At first it looks like just another hill along the Mediterranean. But soon the sight of thousands of plastic bags and garbage trucks ascending makeshift dirt roads reveal the nature of the hill, if the smell hasn’t already. This is “Jabal al-Zbeleh,” the “mountain of garbage” and the final destination of Saida and its surrounding municipalities’ refuse.
The mountain dates back to 1975, but went through a substantial growth spurt in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, and the ensuing destruction of the area around Saida fed the heap with debris.
“This is how it really started to get the mountainous appearance,” explains Dr. Abdel-Rahman Bizri, the mayor of Saida.
Today all the garbage collected daily from the area and the neighboring Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp is brought to Jabal al-Zbeleh.
“The basic problem here is that you can dump anything you want, even chemicals and medical waste,” says Mohammad Sarji, a resident of Saida and a member of local NGO Bahr Loubnan. There’s a high concentration of methane as well, he adds, leading to fires that burn for days.
A lone watchman guards the mountain, preventing outsiders from entering unless they have express permission from Bizri. As it emits a disturbingly rancid odor and hosts a pack of wild dogs, it may seem strange that there’s any need for security at all. But Saida’s teenagers are rumored to frequent the site at night, knowing that the mountain is far from prying eyes.
Every day the mountain also hosts more than a dozen Palestinians from the nearby Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, whose livelihoods have come to depend on the dumpsite. The Palestinians scavenge the mountain for tin, plastic, aluminum, iron and cardboard, which they later sell. With Palestinian refugees barred from working in many professions, the scavengers from Ain al-Hilweh support themselves with what everyone else in the area has thrown out.
“A kilo of plastic is now 400 liras,” says Ziad Tahbouri, 63, who has been coming to the dumpsite to collect re-sellable material for 15 years. He says the average person scavenging on the mountain gathers about a ton of plastic a month, which translates to LL 400,000 [liras].
Aluminum goes for a little more, around 900 liras a kilo, says 23 year-old Ibrahim Tabesh, who was resting in one of the makeshift huts at the top of the mountain, surrounded by the wild dogs.
Tabesh’s occupation is technically illegal, as permits are required to resell materials, but Bizri says the local municipalities tend to turn a blind eye as the scavengers help reduce the otherwise constantly growing mountain. Besides, given the lack of national and municipal programs, it’s a form of recycling, he adds.
That paucity of recycling initiatives and treatment facilities means that Saida’s garbage mountain is not the only such dumpsite in Lebanon. But few other unplanned dumps can boast as prominent a location as Saida’s, rising as it does out of the Mediterranean and, by dint of that location, posing a dangerous environmental hazard, contaminating the water and imperiling marine life.
While plans to clean up the site have been circulating for years, political disputes have ensured that the mountain remains one of the country’s most galling eyesores.
In 2005, Saudi Arabian tycoon Prince Walid Bin Talal gave Saida a $5 million grant that was to be used to move the mountain to a quarry a couple of kilometers outside of the city and turn it into compost.
Bizri claims that the plan was blocked by the national government, which he says did not issue the licenses required to move the mountain and stymied the proposed quarry location with excuses about the roads not supporting the transfer.
As Bizri sees it, animosity on the part of the majority-led national government toward the opposition-dominated municipalities of Saida is to blame. “The government does not want us to use” Bin Talal’s fund, he says, claiming that his municipality tried to treat the garbage, but “the government is preventing us.”
However, the sentiment is not echoed by Sarji, who directed the film “La Montagne de Saida” which won first prize at the 2007 International Ecological Film Festival. He says Bizri is making too many excuses and not doing enough to solve the problem.
An activist who has long campaigned for cleaning up the mountain and a self-proclaimed thorn in Bizri’s side, Sarji says the local municipality has squandered $1 million from Bin Talal’s funds by building a concrete platform along the southern base of the dump, supposedly for treatment facilities which have yet to materialize.
Sarji also points to another issue as well: Given the toxicity of some of the garbage, residents near the planned relocation site fear their reservoir could be contaminated. “The problem… regardless of politics, is that no one will allow the waste to come into their town because they know it’s deadly,” he says.
Still, political divisions do seem to have exacerbated the issue. According to Sarji, Saad Hariri, now the leader of parliament’s Future bloc, offered to donate an unlimited clean-up fund to the municipality in 2005, only to have it rejected by Bizri.
Bizri, who denies that any such offer was ever made, argues that the best way to deal with the garbage mountain would be to build a “breakwater” to remove the organic matter from the site, which would then be transferred for agriculture purposes, while everything else could be used for land reclamation. The proposal has yet to take off, Bizri says, because the government decree required to implement the plan has not been issued. Why? “Well you’ll have to ask Prime Minister Siniora.”
Like Bizri, Sarji blames politics for impeding any solution to the problem, but, as he sees it, the blame rests squarely on Bizri’s own shoulders. Sarji advocates turning the site into a national park, after first separating reusable materials from organic matter, with the former going recycling plants and the latter into a compost on which special plants capable of purifying any remaining toxins would be grown. However, the idea, he says, was rejected by Bizri, because “he doesn’t care about the Saida baladiyeh [municipality] or the people. All he cares about is some politics.”
Such squabbles are common in Lebanese politics, and in a sense Saida’s Jabal al-Zbeleh has turned into a microcosm of Lebanon’s larger problems. The opposition vilifies the government, arguments impede solutions, the Palestinian question lingers somewhere in the background, and an off-putting smell chokes the air.