment Minister has proposed a short-term solution that has triggered a public outcry. The ministerial committee should urgently study the roadmap submitted by the Environment Ministry on June 3, 2019 aimed at implementing the new solid waste management law and submit a final draft to the cabinet that would protect everyone’s right to health.
“The government has had four months to find a solution to the north’s trash crisis, but it is still dragging its feet and relying on temporary half-measures,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Residents in the north are paying the price for the government’s continued failure to manage the country’s waste.”
The Aadoueh dumpsite, an unregulated open dump that had been used by the northern districts of Minieh-Dinnieh, Koura, Zgharta, and Bcharre for 17 years, was closed by the owner on April 5.
Local media have reported that some residents in the north are burning the waste that has piled up on the sidewalks and in some instances blocked streets, even though the practice is illegal, endangering the health of nearly 330,000 people. Media reported that an elderly woman fainted from smoke inhalation from waste burning in the town of Sir al-Dinnieh.
A 2017 Human Rights Watch investigation found that burning waste was risking the health of nearby residents. Residents 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.
In the absence of action by the central government, on August 6, the Environment Minister announced that trash would be removed from the streets and stored in a “parking” site until a location for a new sanitary landfill could be agreed upon.
The Environment Minister did not announce the proposed site, but Tony Frangieh, a parliament member form Zgharta, told local media that it was in the village of Terbol in the Minieh-Dinnieh district. Local residents objected to this plan, saying that it would be an “environmental catastrophe” and that “they will not accept the establishment of a landfill at the expense of the health of residents.”
An Environment Ministry official has described the roadmap as a step toward carrying out the nationwide strategy that the ministry was tasked with establishing under Law 80/2018 on integrated solid waste management, passed on September 24, 2018. Although the strategy should have been adopted in March, the ministry official said it is still being finalized in line with the comments from civic groups and other stakeholders and will be sent to the cabinet before the end of the month.
The roadmap recommends expanding the Borj Hammoud landfill in Beirut and includes a map of 24 other proposed sites for new sanitary landfills across the country, but not all of these have had the required Environmental Impact Assessment. In at least one case, an assessment was conducted more than a decade ago. Under Lebanese law, the assessment is valid for two years, after which the Environment Ministry must consider whether any changes on the ground call for a new assessment.
The cabinet should not agree to landfill expansions or new landfills without first ensuring that adequate environmental assessments have been carried out, Human Rights Watch said.
The roadmap also includes a draft law outlining the fees and taxes that the central government and 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 responsibilities under the law and the strategy, Human Rights Watch said.
Outside Beirut and Mount Lebanon, municipalities are responsible for collection, treatment, and disposal of their waste. Municipalities are supposed to receive part of their funding from an Independent Municipal Fund financed with taxes collected by the central government. However, disbursements have been irregular and several years behind schedule. The Aadoueh dumpsite’s owner told Human Rights Watch that the main reason for his decision to close the dumpsite was the municipalities’ failure to pay their dues.
Residents across Lebanon have told Human Rights Watch they have lost faith in the government’s ability to manage waste in a way that is not detrimental to their health and environment. Since the 2015 trash crisis, during which garbage built up on the streets of Beirut, the government has been relying on stopgap measures and temporary fixes that do not solve Lebanon’s underlying waste management problems. About 85 percent of Lebanon’s waste goes to open dumps or landfills. But American University of Beirut researchers have found that only 10 to 12 percent of the waste cannot be composted or recycled.
As Beirut’s landfills also rapidly reach capacity, the ministerial committee should urgently review the roadmap and the strategy and adopt an integrated approach to solid waste management that decreases Lebanon's reliance on landfills and gives municipalities the resources they need to fulfill their duties. Any plan presented to the cabinet should comply with environmental and public health best practices as well as Lebanese and international law. The plan should ensure that the authorities respect everyone’s right to health and to live in a healthy environment, and that everyone is fully informed of threats to their health in their area.
Once the ministerial committee submits the roadmap and strategy to the cabinet, the cabinet should urgently meet and take the necessary decisions. The cabinet has not met in over a month due to political deadlock resulting from clashes between two parties. The cabinet should not allow a political dispute to hijack its operation, endangering the health of millions of residents, Human Rights Watch said.
The Environment Ministry should also urgently begin monitoring compliance with the solid waste management law and ensure that violators are appropriately penalized and cases are referred to the relevant environmental public prosecutors.
“Lebanon’s residents have a right to a healthy environment, yet the Lebanese government has continuously failed to uphold its international obligations to protect that right,” Fakih said. “If Lebanon is to avoid another trash catastrophe in the next few weeks, the ministerial committee needs to act quickly.”