What’s the deal with garbage de­cen­tral­iza­tion?

The Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment has a new strat­egy to re­or­ga­nize Le­banon’s waste sec­tor

Executive Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

Over the past 10 years, the govern­ment has at­tempted and failed to im­ple­ment plan af­ter plan to end the coun­try’s smol­der­ing trash cri­sis. With each it­er­a­tion, politi­cians crit­i­cize govern­ment in­ac­tion, while dis­agree­ing on what to do with and where to put the garbage. On Jan­uary 11, Le­banon took an­other swing at re­solv­ing this im­passe, when the cabi­net en­dorsed the Pol­icy Sum­mary on In­te­grated Solid Waste Man­age­ment. The pol­icy is in­tended to com­ple­ment a draft law, which has been stud­ied and re­fined since 2012 and is cur­rently mak­ing its way through Par­lia­ment. If passed, it would be the coun­try’s first le­gal frame­work specif­i­cally ded­i­cated to solid waste man­age­ment.

To­gether, these doc­u­ments out­line a waste plan that places re­spon­si­bil­ity in the hands of lo­cal gov­ern­ments. Speak­ing at a press con­fer­ence, Min­is­ter of En­vi­ron­ment Tarek Khatib dubbed the ap­proach “ad­min­is­tra­tive de­cen­tral­iza­tion,” the lat­est buzz­words among stake­hold­ers through­out the cap­i­tal. But what this term will mean in prac­tice has con­founded both aca­demics and pub­lic of­fi­cials, as most mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have long been legally ob­li­gated to deal with their waste while be­ing left to their own de­vices with­out ad­e­quate sup­port from the cen­tral govern­ment.

“In a way, re­spon­si­bil­ity was given to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties with­out any prior train­ing, with­out any prepa­ra­tion, and with­out any clear vi­sion,” says Ma­jdi Na­jem, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of civil and en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer­ing at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut. “So now, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are overly con­fused. They can­not com­mit [to in­vest­ments] for the long term be­cause the min­istry did not give them a long-term ul­ti­ma­tum to man­age solid waste. At the same time, they don’t have the ca­pac­ity; they don’t have the nec­es­sary skills.”

Mu­nic­i­pal coun­cils are hin­dered by a num­ber of ad­min­is­tra­tive, tech­ni­cal, and financial lim­i­ta­tions made worse by their small sizes. A paper by Democ­racy Re­port­ing In­ter­na­tional from April 2017 states that Le­banon has 1,108 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, “an ex­tremely high ra­tio [in terms of pop­u­la­tion and sur­face area] by in­ter­na­tional com­par­i­son.” Vil­lages are of­ten too small to raise the funds nec­es­sary for proper waste dis­posal, and may not pro­duce enough rub­bish to at­tract the in­ter­est of pri­vate sec­tor con­trac­tors.

Khalil Ge­bara, ad­vi­sor to the min­is­ter of in­te­rior and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, notes that, “For the past two years, we sent, five times, and [at] dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods, re­quests to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to in­form us whether or not they have any po­ten­tial plans for a de­cen­tral­ized solid-waste man­age­ment pol­icy. The an­swers we re­ceived from mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties don’t ex­ceed 20 out of the 1,100 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in Le­banon. So mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, even if they are in­ter­ested, lack the ca­pa­bil­i­ties to do any­thing about that.”


The pol­icy sum­mary calls for the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment (MoE) to sur­vey the financial and ad­min­is­tra­tive ca­pac­i­ties of ev­ery mu­nic­i­pal­ity in Le­banon and as­sess their abil­ity to man­age their waste with­out govern­ment in­ter­ven­tion. Man­age­ment prac­tices must meet new guide­lines es­tab­lished by the min­istry, which en­tail sort­ing at the source, street sweep­ing, and garbage col­lec­tion. Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties shall also be at least par­tially re­spon­si­ble for waste treat­ment in their ser­vice ar­eas.

Cur­rently, only a few mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are in­de­pen­dently man­ag­ing their waste with­out re­sort­ing to open dump­ing, which would be crim­i­nal­ized by the draft law. In order to ad­dress com­mon chal­lenges such as garbage dis­posal, lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tions of­ten join to­gether in mu­nic­i­pal unions, which en­ables them to pool their re­sources. Those that launch their own waste projects of­ten rely on stipends from the In­de­pen­dent Mu­nic­i­pal Fund (IMF), which is made up of rev­enues from sev­eral lo­cal taxes and fees from par­tic­i­pat­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

De­spite this grant sys­tem, mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties find it dif­fi­cult to cover the costs of their op­er­a­tions. They fre­quently com­plain that IMF dis­burse­ments are in­suf­fi­cient and can be de­layed by months at a time, un­der­min­ing their abil­ity to bud­get for longterm in­vest­ments or make pay­ments to ser­vice providers. The mu­nic­i­pal fund it­self may strug­gle with financial pres­sures from lo­cal gov­ern­ments that sign on to waste man­age­ment con­tracts they can­not af­ford. Some waste-re­lated ex­penses are four or five times higher than the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties’ IMF al­lo­ca­tion ac­cord­ing to Norma Nis­sir, pres­i­dent of the IMF. De­spite this short­fall, the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters, which ap­proves dis­burse­ments, re­quires the fund pay the dif­fer­ence.

In order to avoid fund­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties and fi­nance the high costs of solid waste treat­ment in­fra­struc­ture,

mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and unions have of­ten re­sorted to ten­der­ing their projects through the state, which fronts the nec­es­sary cap­i­tal. In the ab­sence of an in­sti­tu­tional frame­work for solid waste man­age­ment, this role has largely fallen to the Coun­cil for De­vel­op­ment and Re­con­struc­tion (CDR), an ex­ec­u­tive body ini­tially es­tab­lished for post-war in­fra­struc­ture con­struc­tion and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. The most no­table of CDR’s con­tracts were with the col­lec­tion and treat­ment com­pa­nies Suk­leen and Sukomi, cov­er­ing Beirut and, for­merly, Mount Le­banon/Chouf.

Over the years, the Of­fice of the Min­is­ter of State for Ad­min­is­tra­tive Re­form (OMSAR) has also be­come a ma­jor chan­nel for Euro­pean Union­funded waste man­age­ment in­vest­ments across the coun­try. In June, EU Am­bas­sador Christina Lassen de­clared that the in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion has poured over 77 mil­lion eu­ros (ap­prox­i­mately $94.7 mil­lion at the time of writ­ing) into Le­banon’s solid waste sec­tor. Mo­hamad Baraki, the solid waste pro­gram’s project man­ager at OMSAR, told Ex­ec­u­tive that if the min­istry wasn’t step­ping in to pay for the op­er­a­tion and main­te­nance costs, these mu­nic­i­pal waste fa­cil­i­ties would be forced to close.


Para­dox­i­cally, the new plan to de­cen­tral­ize waste man­age­ment could pave the way for even more cen­tral­ized op­er­a­tions across the coun­try. Lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tions that are deemed un­fit to man­age their own waste will be in­cluded in state-ten­dered pro­grams.

In an ef­fort to or­ga­nize the ten­der­ing process, the MoE has es­tab­lished a coun­cil of industry stake­hold­ers that in­cludes min­is­te­rial, pri­vate sec­tor, and aca­demic rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The gov­ern­ing body is meant to over­see the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the plan and stan­dard­ize terms of ref­er­ence doc­u­ments for var­i­ous waste-re­lated ser­vices. These doc­u­ments would also be used by mu­nici- pal­i­ties that at­tempt to launch their own projects.

Naji Kodeih, an en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sul­tant and the lone civil-so­ci­ety ap­pointee to the coun­cil, re­ports that the rep­re­sen­ta­tives be­gan con­ven­ing on Fe­bru­ary 13. The­o­ret­i­cally, the coun­cil will now be­gin to re­place OMSAR and the CDR as the state con­tract­ing agency.

Be­yond the ex­ten­sion of waste ser­vices to vil­lages na­tion­wide, the pol­icy sum­mary features sev­eral ad­di­tional cash-in­ten­sive agenda items. Sort­ing fa­cil­i­ties in Karantina and Aam­roussieh would be re­ha­bil­i­tated. A com­post­ing plant in Burj Ham­moud would be up­graded. A na­tional re­cy­cling pro­gram would be ini­ti­ated. The al­most 940 open-air dumps counted by the MoE around the coun­try would be closed. A MoE of­fi­cial with knowl­edge of the new plan says that the min­istry es­ti­mates the cost of these clo­sures to be $170 mil­lion alone. Fur­ther­more, the plan calls for the for­ma­tion of three interim waste stor­age fa­cil­i­ties for haz­ardous waste. The MoE source, who was not au­tho­rized to speak to press, con­firmed that this pro­posal refers to an ex­pan­sion of ex­ist­ing land­fills in Burj Ham­moud and Costa Brava.

Asked how the min­istry ex­pects to pay for all of these op­er­a­tions, the source claims that a waste fund would have to be es­tab­lished, fi­nanced by the im­po­si­tion of a new tax regime. Some of these funds might be used to sub­si­dize tip­ping fees charged to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties for the us­age of re­gional treat­ment fa­cil­i­ties of­fered by the govern­ment.


Dur­ing the cabi­net meet­ing on Jan­uary 11, govern­ment of­fi­cials also ap­proved mea­sures that would al­low for the use of state-owned in­cin­er­a­tors across Le­banon. This has contributed to fur­ther con­fu­sion among stake­hold­ers who claim that the ex­pan­sion of pub­licly owned in­fra­struc­ture is in con­tra­dic­tion with the prin­ci­ple of de- cen­tral­iza­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Na­jem, who fre­quently con­sults with may­ors on their solid waste prac­tices in his role as a project man­ager at AUB’s Na­ture Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter, mu­nic­i­pal lead­ers feel stuck. On the one hand, the MoE is en­cour­ag­ing them to move for­ward with their own waste so­lu­tions. On the other hand, some mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are hes­i­tant to ex­plore long-term in­vest­ments when the govern­ment might build an in­cin­er­a­tor in their area later on.

De­spite the seem­ingly mixed sig­nals from the Coun­cil of Min­is­ters, the govern­ment’s lat­est plan has earned the guarded bless­ings of both civil so­ci­ety and leg­is­la­tors for the first time in years. “The Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment in Le­banon worked in the last months on an in­te­gral strat­egy,” says Kodeih. “The goal of this strat­egy is to re­cu­per­ate or to re­cover the lost opportunity cost of waste. This is good. We are okay with this con­cept, but at the level of de­tails, we are not okay with some op­tions, like in­cin­er­a­tion.”

For now, the po­ten­tial im­pact of the plan and the fea­si­bil­ity of pass­ing ad­di­tional taxes, upon which the MoE’s new ap­proach may de­pend, re­main open ques­tions. The source at the MoE ad­vo­cates for par­tial de­cen­tral­iza­tion but re­mains skep­ti­cal about its im­ple­men­ta­tion. “With ev­ery new plan or new pol­icy, you have ex­cite­ment be­cause it’s new. [The govern­ment] want[s] to do some­thing. Ev­ery min­is­ter wants to prove them­selves, but at the end I’m not re­ally op­ti­mistic about the re­sults. They prob­a­bly want to do some­thing now to tell the peo­ple that they want to do some­thing just for the elec­tions.”

Para­dox­i­cally, the new plan to de­cen­tral­ize waste man­age­ment could pave the way for even more cen­tral­ized op­er­a­tions

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