The sea­side rub­bish dump threat­en­ing Le­banon’s sea life

In Beirut, the rub­bish con­tin­ues to pile up in the streets, and now, the ocean. As con­cern grows over a new un­der­wa­ter dump, Le­banese are also point­ing the fin­ger at EU fail­ures, Martin Jay re­ports

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The Euro­pean Union stands ac­cused of turn­ing a blind eye to a grow­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal catas­tro­phe in Le­banon. Namely, the dump­ing of two mil­lion tonnes of toxic waste di­rectly into the Mediter­ranean, which threat­ens to wipe out fish stocks and kill the en­dan­gered tur­tles which lay their eggs at Si­don ev­ery year. The EU is also be­ing blamed for wast­ing €16 mil­lion (Dh66 mil­lion) in fund­ing on waste man­age­ment plants that barely func­tion, with two lo­cal “sort­ing and com­post­ing plants” closed and an­other de­funct be­cause its equip­ment was stolen.

The plants are sup­posed to deal with as much as 45 per cent of the coun­try’s waste but, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, they have had lit­tle or no ef­fect on the moun­tains of rub­bish pil­ing up in Beirut’s sub­urbs. Pho­to­graphs ob­tained by The Na­tional show that Le­banon’s govern­ment has just com­pleted a mas­sive con­crete la­goon for waste to serve as an un­der­wa­ter dump, threat­en­ing to harm sea life and to spoil beaches for hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres along the coast, ac­cord­ing to a lead­ing aca­demic on con­ser­va­tion. To many Le­banese, the “Costa Brava” dump near Beirut air­port – which no one can en­ter as it is sealed off with tight se­cu­rity – is merely a land­fill dump, but to oth­ers the word is an eu­phemism for some­thing much more sin­is­ter.

De­spite the EU’s con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence in Le­banon, where it spends €220 mil­lion a year on aid projects, some ac­tivists, aca­demics and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists claim the EU is re­luc­tant to in­ter­fere with the sea dump.

“For sure the EU knows about this dump­ing as they even funded stud­ies of the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact and they are even fund­ing the min­istry of en­vi­ron­ment for waste man­age­ment,” says Paul Abi Rached of the NGO Terre Liban .

“They are fol­low­ing ev­ery step in waste man­age­ment in Le­banon… they know ev­ery­thing that is go­ing on. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is fund­ing sort­ing and com­post­ing units and they don’t put any pres­sure at all on the govern­ment about the [sea] dump­ing.” He says the rub­bish dumped into the sea is “100 times more toxic than raw sewage”.

Rached be­lieves Euro­pean govern­ments such as France have pres­sured the EU to avoid an­tag­o­nis­ing the Le­banese govern­ment, be­cause the coun­try is host­ing up to two mil­lion Syr­ian refugees.

“The govern­ment claims that the rub­bish will be treated be­fore it’s dumped into the wa­ter,” says Wadi El As­maa, a leader of the You Stink! protest move­ment that sprang up in 2015 in re­sponse to the city’s rub­bish cri­sis. As­maa is clearly scep­ti­cal of govern­ment as­sur­ances. He says the govern­ment has failed to cor­rectly op­er­ate two EU-funded plants and up to 10 sort­ing plants for Beirut, which he claims could halve the vol­ume of rub­bish, if run ef­fi­ciently.

“We have asked the EU to help but it’s not that the govern­ment does not have the tech­ni­cal means… it’s more that these EU projects are al­most en­tirely in­ef­fec­tive,” he says.

As­maa claims that af­ter the EU funds a project, it fails to fol­low up to check on whether there are any cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ences. He claims some EU projects just dumped the rub­bish, while oth­ers burned waste at night, with EU of­fi­cials none the wiser.

“Most of them just don’t work be­cause of cor­rup­tion, and it doesn’t mat­ter if there is an EU badge on it. In one [plant], all of the equip­ment was stolen at the very be­gin­ning… None of them ac­tu­ally func­tion as the EU doesn’t seem to care about the cor­rup­tion which is go­ing on,” he says.

“The EU is plan­ning on spend­ing a fur­ther €60 mil­lion on these plants, but it’s a waste of time and money as all that is go­ing on in these op­er­a­tions is cor­rup­tion,” says en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist An­toine Moussa, of Le­banon Eco Move­ment. He cites an ex­am­ple of two EU plants that are now closed. “One EU plant, Kfour, had po­lit­i­cal par­ties squab­bling over who would run it, and there was a scan­dal about hospi­tal waste be­ing found there. An­other, An­sar, is to­tally de­serted now with all the equip­ment stolen.”

Moussa blames fail­ures in the EU pro­grammes as con­tribut­ing to­wards the cre­ation of the sea dump. “When the govern­ment saw that the EU sort­ing cen­tres and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties were not work­ing prop­erly, they took an­other di­rec­tion,” he says. .

Beirut-based EU of­fi­cial Ni­co­las Ritzen­thaler de­nies his em­bassy knew of the sea dump­ing plant, but he ad­mits “Oper­a­tion and Main­te­nance [O&M] is a con­cern”. “Pri­vate op­er­a­tors in charge of O&M are not al­ways ful­fill­ing their du­ties in the most ef­fec­tive man­ner. O&M is fi­nanced by the govern­ment, not by us,” says Ritzen­thaler.

Laury Hay­tayan is an an­ti­cor­rup­tion cam­paigner in Le­banon and be­lieves that the EU knew about the sea dump. She says “the garbage cri­sis is keep­ing politi­cians in power as it brings in money”, and this in­cludes con­tracts for the sea dump. “It’s hardly sur­pris­ing that the EU projects don’t work,” says Hay­tayan.

Many say an­other so­lu­tion is needed to the garbage cri­sis to pro­tect public health and the en­vi­ron­ment. Na­jat Sal­iba, a chem­istry pro­fes­sor at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut, who is also di­rec­tor of the Na­ture Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter (NCC), warns that the en­tire Mediter­ranean is at risk from pol­lu­tion.

“The en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact on the wa­ter, an­i­mal life, ocean bio­di­ver­sity and the whole ma­rine ecosys­tem is hor­rific,” he says. “Leachate full of tox­ins will be sip­ping through the piles to con­tam­i­nate the ma­rine life. In ad­di­tion to the tox­ins, or­ganic mat­ters will use up the oxy­gen in the sea and as such, de­prive the ma­rine life from its oxy­gen. Fish ma­rine plants will get sick and die, al­gae will grow and mask the light from go­ing into the sea, and this will en­hance the life of bac­te­ria that will even­tu­ally af­fect hu­man lives.”

Martin Jay won the UN’s El­iz­a­beth Neuf­fer Memo­rial Prize in New York for his jour­nal­ism in the Mid­dle East. He is based in Beirut.

An­war Amro / AFP

Pro­test­ers in Beirut last year ex­press their anger at the Le­banese govern­ment’s fail­ure to re­solve the rub­bish cri­sis.

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