Trash overflowing into streets in Lebanon. Image Credit: AP

BEIRUT: The trash blankets the beach in Beirut, rubbish is pushed into the sea by the ton, and the smoke from the heaps of burning garbage washes across Lebanon’s countryside.

Little has fazed the Lebanese since the civil war ended here in 1990. Intermittent electricity and water. Dismal telecommunications at extortionate prices. An exasperating government perpetually in gridlock. All are accepted as routine.

Yet, it’s Lebanon’s waste crisis, a three-year tale of tragicomic ineptitude, that has enraged the nation and brought people to the streets in anger. It has become shorthand for the incompetence many see as endemic in the state’s laissez-faire form of governance, and the political class behind it.

It has also raked up questions about the sense of shared destiny among Lebanon’s 18 sects, and what it means to be a Lebanese citizen under a government many no longer trust.

Some speak wistfully of antebellum Lebanon and share nostalgic images on social media of the chic, Riviera-on-the-Med glamour of the country’s beaches, with majestic snow-capped mountains in the background.

Those same beaches and mountains are now strewn with garbage.

The trash crisis’ roots can be traced back decades, but it first made headlines in 2015 after residents in the village of Naameh blocked the road to a nearby landfill to stop the trash from being hauled in.

The site had been opened in 1997 and was meant to last for just seven years. Eighteen years and 15 million tons of trash later --13 million more than it was supposed to hold -- the landfill was closed.

But the government hadn’t prepared an alternative site. Sukleen, the contractor that picked up waste in the capital and its environs, simply stopped doing so. Hills of trash, sprinkled with white pesticide powder to control the rats, cropped up like out-of-season Christmas displays on Beirut’s sweltering streets.

It spurred what became known as the “You Stink” movement, in which a civil society group rallied tens of thousands of Lebanese to excoriate the government and call for its ouster. The protests turned violent, with police firing tear gas as protesters lobbed cracked tiles from buildings in Beirut’s glitzy downtown.

Since then, the issue has largely been hidden from view, but that’s only because most municipalities either dump the country’s estimated 2.5 million tons of annual waste in open fields and burn it, or bulldoze it into the sea, the latter claimed to be a land reclamation strategy.

Yet like the villain in a slasher movie who just won’t die, the trash just keeps coming back.

This week, residents in the south Beirut neighbourhood of Sillom woke up to a river of garbage slithering its way between their houses -- the routine aftermath of rainfall.

Meanwhile, the putrid scent of garbage and rotting carcasses from a slaughterhouse near the Qarantina neighbourhood wafts each evening over the Achrafieh quarter, a leafy residential and commercial district.

Last year, planes approaching Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri airport had to be on alert for the swarms of birds feeding at a landfill less than a mile from the runway -- prompting authorities to employ a uniquely Lebanese solution: hiring shotgun-wielding hunters to shoot the birds.

And in Nahr Ebrahim, a river some 30 miles north of Beirut, visitors will find a waterfall spilling into a serene pool: It’s a scene straight from a travel brochure, provided one can get past the thick smoke from a nearby trash-burning facility. A thread of evil-smelling gunk -- “black water” or leachate in the jargon -- oozes from the landfill toward the pool.

There are less visible dangers too.

A report from the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute earlier this year found dangerous levels of heavy metals in the waters off the country’s coastline, likely a byproduct of the trash dumped at sea and the factories perched along the shoreline.

Since 92% of the wastewater in Lebanon is untreated, biological contaminants abound -- meaning people swim, shower and eat fish from water tainted with fecal matter, said Sammy Kayed, development manager at the American University of Beirut’s Nature Conservation Center.

But instead of action, the waste crisis has brought on the customary spate of recriminations, with officials using it to score political points against their adversaries. Some blamed Syrian refugees; others claimed it was all a conspiracy.

“There was no plan other than where to put another landfill,” said environmental engineer Ziad Abi Chaker.

“The government’s response has been disastrous since 2015. We’ve been dumping our waste into the sea. It’s inconceivable,” said Gilbert Doumit, a Beirut-based civil society politician.

Although the Naameh landfill has been closed for more than three years, there still is no replacement for the area. Each potential site has brought protests from would-be neighbours.

Last month, officials sparked another round of protests with their latest proposal: the installation of incinerators that would not only burn the trash but, they claimed, generate electricity as well.

They’re used throughout Europe, argued Beirut’s Mayor Jamal Itani in an interview with the Lebanese daily newspaper Annahar, and would be capable of handling the 800 tons of garbage that Beirut produces each day.

But experts are skeptical, pointing out that the incinerators would simply belch toxins into the air, including carcinogens and immune-disruptors, unless they adhere to stringent safety protocols, which few believe the state would follow.

“Lebanon has been running thermo-electric power plants for the last 30 or 40 years, and in that period of time it has failed to maintain the scrubbers and filters of these plants, which haven’t worked optimally, not even once,” said Anwar Shami, lead engineer at the Nature Conservation Center.

Shami said he sees no evidence the government would be any more diligent with incinerators.

Besides, Shami said, half of the country’s trash is composed of tough-to-burn organic materials. Instead of generating power, he said, they would suck energy from a grid already operating at a 40% deficit.

Burning trash would also seem to fly in the face of recycling efforts, the solution many expert here advocate.

Officials counter that the Lebanese can’t be bothered to clean up their trash in public, let alone sort it at home.

It’s a claim Doumit rejects.

“In countries where there is a low trust in government, you feel the public sphere isn’t owned by citizens. There’s no sense of ownership and accountability,” said Doumit.

But, he added, some neighbourhoods are already “taking more responsibility,” bypassing the government and organising their own recycling efforts.

“It crystallized the old question of what it means to be Lebanese,” said Abi Chaker, who is organizing community recycling projects instead of waiting for the state to take action.

“You are Lebanese when you solve your own problems without relying on your government.”