BEIRUT: The European Union has pulled the plug on a waste management project in response to the Environment Ministry’s recent closure of EU-funded air quality monitoring stations across Lebanon.
The waste management project, binned in May, would have provided fresh data on Lebanon’s municipal solid waste.
Sources familiar with the matter told The Daily Star that the decision signaled a rethink in the EU’s environmental spending patterns in Lebanon, amid criticism that local partners were unable to sustain environmental projects it had started.
The Environment Ministry announced last week that it had closed all 26 of its air quality monitoring stations because it could not afford their maintenance cost - a total of $500,000 per year - due to “deep spending cuts” in the draft 2019 state budget. Out of all the ministries, the Environment Ministry will receive the third-smallest allocation in the draft budget, at around $8 million.
The EU was only informed a month prior to the stations’ closure, a source at the EU Delegation said.
Although the EU said it hoped to keep the stations open, it has yet to come up with a funding alternative.
The EU had previously paid the maintenance cost for 11 of the stations with the understanding that the ministry would continue to fund the amount after the contract’s end in April. Instead of making new investments, the EU will try to protect existing investments, the sources said.
In September, the EU will evaluate the implementation of an 8 million euro (almost $9 million) program that ran 2014-2017 and had been designed to help the Environment Ministry plan and execute environmental policies.
The program, named “Support to Reform - Environmental Governance,” included installing 11 of the ministry’s now-disused air quality monitoring stations.
Ziad Abi Chaker, founder of Cedar Environmental, a private company specialized in building recycling plants, told The Daily Star that more EU money should be spent on accountability programs that prioritized transparency among local partners instead of investing in projects that lacked long-term sustainability.
“[The EU should] put in place some kind of accountability program for whoever gets the funds - it could be a ministry. There should be an accountability process that should apply to all local partners.”
Abi Chaker stopped working on donor-funded projects 13 years ago, preferring to work “directly with banks,” which he said could provide funds quicker and sustain projects for longer.
“We found that the projects funded by donors did not answer our standards of sustainability,” he said.
EU-funded solid waste treatment facilities have a particularly questionable track record. Between 2004 and 2018, the EU funded 10 facilities, several of which had stopped working or never been operational by July 2018.
Municipal issues have hampered the functioning of facilities across the country, including composting facilities in Tripoli and Nabatieh’s Ansar and a treatment plant in Kfour, also in Nabatieh.
Environmental activist Paul Abi Rached said he had visited the latter facility after its construction in 2016 and found it “a perfect place to sort and compost.”
But, he added, the plant’s proper functioning has been impeded by squabbling between the municipality and the company running the plant, as well as the closure of a nearby dumpsite for rejected waste.
Abi Chaker said he had witnessed many donors withdraw funding to spend the money elsewhere, adding that environmental projects should only ever be started with a minimum scope of 15 years.
“The donor retreats and funds other projects. Once they are turned over to municipalities or the government, they flounder. Some take a few months, others years [to stop working],” Abi Chaker said.
As for the EU’s erstwhile waste management project, Abi Rached told The Daily Star that it would have provided much-needed data for the Environment Ministry.
Currently, the ministry still uses 2014 data published by the Germany development agency GIZ and the Solid Waste Exchange of Information and Expertise Network, SWEEP-Net.
“Accurate data helps you decide on which treatment you choose,” Abi Rached said, adding that he believed the percentage of organic waste to be higher than suggested by the 2014 data, which put organic waste at around 50 percent of Lebanon’s waste.
An Environment Ministry source said the ministry would try to implement the project despite the withdrawal of EU funding.
But when it comes to running the EU-funded plants, Abi Rached expressed belief that local partners were to blame. “Sustainability and running of plants is our fault and not the EU’s. It is absolutely a Lebanese problem,” he said.
Abi Chaker agreed with Abi Rached’s sentiment. “If your own government is not funding such projects or not clean enough to run such projects, you cannot blame the EU if a project flounders because local partners stole money and do not abide by standards.”