Plastic bags and bottles, used mattresses, old furniture, cardboard packaging… All it took was a bit of rain, and the Ghadir river in Beirut swept up tons of household rubbish, carrying it through the working-class neighbourhood of Hay el Sellom in Beirut’s southern suburbs. A local filmed this river of waste on Sunday, September 9, drawing attention to the poor waste management in the area.
The local resident who filmed the video, Alaa Sayed, 28, said that lots of residents have picked up the habit of throwing their rubbish directly in the river because the neighbourhood – one of the poorest areas in Lebanon – has very few public rubbish tips.
"As soon as it starts raining, the neighbourhood floods quickly"
Hay el Sellom is a very poor and over-populated area. [Editor’s Note: More than 120,000 inhabitants are crammed into a zone measuring no more than 2.2 square kilometres, according to estimations in Lebanese media]. However, it only has three public rubbish tips. Lots of locals prefer to throw their rubbish in the river rather than have to take it all to a rubbish tip far away.
Officially, Hay el Sellom isn’t attached to any municipality, because it’s made up of illegal residences. As a result, there’s no local authority that is willing to deal with the problem of waste management in the area. In the summer, the Ghadir river is completely dry. But as soon as the rains come, the neighbourhood quickly floods and rubbish runs into the river.
But despite this, Alaa Sayed said that a river overflowing with rubbish hasn’t encouraged the locals to be more responsible with their waste.
The locals have asked authorities several times to raise the level of the bridges over the river. They are often flooded when it rains, and this completely cuts off access to some areas in the neighbourhood.
Once a year, near the end of September, militants from Hezbollah and from the Amal political party organise a campaign to clean up the riverbed. But apart from this once-a-year campaign, the river doesn’t get cleaned.
"Lebanon is suffering from a crisis of priorities"
The problem is due, in part, to some residents throwing their rubbish straight out of the window, but it is also due to the indifference of the authorities, says journalist Ghassan Saoud.
"There are disagreements about waste management between the different institutions. The Ministry of Public Works says that it’s the Ministry of Energy that has to deal with rubbish, while the Ministry of Energy says that it’s up to local councils.
For example, there are a number of roads in Beirut that become so flooded in winter that they resemble ponds. This is because the drains quickly become blocked by rubbish. Every time citizens try to get answers from the Ministry of Public Works about this, the authorities object to having to clear the drains and try to offload the responsibility onto the local authorities instead.
Last August, the Beirut city council announced that it had hired an event planning company to decorate the streets in the city centre for the Christmas holidays over the next three years – a project that costs 2 million dollars [around 1.7 million euros]. This sum of money would have been far more useful if we’d spent it repairing and maintaining the drainage system, for example. It shows how Lebanon today is suffering from a crisis of priorities.
In July 2015, a major rubbish crisis hit Beirut after the Naameh landfill site – the largest one in the country – was closed. Rubbish stopped being collected and hundreds of tons of waste piled up in the streets of the capital. Infuriated citizens took to the streets to protest the government’s failure to manage the situation. Three years later, the authorities are still struggling to find viable solutions.
>> Read on the Observers: Beirut garbage crisis forces Lebanon to face up to its waste problem
In March 2016, two coastal landfills were built in Bourj Hammoud and Costa Brava, in the north and the south of Beirut respectively, to temporarily collect surplus rubbish from the capital until an incinerator is installed. Environmental activists have strongly criticised this method, however, and denounce the fact that a seawall to stop rubbish filtering out into the sea has yet to be built.