Ah, Beirut, breathe it in

Friends, I have a very soft spot for Lebanon, and it’s based on a single 4 day trip I took there one time. I just loved the place. The people I met were lovely, the food is amazing, there are enough old ruins to keep an old ruins aficionado like me busy for a long time, and the country is just plain beautiful. For such a small place it has just about every kind of environment you could want apart from desert, from snow-covered mountains (well, they were when I was there; I don’t know what climate change has done to them since), to the incredible cedar forest, to the rich plains of the Beqaa Valley, to Mediterranean beaches, to the bustling modern city scene in Beirut.

Oh, Beirut, what a place. In fact, I can almost imagine being there right now — the sights, the sounds, the, er, smells…uh, wait a min

A full-blown sectarian war raging in neighboring Syria, a refugee crisis with no end in sight, a government that hasn’t managed to elect a president in 14 months — none of this, many Lebanese boast, has dimmed their joie de vivre.

But a mounting trash crisis in the capital, Beirut, is pushing some Lebanese over the edge.

Last week, trash collection in Beirut and its suburbs was suspended when activists from the town of Naameh, the site of Lebanon’s main landfill, cut off the road to dump trucks operated by Sukleen, the private company in charge of waste management in Lebanon.

Well, not that smell. This is the kind of thing you’re likely to see in Beirut these days (the white stuff is lime, which is being sprayed onto the trash piles to try to cut down on the smell and the vermin):

via Beirut.com
via Beirut.com

Al Jazeera has an unbelievable (as in you literally won’t believe it) photo essay on this story that you should go check out right now. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Here’s the problem: Naʿimah’s landfill was opened in 1997, intended to remain open for a few years just to help ease the country’s garbage problem, and was built to accommodate about 2 million tons of trash. Now it’s almost two decades later and the landfill holds about 10 million tons of garbage, and understandably the folks who live in Naʿimah are tired of being Lebanon’s trash receptacle. When those activists blocked the road from Beirut, Sukleen decided it had to stop picking up the trash because it had no place to put it. The fact that Sukleen is currently negotiating a new contract with the Lebanese government, and theoretically could use a real garbage crisis like this in their negotiations, is all just a happy coincidence.

These trash piles are just the most pungent manifestation of Lebanon’s very serious crisis in government. A similar thing happened last year, when Naʿimah activists blocked the road and briefly prevented Beirut’s trash from getting to their town, but the government got them to relent with promises that it would look for a comprehensive solution to the trash problem (including a recycling program and a new landfill) over the next year. But Lebanon’s government, at the moment, can’t even elect itself a president, over a year after the last one’s term ended.

Why? Because the Lebanese parliament (which elects the president) is hopelessly divided, largely along lines dictated by the civil war in neighboring Syria. You have Hezbollah and its allies on the one hand and a group of Sunni and pro-Western parties on the other, and Lebanon’s Christians, for whom the presidency is reserved as part of the country’s tri-partite power-sharing government, are somewhere in the middle or split between the two camps. The power of Lebanon’s presidency was reduced in the 1980s, so it’s not that electing a president would then solve Lebanon’s government crisis. It’s more that, if these guys can’t even get their act together to elect a president, how are they going to tackle a complicated issue like trash collection? And there are other critical infrastructure problems that Lebanon is facing that have to be addressed by something other than total government dysfunction. Unfortunately, Lebanon is a country that has never been able to extricate its domestic politics from whatever’s going on in the region, especially in Syria, so the current region-wide state of chaos is hitting the Lebanese people right where they live, and where they smell.

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Thank you!

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