Myra Abdallah

Beyond corruption

Garbage is piled in a temporary dump on the seaside of a highway in Jal el-Dib, north of Beirut, on 14 September 2015. Garbage has built up in Beirut and its environs after the closure of Lebanon

In a study published by Yale University in 2014 on the Environmental Performance Index of air pollution in the world, Lebanon ranked 98 out of 178 countries, even though Lebanon is one of the countries that accounts for less than 0.01% of the surface of the Earth, according to a Nations Online report, and is not a country with a high level of industrial activity.


Environmental problems have been increasing in Lebanon for the past few years while the state lacks the means and the will to solve them. The Ministry of Environment has been nearly inactive for years.


When the garbage crisis hit Lebanon recently and triggered a string of massive protests against the corruption and political gridlock that led them, the Ministry of Environment was put under the spotlight. It’s been a rare moment in which the Lebanese people demand that the government hold the Minister of Environment accountable for an environmental crisis. Beyond public outrage at the sight and smell of garbage piling up in the streets, however, are more serious and immediate concerns — the waste is emitting methane and other greenhouse gases that are considered highly toxic, and the public is now at increased risk of a multitude of diseases and health problems.


According to an LBCI report, the number of patients hospitalized for diseases that could be related to the garbage crisis has increased almost 50% in the last month. Diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain are just a few of large number of symptoms.



The effects of burning garbage


While the government has yet to find a permanent solution to the garbage crisis, many citizens and municipalities, aside from dumping trash in green areas of Lebanon, have taken to burning it. This practice has grave consequences. The journal Environmental Science & Technology reported in July 2014 that “an estimated 40 to 50 percent of the garbage is made up of carbon by mass, which means that carbon dioxide is the major gas emitted by trash burning.” Burning trash also emits carbon monoxide, mercury and acid into the atmosphere, chemicals which directly affect people’s respiratory systems, causing a variety of illnesses.


According to Chris Dersarkissian, head of the Domestic Waste Management Plan at Arc-en-ciel, the trash piling up on the street is already dangerous enough. “The danger now is the propagation of rodents and insects which might transfer numerous diseases to people,” he told NOW. “In addition, burning the garbage is even more dangerous. It causes the emitting of toxic gases that pollute the air. Toxic particles released due to garbage burning are basically carbon dioxide and water, if the burning was done properly.” Dersarkissian explains the difference between ‘good’ burning that emits carbon dioxide and ‘bad’ burning, which emits carbon monoxide. “When the smoke is white, that means the burning is emitting carbon monoxide that is very poisonous. In addition to that, when different materials like plastic or batteries burn, they emit dioxins; poisonous gases proven to cause cancer.”


A report published by Ministry of Environment of Saskatchewan, Canada, details the effect of garbage burning on health. In the short term, in addition to environmental danger, the carbon monoxide emitted during the burning process can lead to eye and respiratory illness, headaches, dizziness, and slowed reflexes. It can also affect mental functions, visual acuity and alertness. Given more time, dioxins emitted by the burning process can cause cancer, growth defects and can also affect the immune and reproductive systems. Other diseases can result over time such as heart and lung diseases and chronic respiratory diseases.



Mahmoud Wazne, associate professor of Civil Engineering at the Lebanese American University (LAU), says that the garbage should not be burned, but rather covered by lime and that rodents should be controlled to avoid the spread of diseases. “We do not know what the trash contains,” he told NOW. “For example, if plastic is burned, we need to know what the material used in this plastic is to be able to specify its effects, because there is a difference between industrial waste and organic waste. Organic waste is less dangerous.”



When the rain comes


Everybody in Lebanon is concerned about the first rain this year. With so much garbage piling up, the first rain won’t have the same smell as before, or the effect it usually has of washing the streets, especially in Beirut.


Environmental activists and various other groups who protested in Beirut for almost a month raised the issue of Beirut’s river being having become a main illegal dumping ground. It won’t be the first year that heavy rains cause floods in the streets of Beirut. Just last year the first heavy rains caused flooding and injuries. This year, the situation will distinctly be worse.


“This year, the rain will be a big problem,” said Dersarkissian. “The garbage on the street is full of diseases. When it rains, the water will carry all those diseases and disperse them everywhere. Every person walking on the street will be a transmitter of these diseases, too.”


Moreover, the diseases won’t simply stay at street level, but will also reach groundwater. “The garbage is contaminated. When the water runs through trash piles, it becomes leachate. If the leachate contains bacteria or viruses, they will be carried to groundwater if the trash was piled on a porous surface that makes leachate access groundwater easily,” Wazne told NOW. “In Beirut, groundwater is not on a deep level under the soil’s surface. Therefore, it will easily be contaminated. Once people use or drink the contaminated groundwater, they become at risk of diseases.” Wazne also says that rainwater that isn’t absorbed into the ground will further contaminate the sea.


Rodents and insects are also big problems as they carry diseases everywhere they go. Recently, Lebanese citizens were concerned about an outbreak of plague or cholera. “Rodents transmit the plague,” said Dersarkissian. “However, unless there were dead rodents in the trash, the plague is not easily transmitted. Cholera also comes from the lack of hygiene, and this is one of our big concerns currently.”


While activists are still demanding a permanent solution to the garbage crisis, the rain, expected to come later this week according to weather forecasts, might oblige authorities to take faster and more direct action.


“The garbage should either be removed from the streets, or stored on non-porous surfaces,” said Wazne. “The [direct] solution now is to create sanitary landfills with geo-membranes that are able to isolate leachates from groundwater, and where leachate is stored to be treated,”


Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah

Garbage is piled in a temporary dump on the seaside of a highway in Jal el-Dib, north of Beirut, on 14 September 2015. Garbage has built up in Beirut and its environs after the closure of Lebanon's largest landfill. (AFP/Joseph Eid)

When the smoke is white, that means the burning is emitting carbon monoxide that is very poisonous. In addition to that, when different materials like plastic or batteries burn, they emit dioxins; poisonous gases proven to cause cancer.”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    How about the individual lack of responsibility by the Lebanese themselves to their environment? It is easy to blame the government for corruption, but most garbage in the streets and along mountain roads is thrown by Lebanese citizens themselves. In all this commotion, not one word has been said by either the activists, the government, or the media about the Lebanese themselves who throw garbage everywhere from everywhere. There is not a single spot that is free from plastic bottles, plastic bags, discarded industrial and construction waste, dangerous electronics waste with heavy metals, and all manner of solid non-organic waste, all of it discarded into hillsides, by roadsides, into river beds, into the sea.... BY INDIVIDUAL LEBANESE CITIZENS THEMSELVES. The only way to begin the long term solutions to this crisis is to impose and enforce stiff fines by police and the municipalities on anyone littering, and for the schools, under orders from the MInistry of Education, to teach environment and personal responsibility as a required subject matter on official exams. Do any of the religious schools that dominate Lebanese education teach children the value of cleanliness, hygiene, environment, and personal responsibility? Or are they more concerned with brainwashing the children with religious fairy tales to keep them herded like compliant sheep in their sectarian concentration camp?

    September 15, 2015