Lebanon’s Pollution Spoils Economy

As Lebanon has become an oasis of stability within the politically troubled Arab world, it awaits a promising summer season with daily influxes of thousands of tourists. Its exotic beach resorts, bustling red-light districts, and cultural sites continue to be a global tourism magnet. Yet the country’s insurmountable environmental hazards — from landfills and ocean dumps to mediocre sewage treatment facilities — jeopardizes the condition of the Lebanese tourism-based economy, as well as public health.

The more puzzling phenomenon is that the state’s looming public debt highlights government spending on infrastructural projects. The grim reality reveals that almost no infrastructural initiative embraced environmental benchmarks.

In many cities and villages outside the capital city of Beirut, a structured sewage network linked to a treatment facility is like spotting a penguin in the desert. Instead, the inhabitants of these areas deposit their sewage in ground excavations or septic tanks. The sewage either seeps through the septic tank and mixes with ground-water or simply clogs the tank until it is mechanically drained and transported to its final destination.

Industrial, medical, and residential wastes are also jettisoned in an environmentally inappropriate manner. Although the cost of garbage collection is around $85 per ton of the taxpayer’s money, there are no real solutions besides depositing the wastes in landfills or ocean dumps. Pilot projects encouraging recycling and raising awareness on high school and university campuses, as well as some firms and restaurants, seem to be a step in the journey of a thousand miles. Then again, recycling centers only reproduce select material such as plastic bottles, nylon, and paper and leaves a large bulk of solid waste unmanaged.

The scene only gets worse in the quarries feeding national construction with building-stone off the limestone mountains of Lebanon. Although some quarries do not meet national standards, they are left to operate with enormous political backing from the Lebanese elite. Even when a quarry site shuts down, the property owner rarely restores the dug earth with soil and greenery.

Coordinated efforts on behalf of the Ministries of Environment, Energy, Public Works, and the Interior are crucial for managing and resolving these hazards. Waste could become a reliable source of energy and treated sewage could be utilized for farming purposes, under certain conditions. Quarries should adhere to a strict set of environmental regulations, and the Ministry of the Interior should play a larger role in policing environmental violations through its jurisdiction over municipalities.

The Ministry of Environment should receive larger budget allocations to play a more active role instead of being referred to by national media as a “compensatory profile;” often offered to politicians simply to grant the cabinet minister a profile to manage. Moreover, the government should open up investment opportunities in the field of waste management and end the monopoly imposed on the Lebanese taxpayer by Sukleen, the waste management and dumping company.

Lebanese educational institutions, media outlets, and NGOs must launch a nationwide awareness campaign on the need to recycle material and report environmental violations. Civil society organizations have taken a small step for the Lebanese, but joint efforts are required to advance to a giant leap for mankind.

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