UN Officer of Humanitarian Affairs John Ging recently described the Syrian conflict as the biggest humanitarian crisis faced by the world. While the outbreak of the war has had devastating consequences on the lives of over three million refugees, analysts often overlook the long shadow cast on the natural environment of host countries, which is triggering new tensions.
By Federica Marsi
According to UN estimates, in Lebanon the number of refugees has long since passed the one million mark, a staggering milestone for a country whose population, prior the start of the Syrian conflict, numbered approximately 4.3 million. Lebanon’s open-border policy has led the ill-equipped nation, already beset by political and social difficulties, to reach the country’s projected population over two decades away- in 2041 – in just three years.
From an environmental perspective, such a leap translates into a 15.7% increase in annual waste compared to the amount generated before the crisis. In the absence of adequate treatment and recycling infrastructures, waste is being transported to random dumpsters or burned in the streets, jeopardising the health of the population.
In the words of the Minister for the Environment Mohamad Machnouk, Lebanon is facing an ‘environmental emergency’.
Lebanon’s turbulent history has left in its wake a vulnerable community torn by sectarian tensions and refugee inflows. Its armed conflicts impacted significantly in terms of insecurity, instability and economic disruption, leading the environment to fall to the bottom of the agenda.
Successive governments have failed to introduce legislation that would set a common standard for its municipalities to follow. In the absence of such laws, around 4000 tons of waste is dumped untreated at the outskirts of towns or burned at street corners every day. Recycling is virtually non-existent.
Since 1995, cleaning contractors Sukleen and Sukomi have been employed respectively for collection and landfilling these vast reservoirs waste. Despite being paid with public money, the terms of their contracts remain undisclosed, although there are widespread rumours the government has agreed to pay a hefty $128 million annually in an attempt to keep the chaos under some sort of control.
Lebanon’s lack of infrastructure, a grim heritage of various armed conflicts, combined with the reticence of foreign businesses to invest in an unstable region with deep rooted problems of corruption, exacerbates an already difficult situation.
Israeli bombardments left Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure with a $2.5 billion worth of damage nine years ago, which the country is still struggling to put right. However, some projects are gone for good.
Among the economic targets destroyed during the 2006 war was the $55 million Maliban recycling factory, which its Indian owner opted not to restore, leaving the country devoid of facilities to recycle coloured glass.
Research has shown that the illegal seafront dumping and landfill site activities that followed the 1975 civil war, has seriously impacted on marine habitats in the Mediterranean region. Today, tons of waste continues to find its way into the sea and local fishermen lament finding more garbage than fish in their nets. According to Minister for the Environment Mohamad Machnoukm, all of Lebanon’s 18 rivers are discharging polluted water into the sea, a situation that prompted the European Union to begin investigations into the situation.
The pungent stench of burning litter hangs over the cramped space in which the refugees are forced to live. A pall of blue fumes rise among the tents, emitting polluting, toxic and carcinogenic gases which increasing the incidence of already rampant respiratory diseases. Before being improperly disposed of, waste is frequently allowed to accumulate within the camp, attracting rats and insects and heightening the risk of epidemics.
When the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, the government at the time took the decision not to establish formal refugee camps, leading Syrians to pitch tents on privately owned land or to rent out garages and shops. As refugees live alongside the Lebanese population, waste inside the camps adds to the deeply rooted management problem in established Lebanese towns, further straining the relationship between the two communities.
According to a report published by World Vision International, health clinics reported an increase of more than 50% in patients in 2012, which significantly affected the availability and quality of medical services available to both the Lebanese and refugee communities.
In turn, the surge in hospitals’ workload has led to more hazardous Infectious Health Care Waste (IHCW) being produced. According to findings published in September 2014 by the Ministry of Environment and UNPD, medical waste in Lebanon has increased by 24% since the beginning of the war.
Whereas the majority of this hazardous waste is treated, 18% is still disposed of in open landfills. The Bekaa valley, Lebanon’s main farming area and where large number of refugees currently live in informal Tented Settlements has registered the country’s highest levels of surface and groundwater pollution.
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