The ongoing garbage crisis which has left Lebanon’s streets filled with rotting trash exemplifies what is fundamentally wrong with the country: a political class that has no interest in serving the public.
These politicians have intentionally manufactured a crisis because they do not agree on how to “divide up the cake.” Because Lebanon’s leaders cannot agree, some have resorted to sectarian discourse as a tool to deflect public scrutiny and camouflage their own culpability. Others have irresponsibly suggested that municipalities, which have been handcuffed by the same elite for years, take on the responsibility of processing waste in light of the fact that the elite have failed to do so. Still others have called on citizens and civil society organizations to find a solution to the crisis, a move which only serves to again highlight the bankruptcy of the elite in governing Lebanon.
The garbage is mounting, yet, not a single public official has been held accountable for the crisis. In a twist of irony, the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch, whose duty it is to protect the country from acts of terrorism, was promptly mobilized to arrest four citizens who dared to throw garbage left on the street by those in power at a minister. This was meant to remind the population, in case they have forgotten, that the weak and vulnerable who are suffering disproportionately from the crisis will be prosecuted while the rich and powerful who have caused the problem roam freely.
The root of the problem goes back to the mid-1990s when the government contracted a private company to collect waste in Beirut at twice the amount that the municipality would have charged. However, the government chose to ignore the numbers. Since then, the value of the contract has increased much more quickly than the scope of work originally slated for the private company – which started with an estimate of $3.6 million in 1994 and has increased to more than $150 million today. In fact, the cost of solid waste collection has been increasing at an average of 5 percent in real terms since 2002. Furthermore, the contracting was devoid of any competitive bidding and the details of the contract remain confidential. Consequently, Lebanese pay one of the highest costs per ton for garbage collection in the world.
Furthermore, the government decided to tap the Independent Municipal Fund (IMF), a trust fund whose money is allocated to all municipalities, to foot the bill. Since the private company will not provide services for all the municipalities in the country, the government issued a decree (Article 1 of Decree 3038 of 2000) that gives the Cabinet the authority to spend IMF money on works that can benefit some but not all municipalities. The Court of Account considered the above amendment to be in violation of the principle that deductions should benefit all municipalities as stated in Decree 1917 of 1979.
Following the adoption of Budget Law 326 of 2001, the government was authorized to charge municipalities benefiting from solid waste collection services 40 percent of their IMF share. What is strange is that the 40 percent of a municipality’s IMF share has no bearing on the actual cost of collecting garbage for that municipality. In other words, citizens do not know whether the cost charged to municipalities is more or less or equal to how much it is actually costing the government.
Looking closely at the numbers, the total amount collected from the municipalities’ IMF shares covers about 22 percent of the actual cost of collecting waste in 2009. When I once asked the Finance Ministry how the remaining 78 percent is covered, I was told that the Council for Development and Reconstruction was paying for it but registering it as debt for municipalities. So not only is the government using the municipalities’ funds, it also is not informing them of the real cost of the service they are providing or telling them that they are accumulating debts for a service which they did not request.
The tragic part of the whole story is that the solution to the waste crisis is obvious and straightforward. What Lebanon needs is a national strategy for how to deal with waste in general and determine what role should be assigned to key stakeholders.
For one, there has been an overemphasis on collecting waste, treatment and disposal, and little, except by civil society organizations, on how to reduce waste, recycle and recover resources. The latest piecemeal measures of removing waste from Beirut and dumping it across the country at informal sites is indicative of this mindset. Instead of simply making it look as though action is being taken to address this specific phase in the crisis, the government needs to put in place a policy framework that reflects sustainable goals.
To this end, waste collection can be decentralized to municipalities at a fraction of the cost of paying private companies. Local administrations must be given incentives to do so starting with giving their IMF share back. Finally, we need to work on changing the mindsets of citizens on how to deal with waste at the source. It starts with the awareness of preventing waste and sorting garbage at home.
While some municipalities, civil society organizations, and many citizens have already taken action to address the problem through these measures, the government is absent from even supporting their initiatives. Failing to do so, the political elite is in fact contributing to the undoing of the state by making it irrelevant once you add in the issue of poor infrastructure in terms of water provision, electricity production, and congested roadways, among others. As for citizens, they ought to remember during the next election that if they keep voting the way they have, we will be getting more of the same garbage. We have a choice to make.
Sami Atallah is executive director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.