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Lebanon’s struggle to implement a coherent waste management strategy

Sep 10

Lebanon’s struggle to implement a coherent waste management strategy

Sort it out

Calls for a sustainable solid waste management plan in Lebanon have not abated over the four years since the last garbage crisis left Beirut’s streets littered with trash in 2015. Its presence is very much still felt—or at the very least, smelt. Such calls, in fact, date to when the first series of emergency measures were implemented beginning in 1997—see timeline page 50—but successive attempts over the past decades have failed to find a solution to Lebanon’s trash problem. This last year has seen renewed efforts with the passage of Law 80 (2018) on integrated solid waste management, a law that had stagnated in Parliament for six years prior. Just 11 months after passing Law 80—which mandated the environment ministry to develop a national waste management strategy, albeit within six months—Minister of Environment Fady Jreissati’s proposed 10-year solid waste management roadmap was adopted by cabinet on August 27.

Any tangible progress is a long way off, even allowing for the minimum time needed to start implementing the new roadmap, measures of which at the time of writing had not been agreed on in full. The impetus for the special meeting of cabinet that approved the roadmap was the threat of another crisis that Jresissati had warned could start as soon as September 1, if concrete steps were not taken—it remains to be seen how agreeing on his roadmap will impact things on the ground within the space of days.

Experts tell Executive that the time is ripe to implement a sustainable, long-term plan whereby public and private actors work in tandem to properly manage the country’s waste, and that the current system of approaching waste management as a crisis situation and implementing stopgap measures must be binned. While this new roadmap seems like a solid step in that direction, these experts question its feasibility. One of the sticking points in the roadmap was its attempt to implement a new financial recovery mechanism to reduce the debt incurred by the sector, which has been passed by the cabinet to the ministries of finance and environment to study over the next month. For now the sector remains, like the streets and coasts, a mess.

Incinerator debates

When initially presented to Prime Minister Saad Hariri in June, Jresissati’s roadmap was met with some minor protests as it calls for environmental impact assessments (EIAs) on two locations for proposed incinerators. The idea of incinerators has sparked heated debate in Lebanon since they were first proposed in 2010 as part of the last efforts to implement a long-term plan.

Primarily the debate around incinerators focuses on Lebanon’s garbage composition. Those opposed to their use say that if a country has high levels of organic waste, like Lebanon, incineration is often not the best choice because the waste composition is incompatible with incineration. Others have made objections on the level of governance, arguing that Lebanon does not have the capacity to properly regulate incinerators. Samar Khalil, an environmental management specialist and member of the Waste Management Coalition in Lebanon tells Executive that further concerns include Lebanon’s already high levels of air pollution—in May, levels double EU limits for air pollution were recorded in Beirut—and the logistical challenges associated with exporting or disposing of hazardous waste produced from the incinerators.

The net amount of energy that could be gained from incineration, if gains are even possible, also seems negligible, according to those Executive spoke with. Incineration occurs at temperatures above 850 degrees Celsius, and because of the wet nature of Lebanon’s garbage—it has a moisture content of 60 percent—the amount of fossil fuel required to raise the temperature to that degree may be more than what would be recovered, says Anwar al-Shami, solid waste management expert and data analyst at American University of Beirut Nature Conservation Center (NCC).

Greg Demarque | Executive The current system of approaching waste management as a crisis situation and implementing stopgap measures must be binned.

Regarding governance, concerned experts, such as Najat Saliba, director at the NCC, point to stringent and layered regulatory mechanisms in places like the EU that ensure hazardous materials that can be emitted during incineration are properly handled. Khalil concurs, pointing to the general ineffectiveness of government regulation in Lebanon. A Ministry of Environment (MoE) official, who asked to remain anonymous, says that the EIA contains guidelines on implementing proper legislation and adds that they are proposing a compliance monitoring system in which other stakeholders would be engaged. In June, Jreissati had asked the EU to inspect emissions from proposed incineration facilities. In an email to The New Arab, EU political section attache Elin Danielsson said “The European Union as of today [June 27] does not support incineration solutions in Lebanon, not least due to the absence of a satisfactory regulatory and institutional framework. It is not the role of the European Union to oversee or regulate sectoral policies in third countries.” The EU delegation to Lebanon confirmed this statement was accurate to Executive.

Though one of the main sources of debate, EIAs on incinerators are the last aspect of this four-part roadmap. It first calls for more immediate measures, like the 25 sanitary landfills to be established in each kaza—only 10 of which are already established—and tenders to be issued for maintenance and operations of waste management facilities. Environmental engineering experts Executive talked to say that without recent EIAs—the last comprehensive study was done in 2006—there is no way to be sure of the feasibility of these proposed locations. Currently, there are nearly 1,000 informal dumps scattered across the country that, combined with landfills, receive 75-80 percent of generated garbage. The roadmap sets an ambitious target of just 20 percent to be landfilled in 10 years, one which the MoE official says may be unattainable without incineration.

Why such an ambitious target? There are no international standards that Lebanon is currently mandated to follow. Khalil explains that some countries landfill only 2 percent, but those rely on heavy incineration and have less organic waste. A 2018 World Bank report reads, “Incineration is used primarily in high-capacity, high-income, and land-constrained countries.” Lebanon meets only the latter of these criteria. It notes that upper-middle income countries, which Lebanon classifies as, have the highest percent of waste in landfills, at 54 percent (which seems like a more reasonable target for Lebanon than 20 percent).

Sort at source

Another way to reduce waste is from sorting at source, a process in which citizens are responsible for dividing waste into various categories; only 6 percent of waste in Lebanon is currently sorted in homes. A decree in the roadmap commits the government to enforce mandatory sorting at source. According to the decree, bins are to be provided by municipalities, who will also be responsible for collection and transfer to treatment centers. But all this costs money, and details on proposed financing remain murky (see box above). Past efforts to implement sorting at source have gone awry due to municipalities’ inability to finance them.

The funding issue lies on two levels: the state level and the municipality level. Law 80 encouraged decentralization, putting the impetus on the municipalities to fund and implement solid waste management policies, but most lack the funds to take up the helm. In a survey conducted by the MoE in 2018, nearly all municipalities who responded favored partial decentralization—but these represented only 30 percent of all municipalities. Whereas Beirut—which has its own plans for an incinerator—can be considered a wealthy municipality, others, according to the MoE official, are so lacking in funding that they struggled to buy proper bins to implement a MoE circular (No. 7/1, designed to encourage municipalities to sort at source). And with funds being withheld from the independent municipal fund, it remains unclear how municipalities can be expected to finance this measure in the near future.

Immediately following the end of Sukleen's waste management contract in 2015, the central government started withholding around 40 percent of fees municipalities paid into the independent municipal fund, a move it said was to pay the debt incurred from the Sukleen era. Sukleen, a subsidiary of Averda, was the country’s largest waste manager from the early 1990s until 2015. Disbursements from the fund, which is comprised of revenue from taxes and fees—like levies on telecommunications and electricity—are intended to provide local services, help run local administrations, and fund local development projects. These disbursements are distributed by the Ministry of Finance (MoF). In 2016, the United Nations Development Programme estimated that around 70 percent of municipalities receive 90 percent of their total annual income from the fund, if the funds are received. Municipalities did not receive their allotments in 2017 and 2018, and The National News Agency reported in April that Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil said municipalities would receive the 2017 funding in May. This did not happen. On August 26, Khalil said the 2017 funds would be released by the end of the month—at time of this writing it remains to be seen if this will be the case. Allocations from the fund are based on the size of local population and contribution to the pool; the size of the fund is unknown, but is said to be worth billions. According to a 2018 article in UAE-based daily The National, the independent municipal fund’s deficit in October of that year amounted $2 billion after cabinet used it for measures aimed at fixing the waste problem. With so much of a municipality’s annual revenue derived from the fund, and the disbursements irregular and stalled, municipalities have little means to implement their own waste management solutions.

Need to break the mould

At the state level, the 2018 draft law had a section on finance included in the text; when Parliament passed the law, it cut the financial recovery provision section, says the MoE official. Without this provision, the sector risks becoming a drain on state coffers, like the electricity sector that accounted for 40 percent of the country’s fiscal deficit at the end of 2019, she adds. The MoE official had no data on how large the waste management sector’s current deficit accounted to, telling Executive to approach the MoF. When asked, a MoF employee told Executive they were not responsible for this information. Whether or not there is someone within the government aware of the size of the deficit generated by waste management remains to be seen.

Without funds to decentralize and seek privately operated waste management or even local government solutions, municipalities must rely on the central system for treatment and disposal, which is and has been for decades rife with problems.

Only time will tell if this new roadmap will be implemented or if, like the 2006 master plan that divided Lebanon into four service areas and left municipalities responsible for their own waste management—including bearing the cost—it will be discarded and rendered ineffective. The 2006 plan fell to the wayside due to political turmoil at the time, set off in part by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri the year prior, says Khalil. Recent delays in cabinet meeting because of political bickering, while not as strongly reminiscent of 13 years ago, are still indicative of a government more concerned with party squabbles than much needed reform and progress, and this will likely affect the implementation of this roadmap.

If the plan’s loose ends are tied up, i.e. the second incinerator location set, the landfill locations confirmed, and the financing mechanism reevaluated by their allotted deadlines, this would indicate perhaps more serious government intentions than past efforts have seen. But whatever this roadmap may be able to achieve, one certainty is that an overhaul is long overdue, and the decades-old pattern of patching a broken system as crises arise must be abandoned.

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