Rotting Trash Overwhelms Beirut As Summer Heat Rises

Frustrated residents are setting fire to trash containers.

Summer in the city can be rough. But we’ve never seen anything like Beirut, where a malodorous mix of political paralysis and festering garbage has residents in a rage.

Beirutis are furious that their government failed to avoid a crisis ignited by the long-scheduled closure of a major landfill site last week. The government knew the date that the city dump would shut down ― July 17 ― but the authorities had no ready alternative when the day came. Garbage trucks have nowhere to take the trash, so they’ve stopped picking it up.

The piles of garbage rotting in the summer heat are triggering health warnings and protests. The Beirut Fire Department said that frustrated residents had set fire to around 140 dumpsters and trash containers, further polluting the hot and humid air.

The mess is a stark reminder of the governmental crisis afflicting Lebanon, where politicians divided by local and regional conflicts can’t even agree on where to dump the capital city’s rubbish. The Cabinet voted Thursday to postpone the decision until next Tuesday.

“We got to this point ― this crisis ― because of the political struggle in Lebanon,” Mohamad Al Machnouk, the minister of environment, told Reuters. He blamed procrastination among politicians for the refuse piling up in the streets.

A plan to truck rubbish from Beirut, where more than half of the country’s population lives, to locations around Lebanon is meeting resistance from those regions.

Beirut residents are venting their frustrations on social media.

The crisis echoes wider problems facing Lebanon. The weak state has long been criticized for failing to develop its infrastructure: Beirut still suffers daily power cuts some 25 years after the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

But the government has run particularly poorly since the eruption of war in neighboring Syria. That conflict has exacerbated Lebanon’s political divisions, often along sectarian lines that reflect the Syrian conflict.

Lebanon’s presidency has been vacant for more than a year, and the parliament elected in 2009 has extended its own term and postponed elections until 2017 on the grounds of instability.

The costs of the political stalemate are high. It’s obstructed plans to exploit potential offshore gas reserves, for example.

“They canceled our elections, they extended parliament, they stole our votes, and now they want us to live in rubbish,” said Marwan Maalouf, a 31-year-old lawyer, during a protest outside government headquarters in Beirut on Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, the streets are filled up with garbage, but we can’t find an alternative now. The plan should come from the state, and we will then act upon it,” said Pascale Nassar, communications manager for the trash collection company Sukleen.

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