BEIRUT: On the outskirts of the Lebanese capital, mountains of putrid garbage are rising and tempers are flaring as a months-old rubbish collection crisis shows no signs of being resolved.
Desperate Beirut has taken to dumping its rubbish in huge makeshift piles, with the largest — in Karantina at the northern entrance of the city — neighboring the trendy nightlife areas of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh.
For Ali Yaacoub, a driver working for a firm based near the “Karantina mountain,” it has become a blight on his city.
“The situation has become unbearable,” he said. “We spend six hours here each day among the smells and the insects.”
Hopes had been raised that the crisis, which dates back to mid-July, would come to an end after the government approved a plan last week following the biggest anti-government protests in years.
The plan called for waste management to be turned over to municipalities in 18 months, the temporary expansion of two landfills and the reopening for seven days of the Naameh dump south of Beirut, which was closed in July.
Trash collection resumed but on Monday the main private company involved, Sukleen, announced it was throwing in the towel as improvised dumps reached full capacity.
Frustration has grown day-by-day, and on Wednesday police clashed with demonstrators angered by political inaction over the crisis.
Back at the Karantina dump, Yaacoub and three colleagues swat away hordes of flies as they have breakfast at a plastic table just meters (yards) from the eyesore.
“I’ve almost lost my sense of smell,” a firm’s supervisor said, adding that several employees had suffered bouts of “throwing up, diarrhea and stomach pains.”
Garbage mountains have also sprouted on both sides of the highway leading north out of Beirut, as well as under its bridges and near the already polluted coast.
Under one such bridge in Jounieh, a commercial hub of the capital, cars must veer around a huge pile of trash spilling onto the road.
One man was even reportedly killed in Dora, a busy northeastern suburb, as he tried to cross the road on foot because access to a pedestrian bridge was blocked by rubbish bags.
Naamtallah Bouari, who runs a petrol station in Dbayeh north of Beirut, said that “rubbish has been dumped near workplaces, to the point where most people dare not put their noses outside.”
Environmental expert Ziad Abu Chaker warned of the health risks, saying “organic matter is being fermented in the air, spreading bacteria which cause diarrhea.”
Environmentalists fear the crisis could degenerate to the point where garbage as well as sewage will simply overflow into the sea from riverbeds as winter rains return.
The Health Ministry has warned that garbage scattered by seasonal winds could also block Lebanon’s drainage system.
Adding to the environmental and health concerns, many Beirutis are resorting to burning garbage or spraying rubbish piles with strong insecticides.