Greetings From Trash Mountain
Lebanon is replacing its famed peaks with ones made of trash. Its population’s health—and pocketbooks—are suffering.
When former Miss Lebanon runner-up Michele Hajal died of cancer this month, Arab social media was abuzz about her tragic fate. For many Lebanese, the 25-year-old beauty queen’s death personified mounting fears about living in a country where the air, water, and soil are increasingly toxic. Although it is unclear whether her cancer was tied to such pollution, it had become linked in the public mind, and these days, such health issues compete with even Middle Eastern geopolitics on the evening news.
For centuries, Lebanon has been known for its legendary cedar trees and its abundant agriculture in a region otherwise characterized by sprawling deserts. In the Old Testament, Lebanon’s diverse natural beauty is mentioned dozens of times as a metaphor for bounty and splendor. The country’s name is believed to come from the Hebrew word “laban,” or “white”—the Phoenicians first called the area “Lebanon” or “white mountain” in reference to the area’s snow-capped peaks, whose melting waters allowed ancient cedars to thrive. In modern times, the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism’s website extols the country’s “green fertile valleys.”
Today, however, Lebanon’s natural Eden is being destroyed by climate change, pollution, government negligence, and greed. The Lebanese people are paying the price, both in their health and with their wallets.
Hajal was a very public face of an active Lebanese health crisis stemming from the nation’s air and water pollution. Her hometown of Jal el-Dib sits just two miles from a virtual mountain of garbage piled up in the landfill in Bourj Hammoud. After the unregulated dumpsite was created during Lebanon’s civil war, politicians reopened the overfilled site in 2015 despite local concerns about its safety and stench.
Jal el-Dib is far from the only town whose residents are suffering the health effects of pollution. Towns along the infamously polluted Litani River have registered rapid increases in breast, stomach, lung, and prostate cancer. And in 2018, Lebanon’s caretaker health minister announced that national cancer rates had increased, on average, 5.5 percent annually from 2005 to 2016, making a total increase of over 80 percent. (The global cancer rate increased by 33 percent over roughly the same period.) The World Health Organization estimates that 4 percent of deaths in Lebanon are caused by chronic respiratory diseases, and 16 percent of deaths are caused by cancer. Lebanon has one of the highest rates of bladder cancer worldwide, with the rate in men second only to that in Belgium. Bladder cancer has been linked to inhaling toxic fumes, as has Lebanon’s most common type of cancer, that of the lungs.
Lebanon’s pollution problems have been compounded by years of government indifference and graft. Despite vast spending on electricity every year, Lebanon has the fourth-worst electricity quality in the world, and many citizens rely on private generators to keep their lights on. Researchers estimated in 2011 that 93 percent of Beirut’s population is exposed to high levels of air pollution largely caused by these diesel generators.
In addition to noxious gas from the generators, Lebanese are also breathing in contaminants from the nation’s ongoing trash crisis. Researchers at the American University of Beirut estimate that 77 percent of waste is being openly dumped or landfilled, creating a massive pileup of trash. To deal with that issue, the government passed a measure to allow the use of trash incinerators starting in 2020. But because most of Lebanon’s garbage is not processed in any way, there are fears that burning the refuse will only add to the nation’s health hazards. Research backs that up: In December 2017, Human Rights Watch warned that there were more than 150 open dumps burning trash throughout the country and that the practice had been linked to heart disease, cancer, and respiratory illnesses.
Meanwhile, the country’s major rivers suffer from very high levels of bacterial contamination from raw sewage, and the Ministry of Public Health has registered an increase in waterborne diseases since 2005. In 2017, the economist Jad Chaaban told Al-Monitor that despite racking up more than $1.5 billion in loans to put into place a water sanitation system, the government had failed to connect it to the sewage network, resulting in untreated sewage being dumped into the country’s waterways.
Beyond health concerns, there’s the economic impact to consider, too. Jordan, one of Lebanon’s trading partners, has blocked Lebanese agricultural exports for fear that they may be watered from contaminated sources. The nation’s national beauty also makes it a promising tourism destination. In 2010, before the Syrian civil war next door devastated the region, tourism directly contributed to over 10 percent of the nation’s GDP. In 2018, it contributed only 7 percent but still accounted for roughly 20 percent of employment. As Syria’s conflict dwindles, Beirut has looked to revitalize tourism.
Unfortunately, that dream is slipping away. Across the country, roughly 1,200 illegal quarries are flattening mountaintops for the sand and rock used in construction. According to the country’s environment minister, only two of those quarries have the appropriate licenses to do so. He laments his limited ability to effect change as bulldozers irrevocably alter Lebanon’s landscape.
Along Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast, meanwhile, a different sort of mountain range is rising: soaring peaks of trash. After thousands of “YouStink” protesters demonstrated against untreated garbage piling up around Beirut in 2015, the government began collecting trash from streets only to dump it in the sea. Political activists estimate that about 850 million tons have been dumped to date. Unsurprisingly, only 14 out of Lebanon’s 26 beautiful beaches have been deemed safe for swimming this summer.
The Lebanese people are beginning to fight back. In the mountains, a small local group called Save Mayrouba was able to sue those running an illegal quarry. Along the sea, a national campaign to clean up Lebanon’s beaches began in June. In Beirut, the international organization Afforestt replanted a forest in an attempt to revive the Beirut River. And although the YouStink movement may have lost its momentum, it showed politicians the potential for the people to rally around an environmental disaster.
Beirut’s political elite would do well to listen before their homeland completes its full transformation into a toxic wasteland. The international community also has an important role to play, particularly as it prepares to deliver over $11 billion in economic assistance raised as part of the 2018 CEDRE conference to help forestall a financial crisis. Future donors ought to consider earmarking aid for specific projects tackling pollution and deforestation, and for improving waste management and overall governance. As violent protests over clean water shortages and awful living conditions in nearby Iraq and Iran recently demonstrated, severe environmental degradation can be just as detrimental to long-term regional stability as more traditional security challenges.
Hajal may have lost her life to cancer, but Lebanese who have been shaken by her death still have a chance to save their country. The outcome of this battle is not preordained. Lebanon can remain a green oasis among the Middle East’s many deserts, but only if its people can put an end to the mistreatment and plundering of its land.
Firas Maksad is an adjunct professor at George Washington’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He is also director of the Arabia Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank.