Garbage crisis thrusts corruption into limelight, drives Lebanon to edge

Garbage crisis thrusts corruption into limelight, drives Lebanon to edge

BEIRUT—What started as a series of demonstrations against mounds of uncollected trash on the streets of Beirut and Mount Lebanon soon turned into a restless fight to end government corruption.

Thousands of Lebanese took to the streets several times this summer to express their fury over the large amount of trash stacked on their streets.

Garbage in Lebanon has for long been thrown in landfills and no clear strategy for treatment or recycling was ever adapted by the government. In July, the main landfill was closed after nearby residents said they were fed up living next to it for more than 17 years. It was originally opened in 1997 as temporary until the government would agree on a permanent solution for waste management. But it never did.

A pile of garbage blocks a street in east Beirut on Aug. 17. Photo credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

A pile of garbage blocks a street in east Beirut on Aug. 17. Photo credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

As a result of the landfill’s closure, the main waste management company Sukleen stopped collecting garbage, saying it had no place to discard it.

After trash accumulated on the streets of the capital and its surroundings, citizens couldn’t take it anymore. Many started online and offline campaigns, notably a popular one called You Stink that soon turned into a full-fledged movement against political corruption.

Organizing several protests demanding at first the resignation of all ministers then the resignation of Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk for failing to swiftly solve the crisis, the movement marked summer in Lebanon with a number of violent clashes with the police.

Marie-José Azzi, a 21-year-old activist and journalist, was one of the first to join the You Stink movement. She has been frequently engaged in several civil movements against political corruption.

“This is not the first time I participate in protests,” Azzi told Global Young Voices. “I was before a member of a group called ‘For the Sake of the Republic’ that was founded to say no to the extension of the parliament’s term [last year], and this year the garbage crisis pushed me to go on the streets again.”

Azzi almost died when security forces clashed with You Stink protesters on Aug. 22 in Downtown Beirut.

Riot police officers spray protesters with water in Beirut on the second day of protests. Photo credit: Bilal Hussein/AP

Riot police officers spray protesters with water in Beirut on the second day of protests. Photo credit: Bilal Hussein/AP

“Lebanese army soldiers started to shoot in the air in front of us and they were very close but we hadn’t done anything wrong,” she said. “At that moment, I lost control of myself and started shouting at them nonstop until one of them violently threw a big wood stick at me.”

Along with batons, Lebanese security personnel used rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, water cannons and butts of rifles to curb protesters on Aug. 22 and 23, according to the Human Rights Watch.

“I still have bruises on my body,” Azzi said. “If I hadn’t moved my head, I’d be dead now.”

But this didn’t dispirit the young campaigner at all. In fact, she plans on going back to the streets as long as what she considers to be one of her most vital rights is violated. “Even after the garbage crisis is over, we won’t stop fighting corruption,” Azzi said.

On Wednesday, the cabinet approved a plan to temporarily reopen the main landfill to get rid of the accumulated trash, find locations for new landfills and decentralize the waste management sector, giving municipalities the power to manage the issue locally.

Protesters gather in Riad al-Solh square during the You Stink protest on Aug. 22. Photo credit: Hasan Shaaban/The Daily Star

Protesters gather in Riad al-Solh square during the You Stink protest on Aug. 22. Photo credit: Hasan Shaaban/The Daily Star

Consequently, the residents of the main landfill blocked the road that leads to it to prevent its reopening, and You Stink environmentalists criticized the short-term plan, voicing in a statement their objection to creating new landfills and reopening the old one, as it goes against their demands for a durable and ecological waste management policy.

But the Lebanese government could have avoided all this chaos, according to the executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), Sami Atallah, because resolving the garbage crisis is simple.

“The tragic part of the whole story is the solution to the waste crisis is obvious and straightforward,” Atallah wrote in an analysis featured on the non-governmental think tank’s website, citing treatment of waste at the source, which requires changing citizens’ mindsets, as one of the evident solutions.

The problem, however, according to protesters, resides in deep-rooted governmental corruption and strong political divisions.

“Seeing garbage on the streets and smelling bad odors was shocking and the government made no serious efforts to take it off the streets,” Azzi told Global Young Voices. “People were getting sick and we didn’t have any choice but to put pressure on the government to find sustainable solutions for the crisis and to say to our politicians: ‘you stink’ because they really do.”

After parliamentarians renewed their own term in 2014, statewide elections were put off. MPs have also failed to elect a new president, and the Lebanese Republic has been without a head for almost 16 months, the longest such period in its 74-year history.

Lebanese protesters wave the national flag in front of a barbed wire fence during a demonstration in Beirut. Photo credit: Anwar Amro/AFP

Lebanese protesters wave the national flag in front of a barbed wire fence during a demonstration in Beirut. Photo credit: Anwar Amro/AFP

Today, the country is on the brink of a constitutional crisis. Should Prime Minister Tammam Salam decide to resign, his government could collapse leading to a state of complete political paralysis.

And when it comes to solving the garbage crisis, some political analysts expressed concerns that the deal approved by the government won’t necessarily end the crisis, the Wall Street Journal reported, because the delicate plan “didn’t set out clearly how municipalities will dispose of trash in a publicly and environmentally acceptable way.”

With that, the political elite are, according to Atallah, “contributing to the undoing of the state by making it irrelevant once you add in the issue of poor infrastructure in terms of water provision, electricity production, and congested roadways, among others.”

Lebanon also happens to be by far the world’s biggest host of refugees per capita due to the ongoing war in neighboring Syria, which adds strains to its already precarious political and economic situation.

In conclusion to his analysis for LCPS, Atallah stressed the importance of raising environmental as well as political awareness among the Lebanese people.

“As for citizens, they ought to remember during the next election that if they keep voting the way they have, we will be getting more of the same garbage,” Atallah said. “We have a choice to make.”

Cartoon credit: Desktopwallpapers4.me

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