Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
The city’s months-long garbage crisis hits a new, horrible low.
The latest solution to Beirut’s trash problem fell through just two weeks ago. Back in July, the government closed the “temporary” Naameh landfill to the southeast of Beirut, stretched to capacity after 20 years of dumping. The government’s contract with a waste management company also happened to expire that month, meaning the city’s trash not only has nowhere to go—it also has no one to pick it up. In November, residents without options began a makeshift dump in the Jdeideh municipality, a city suburb. Hence, the “river of trash,” above.
A British firm was slated to export the city’s excess crud, piles and piles of which choke the streets of the Lebanese capital. But the plan petered out because the company, Chinook Urban Mining, failed the provide the Middle Eastern country’s government with paperwork proving that it could deposit the trash in Russia, as planned. The deal expired, taking the country’s trash problem “back to square one,” Reuters reported.
A government spokesperson told CNN there is no back-up plan, but said the responsible government agency is “working on something else.”
For many in Beirut, the government’s inability to perform the basic administrative task of picking up garbage on time has become a symbol of its inefficiency and corruption. Lebanon has not passed a budget since 2005, and political infighting in the parliament has left the country without a president since May 2014. (Syria’s horrific civil war, which has spilled well beyond its borders into Lebanon, has not helped with the dysfunction.) In August, the dissatisfaction turned violent, when members of the so-called #YouStink campaign took to the streets and clashed with police. (Organizers said “infiltrators” uninvolved with the trash protest were responsible for the physical turn.) Dozens were hurt in the demonstrations.
In Jdeideh, residents worry the open dump full of untreated garbage is a health hazard. Locals wonder whether toxins are leaking into the water supply. Meanwhile, others in the city are burning their trash against the government’s orders, sending who-knows-what particulates into the sky.
“This used to be such a beautiful place, but look at it now. We can't even walk by it," a resident told CNN last week.
“Can huge piles of garbage create a revolution?” New York Magazine asked in September. It hasn’t yet. But it’s clear that the absence of vital but under-appreciated public services—trash collection and safe drinking water, for example—can create big, big problems for a city. In Beirut, huge piles of garbage point to the instability created by a dysfunctional city administrators and governments.