Published: 18:25 December 22, 2015
Gulf News
Joseph A. Kechichian, Senior Writer

Beirut: The latest joke in Lebanon concentrates on accumulating garbage that probably broke every single Guinness Book of World Record. It goes something like this: “It’s not the politicians who want to export the trash, but the trash has had enough of this country and wants to emigrate!”

On Monday evening, and after a three-months-long hiatus when the cabinet failed to meet to look after the people’s business, the government of Lebanon approved a plan to export garbage as a “temporary” solution to the waste disposal crisis.

According to Agriculture Minister Akram Shehayyeb, the man who negotiated with his fellow-politicians to reach this accord, exportation will cost $212 per ton. There are plenty of statistics to confirm that the price per ton ranged from a low of $50 to a high of $110 in most of the developed world, though one must factor in kickbacks in a place like Lebanon.

Since July 2015, Lebanon’s rubbish was left rotting in just about every street corner or in empty neighbourhood lots, after the Naameh landfill that received the trash of Beirut and Mount Lebanon closed for environmental reasons. Although some of the capital’s streets were relatively garbage free, residents added decorations on piling refuse, even provided lighting to mimic a Christmas tree. For months on end, politicians bickered about a putative solution but, like everything else in Lebanon, seemed to mostly argue as to which company would haul what type of refuse, at what price, and for whom.

Health officials repeatedly warned of fly infestations and assorted diseases spreading among residents, especially gastroenteritis, which apparently increased by a whopping 30 per cent in less than a year, asthma and similar respiratory illnesses.

Frustration over the mounting garbage sparked a protest movement under the banner “YouStink” this past summer, which addressed elites unable to clean the streets much less provide security and stability for the country even if all the pleadings fell on deaf ears. Demonstrations led to clashes with law enforcement officials though, in the end, nothing was solved. The garbage piled up as the political class added this latest woe to similarly lacking basic services such as water, electricity and drainage.

Few linked the dots even if experts associated the establishment’s nonchalance to the spasms of violence that coloured this land ever since the 1975-1990 Civil War that cost the lives of at least 150,000. There was, to be sure, some reconstruction but the country experienced neither reconciliation nor renovation of how to run a state.

Whether the latest initiative to solve the garbage crisis, even at the exorbitant $212 per ton price, was not a panacea remained to be determined, especially since the accord was a temporary solution until such time when the cabinet could agree on more permanent answers.

Akram Shehayyeb, the architect of the plan, insisted that Beirut faced a dilemma and had no choice but to export its garbage after an earlier recommendation to open new landfills collapsed. For now, and despite objections raised by ministers belonging to the Free Patriotic Movement and the Phalange Party, the deal was apparently approved even if a start date was not announced.

“We have overcome a huge burden that was pressuring Lebanon and the Lebanese,” Prime Minister Tammam Salam announced after the Cabinet session on Monday evening. “The garbage exportation solution was reached amid procrastination and obstruction in the country and amid a tense political situation. It was reached after a lot of disputes and disagreements that led us to the current situation,” Salam added. “This is a temporary and transitional solution and I hope it will be a lesson to everyone on the need to avoid political bickering … We are amidst organic, household and municipal waste, but we are also suffering from ‘political garbage’,” said the premier.

The identities of the companies and the actual costs of the exportation were not revealed as Gulf News went to press. Equally puzzling was the contemplated sources required to fund these exports with rumours that the state would impose additional taxes on gasoline to foot the bill for its latest elite-made crisis.