SIDON, Lebanon (Reuters) - Every day bulldozers pile more garbage on to a mountain of waste on the Sidon seafront in a symbol of Lebanon’s environmental problems, aggravated, activists say, by politics, mismanagement and greed.
The dump, towering about 20 meters (60 feet) high near schools, hospitals and apartment blocks in Lebanon’s third biggest city, has partially collapsed into the Mediterranean at least twice, prompting complaints from Cyprus, Syria and Turkey after currents swept rubbish on to their beaches.
Last year, an oil spill caused by Israeli bombing of fuel tanks at the Jiyyeh power plant south of Beirut during a 34-day war with Hezbollah guerrillas aroused international concern. However, most of Lebanon’s environmental blight is home-grown.
Almost all its sewage is pumped untreated into the sea, with some chemical effluent from relatively small industrial clusters along a 225-km (140-mile) coastline disfigured by uncontrolled land reclamation and haphazard private construction.
Lebanese boast of their country’s natural beauty, but many dump litter at roadsides and picnic sites without a second thought.
“It’s not any more about blaming Israel,” said Greenpeace campaigner Ghalia Fayad. “Look at us, we are the ones who have been harming the environment, way before the Israeli bombing.”
The Sidon dump, originally created to dispose of debris from buildings bombed in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, threatens public health, marine life and the livelihood of fishermen.
“This is a crime,” film-maker and diving instructor Mohamed al-Sarji exclaimed as he showed photographs he took 30 meters (100 feet) under water of plastic bags, tyres and other detritus blocking rocky crevices where fish would normally lurk.
Plastic bags snag on fishing lines, nets and propellers, and suffocate turtles which mistake them for jellyfish and try to eat them.
Toxic liquids seeping from the dump into the sea or groundwater are even more damaging, environmentalists say.
Sarji accused Sidon municipality of occasionally shovelling untreated garbage straight into the sea and of failing to protect the dump from buffeting by winter storms.
Any inquiry into the riddle of the rubbish mountain soon leads into conflicting tales of politics, contested cleanup proposals, land speculation, funding and princely generosity.
The mayor of Sidon, Abdul Rahman Bizri, said he had secured a $5-million grant from Saudi billionaire Prince Alweed bin Talal, whose grandfather came from the city, to remove the dump. That was three years ago, but the money has yet to be spent.
Bizri said a land reclamation plan had proved too costly, while schemes to dispose of rubble at sea or in a quarry had been foiled by environmental objections that he believed were orchestrated by his local political foes — the family of assassinated ex-Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
A treatment plant near the dump, designed to process waste into fertilisers, gas, liquified gas and even electricity, was to have been completed in 2005, but is still not functioning.
“So we are stuck with this mountain of rubbish. It’s beyond the municipality’s capability,” Bizri sighed, saying it was a task for the government — run by factions led by Hariri’s son.
For now, Sidon’s 200,000 residents have to live with the fumes, rats, mosquitoes, flies and stray dogs around the dump.
“A lot of people living nearby have chronic bronchitis and allergic asthma attacks,” said hospital doctor Nasser Hammoud.
Environmental campaigners say Sidon’s waste mountain is a very visible example of wider problems of weak governance, overlapping bureaucracies, self-interest and neglect.
“Nobody wants waste in their backyard, so we just keep on overloading the existing dumps,” said Manal Nader, director of the Environment Institute at Balamand University.
“It’s not the responsibility of communities to deal with solid waste treatment. It’s the government’s job to bring out a holistic plan and enforce it. Unfortunately, Lebanon is divided into different areas controlled by different groups.”
Nader said environmental groups often found themselves opposing potential solutions simply because past experience had taught them to doubt they would be properly implemented.
“Rehabilitation of quarries, say, has to follow a delicate protocol to prevent contamination of ground water,” he said. “But there is no control, no monitoring and no accountability.”
Lebanon’s political crisis over the choice of a new president, which has paralysed parliament and other institutions for months, has complicated the task of the Environment Ministry, without a minister for the past year.
Lina Yamout, who heads the ministry’s urban environment protection arm, said a framework law for solid waste management had yet to be approved. An action plan to fulfill Lebanon’s commitments to protect the Mediterranean was awaiting funding.
Twelve waste water plants for coastal towns were being built or studied, she said, acknowledging that lack of money meant the plants sometimes were not connected to sewerage networks.
As for the Sidon rubbish mountain, she said the ministry’s policy was to close or rehabilitate all such dumps. “We have the plans. What is needed is the will and the finance.”