Have you seen Rise Above Lebanon, the Lebanese tourism ministry’s latest promotional video that is part of its “Live Love Lebanon” campaign? No? Well you should. It’s really rather good, offering very beautiful drone shots over what’s left of the country’s impressive scenery.
So Lebanon isn’t really that beautiful? Well no, not really, but the ministry has a job to do and the five-minute production shows that it is can deliver a slick film that would easily hold its own with the best promotional tourist videos. That said, it could do with a few more people in it. The Beirut Central District looks sterile and empty, which is not surprising because it is sterile and empty.
But apart from that the film is quite jolly and would have had the more adventurous western travellers pencilling in Beirut as a vacation option, but the adventurous western travellers are also a very principled lot and care where their hard-earned tourist dollars go. They are unlikely to want to visit a country whose government has in the past eight months allowed more than 500,000 tonnes of garbage to pile up on its streets, creating an environment and health emergency and has been unable to reach a decision about what to do with it all since the landfill in Naameh, south of Beirut became full.
Just think about it for a second. Eight months. It’s not as if the government wasn’t aware it was happening and that suddenly the cabinet woke up to a memo from the ministry of interior/environment/agriculture (take your pick) that said: “Sorry guys but you’ll never believe what’s happened”. No, they knew this was coming a year ago and did nothing about it.
Then just to ram home the message, thousands of Lebanese took to the streets. They manned the barricades, laid siege to the office of the bumbling environment minister and this month came up with another way to show their collective disgust, by bombarding the area around the seat of government in the Beirut Central District with bags of waste using a giant homemade catapult.
Ideally one competent civil servant would be handed the file and told to sort it out. But this is Lebanon and sorting anything out by awarding a contract is a very tricky process. It involves kickbacks, and kickbacks are very important in garbage disposal, an industry which can set inflated collection rates so that almost everyone with an interest can dip their beak.
We were told to be patient. Would our waste be exported? Would another landfill be found and if so where? Not in my backyard, mate. The Shia didn’t want it, the Sunnis didn’t want it, and neither did the Christians or the Druze. Suddenly what was a shameful but relatively manageable crisis took on sectarian dimensions, and in Lebanon that means hunkering down for the long haul.
From what we have been led to understand, in December the cabinet awarded the contract to manage the state’s trash exportation plan to Chinook Urban Mining, which according to its website is a “build-own-operate firm, established in London since [sic] 2011, specialising in developing projects in the energy-from-waste sector”, in a contract reportedly worth $200 million over 18 months. The council for development and reconstruction quarterbacked the deal in which Russia agreed be the end user for our waste.
Last week, we learnt that the deal is very much off the table, with allegations of documents forged to show that Russia had agreed to take the garbage and the involvement of a middle man with business ties to Israel who had allegedly spent time in jail for trying to rip off the Libyan government for $20m. The state now says it is looking into reopening the Naameh landfill, so after seven months we are back at square one. You couldn’t make it up.
No one has lost their job and not one resignation has been tendered, neither from the environment ministry, the health ministry, nor the interior ministry. Not one cabinet minster or MP has looked at the unfolding madness and declared: “I don’t want to be part of this” and fallen on their sword of principle.
Shame on them.
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