ZAHLE/BAALBEK, Lebanon: The mountain of trash at Zahle can be seen from a distance. Bits of dirt and detritus get picked up by the wind, settling on the nearby waste management facility.
Although the town boasts one of the country’s most advanced trash and recycling operations, the plant simply cannot cope with the rubbish generated by both locals and thousands of Syrian refugees.
Zahle is by no means unique in this regard. Municipalities across the Bekaa Valley, many already lacking basic infrastructure, are grappling with piles and piles of waste from both Lebanese and Syrian families. As part of continued efforts to support Lebanese towns hosting Syrian refugees, the European Union is working closely with local authorities and NGOs throughout the area to solve the increasingly messy situation.
In 2011, before the influx of Syrian refugees to the Bekaa Valley had begun, the Zahle landfill was receiving 46,000 tons of waste per year. Last year it had to cope with 59,000 tons.
The UNHCR estimates there are around 300,000 Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration in the Bekaa Valley.
In the town of Torbol, Mayor Fadi al-Khoury said before the Syrian refugees came, the area generated 80 tons of trash a month. That number has doubled in the last year.
Khoury said in order to cope with the mounting costs of trash collection, he had only been able to offer minimal services to his constituents.
The European Union has become increasingly involved in helping Lebanese communities deal with the infrastructure strains caused or amplified by the presence of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.
“The Syrian crisis has brought to the fore the existing needs in the country,” Angelina Eichhorst, the head of the EU delegation in Lebanon, said during a tour of several waste management facilities Wednesday.
“What’s important is that we concentrate on infrastructure that makes sense in this situation, but also makes sense when the refugees have left,” agreed Michael Kohler, the European Commission official responsible for distributing funds to Lebanon. “Even without the Syrian crisis, the Bekaa needs to have a good waste management system.”
The EU has secured 14 million euros to support waste management projects in the Bekaa Valley and North Lebanon.
Authorities in Zahle plan to use the anticipated funds to retrofit the existing plant to accommodate the increase in waste.
Through partner organizations, the EU helped fund a garbage truck for Torbol. It arrived earlier this week and should be operational soon.
An even more ambitious project is underway in the northern Bekaa Valley city of Baalbek.
“Normally, we are about 100,000, now we are 150,000, which creates a lot of challenges in Baalbek,” Mayor Hamad Hassan told The Daily Star.
The EU has funded the construction of a new sorting and a composting facility on land owned by the municipality that is scheduled to open in the coming months.
For the moment, however, Baalbek is still depositing its trash in an ancient quarry in Kayal. “It’s an archaeological site,” Hassan explained.
A high-tech biogas plant funded by the EU and the municipality is also currently under construction and is expected to be finished in June. The idea is to capture the methane from decomposing organic waste with state-of-the-art technology, and use it to generate fuel for the entire site.
“It’s a pilot project for all Lebanon,” said Mohammad Baraki, a coordination and monitoring expert from the office of the minister of state for administrative reform.
Once fully operational, the biogas plant will create about 100 jobs, Baraki told The Daily Star. It will likely be staffed by a combination of Lebanese and Syrian workers.
“What we’re doing has to kill two birds with one stone. One bird would be the Syrian one, the other would be the development needs of the local population,” EC official Kohler said.
The aid is helping to ease tensions between refugees and local residents, who sometimes live in similarly poor conditions.
“For three years, we were just watching what you were doing for refugees,” Khoury, the mayor, told the EU delegation during the tour Wednesday. “We have [Lebanese] people living the same.”
He said the new garbage truck would be driven by a local resident, while the trash collectors would most likely be Syrian refugees.