Interview with Paul Abi Rached: a glimmer of hope in Lebanon’s garbage crisis

© Paul Abi Rached

During her last expedition, Tara crisscrossed the Mediterranean to study plastic pollution and wherever possible supported local actions for a more sustainable management of resources. One such occasion was in Beirut, where the Tara crew met with local environmentalists to discuss the problems of plastic waste.

Today the mobilization continues and grows stronger,  eloquent proof that citizens and consumers can take action. Interview with Paul Abi Rached, president of  T.E.R.R.E. Liban, and of Lebanon EcoMovement

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To understand the problem of waste in Lebanon, could you explain the context of this summer’s garbage crisis?

“Waste management has been a problem in Lebanon for more than 20 years, a mix of laxity, negligence, and the worst possible practices. Today, more than 70,000 tons of garbage are piled on the roads, in the valleys and along the river banks.

Year after year, the exasperation of the inhabitants of Naamé and neighboring municipalities has been growing. Living next to the landfill, where all the trash from Beirut and Mount Lebanon has been stocked since 1997 (and it was only planned for inert waste!) the inhabitants wanted to do away with unpleasant odors, the many cases of infections and diseases related to pollution of air, soil and water.

The management company treated only 10 to 15% of the waste by recycling or composting. The rest was buried in Naamé’s landfill, or in landfills of Zahle and Bsalim, all of which  became saturated. Only 50% of the waste was treated; the rest was dumped in nature. The service provided by this private company almost bankrupted most municipalities with its exorbitant prices for simple waste burial. As the unsorted waste increased, so did the financial gains for the company.

On January 17, 2015, when the landfill was finally scheduled to shut down permanently, the plan proposed by the government was to divide the waste collection and treatment into 6 zones operated by private companies. But the procurement tender was not made public, and the closing date was extended to July 17, even though the landfill was already saturated and that the residents were in danger! On July 17, six months later, no solution has been proposed.”

 

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Is this tremendous citizen mobilization signalling a change in society?

“It’s a bit early to say, but it’s a very significant advance because all stakeholders are mobilized. All constituents of civil society, municipalities, local politicians, and the 61 associations making up the Lebanon Eco Movement have joined together to demand the final closure of the Naamé garbage dump,  and the implementation of an ethical, decentralized management plan under the responsibility of the municipalities.

Through this broad mobilisation, I see the result of years of advocacy work aimed at the various components of Lebanese civil society (academics, municipal leaders, engaged citizens, industry, trade unions), carried out by our association T.E.R.R.E. Liban. We managed to bring everyone together, patiently elaborating our message and the effectiveness of our actions, while pushing for the adoption of sustainable and ethical methods.

Before and throughout the crisis, we used the media, we aired our solutions and we raised awareness. We saw the emergence of the #VousPuez group which supported our recommendations, but also brought out a deeper crisis facing the entire political class. The environmental crisis turned into a much broader challenge.”

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Is there hope for an end to the crisis?

“Yes! On August 23 the Prime Minister attempted to move things forward by requesting  tenders. The entire civil society rose up against the proposed offers, as did the Minister of the Environment, refusing their even more exorbitant rates. The possibility of a second landfill  was also proposed. This costly project, which would only have diverted the problem, was also deemed unacceptable by the environmental activists.

Following the Minister of the Environment’s departure, the Minister of Agriculture invited us to share our solutions, and the last meeting on Monday, September 14 was positive. We first managed to convince the members of the committee not to consider areas of services over 200 tons (in terms of processing capacity) as obligatory. This means that small municipalities can consider treating their own waste. Furthermore, we introduced the concept of composting organic matter to enrich the soil. We feared that the trend was to sort/recycle and incinerate waste for energy production (“Waste to Energy”). We actually established a more clear position against incineration.”

But the most important thing is to replace the concept of landfills by waste disposal centers that include sorting and composting, including sanitary waste. I am confident and believe that all these changes will be included in a report to be made public by the commission, but the timing is critical as the rainy season approaches.”

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With the arrival of the rainy season, a significant impact on the Mediterranean Sea is to be feared. Contrary to appearances, 80% of the waste at sea is of terrestrial origin, coming from our cities and coasts, through rainwater drains, sewers, streams and rivers. On the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, this figure can climb to 83% of total waste at sea for large cities that develop without proper equipment and waste treatment management. Tara Expeditions is determined to support this citizen mobilization, more important than ever.

Interview by Camille Risse-Raud

Paul Abi Rached is President of T.E.R.R.E. Liban and of Lebanon Eco Movement. For 20 years, T.E.R.R.E. Liban has provided educational programs in 1,139 public schools in Lebanon, as well as training and teaching guides as part of the Lebanese Eco-citizen program. Pragmatic solutions for sorting waste with recycling bins have been launched, as well as campaigns like NISR, the first national campaign to promote awareness about sorting waste. Today, nearly 4 tons are collected daily with ever-increasing demands.

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