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Straight into the sea

Earlier this month, while vacationing at the Golden Beach resort on the eastern coast of Cyprus, some 100 miles directly across the Mediterranean from Lebanon, Somi Cho, a Korean student who lives in Beirut, saw something disturbingly familiar. Cho was walking along a “turtle beach,” where the sand and water are so clean that turtles come to lay eggs there every year, when she came upon a heap of washed up garbage that could only have come from Lebanon. On the otherwise pristine shore, Cho saw empty containers labeled “Tanayel laban,” a popular Lebanese yogurt brand, charcoal sacs stamped “made in Lebanon,”  and plastic bags, some of which had entangled jellyfish, emblazoned with the name “Spinneys,” a large grocery store chain in Lebanon.
 
The sight of the Spinneys bags in particular left Cho feeling pangs of guilt, as back in Beirut she shopped there every week. “And that’s the bag I use to throw out my trash,” she says by way of explaining why she decided to spend two hours cleaning up the trash, which, according to the owner of the resort, Hassan, threaten the baby turtles that hatch on the beach, as they sometimes get caught in bags and suffocate on their way out to sea.
 
Lebanon has long posed a problem for the health of the Mediterranean. Cyprus, Syria and Turkey have all filed official complaints against Lebanon for the rubbish that washes up on their beaches, much of it from the ever-growing, and occasionally collapsing garbage mountain that rises out of the sea by the southern Lebanese city of Saida. 
 
Besides the long reach of Lebanese garbage, or the oil spill in Jiyyeh, South Lebanon during the 2006 July War, the sea off the country’s coasts is plagued by deeper, more chronic problems. According to a 2008 UN report on the Mediterranean, Lebanon’s coastal waters are polluted by untreated wastewater, solid wastes and coastline urbanization.
 
“There are more than 53 [sewage] pipelines [in Lebanon] going into the sea untreated,” says Yasmin El Helwe, an “Ocean Campaigner” at Greenpeace.

More than half of the sewage from Lebanon’s cities flows directly into the sea, without any treatment whatsoever, a fact that should give pause to those looking forward to swimming in the sea this summer.
 
The practice of dumping solid waste into the sea in order to reclaim land also presents a danger. El Helwe says such dumping is “unsustainable” and illegal, but commonly done nonetheless. In Normandy, one of the four landfill sites on the coast of Lebanon, garbage was thrown straight into the sea until the growing dump was covered with a concrete casing. While there were plans to construct buildings on the site, the concrete remains unadorned.
 
Even more unsettling than the marine garbage dumps is the highly toxic industrial chemical waste released into the sea by factories. The toxic waste will have terrible consequences for future generations, says Mohamed Elsarji, a filmmaker, professional scuba diver, who heads the Lebanese Union of Professional Divers and activist working for Bahr Lubnan, the NGO that helped clean up the oil spill in 2006. He tells the story of Selaata, a small town near Jbeil north of Beirut, where a salt-maker was put out of business because of a company that built a factory next to him. The company started producing chemical fertilizers, and dumped its chemical waste into the sea, which contaminated the salt. Although the salt-maker got some compensation through court action in the early 1970s, his business was ruined, while to this day the polluting company continues to thrive. 
 
“So basically, what we’re doing in Lebanon is bringing the phosphate rocks from Syria, we are processing them here, 97% of the final product goes to Europe, and the shit stays in Lebanon,” Elsarji says. “And in Europe, it’s funny, because they outlawed all these factories because they could not meet the standards, so there’s not one single factory like this in all of Europe. Oh yeah, [the company is still there] and it’s making billions of dollars.”
 
The environment has long been pushed to the backburner in this politically splintered country, not only by businessmen and politicians, but by many citizens as well. Lebanese sun bathing on the beach or strolling along the Corniche often casually throw trash into the sea. Mai, a woman in her 20s, believes that people don’t feel responsible about what is happening to the Lebanese marine environment “because they don’t really care.”
 
“We have civil wars and car bombs. We have better things to worry about,” adds her friend Reem.
 
Elsarji believes that given the weakness of state institutions, lack of means and general unawareness, Lebanon probably dumps more waste into the sea per capita than any other nation on the Mediterranean. “I don’t think there is any country in the world that treats the environment like we do… We’re a pretty brutal country. We are on the top. I am sure we are on the top.”
 
But then, even for environmentally-aware Lebanese like Nayla – she keeps her garbage to a minimum, saves energy and water, and uses as little plastic as possible – there are limits to how much she can achieve without waste treatment systems or a coherent national recycling program. When Nayla buys and uses plastic, she says, “I throw it out. There’s nothing else I can do. I try to buy as little as possible, but what am I going to do?”

Even though Sukleen, the government-subsidized trash collecting company that maintains a ubiquitous presence in Beirut, stationed double recycling domes for paper and plastic throughout the capital and elsewhere, many Lebanese have little faith in such efforts. Indeed it is rumored that Sukleen does not recycle the materials from the domes, instead, dumping the contents into their regular dump trucks. After numerous attempts to contact Sukleen, NOW was told by a company representative it was Sukleen’s policy not to divulge information over the phone.

Nayla for her part, tries to reduce the number of plastic bags she uses by flushing her left over food down the toilet. But as sewage water is untreated, the food and everything else flushed down the toilet flow into the sea unperturbed. Nayla effectively is left with the choice of either using plastic bags that could pollute either land or water, or using the toilet in which case only the water is directly affected.
 
As El Helwe from Greenpeace puts it, perhaps the only way to enforce environmental standards on individuals and industries is by slapping both with harsh penalties. That was how the government “enforced seatbelts,” says El Helwe. However, many in power still benefit directly from turning a blind eye to industries that damage Lebanese waters, and until the country’s citizens take matters into their own hands and pressure political candidates to address the issue in a meaningful way, there is little chance that things will improve.

  • RAMZI

    I honestly suggest you follow through with this insightful story DAILY and pressure Sukleen to give u answers and ask politicians to do something about it. You are on the right track, you are the Media, keep pressuring our out of touch politicians that only argue about who and how much money each is gona steal from our taxes instead of doing something! Ramzi

    April 29, 2009

  • shirin

    drowning

    April 28, 2009

  • shirin

    drowing in their own ignorance and GREED

    April 27, 2009

  • shirin

    this is what truly distinguishes us from the civil world. public awareness and education are key. it has to start in schools, why not part of the curriculum?the health of the environment and our health are intrinsically linked. lebanese people are drowing in their own ignorance

    April 27, 2009

  • jenna

    Don't blame Israel for the pollution, Lebanese throw their trash everywhere!!!!!!!

    April 25, 2009

  • omar

    We should start by pushing the government to fine people for littering. It will create more jobs and maybe help keep Lebanon a little cleaner

    April 24, 2009