There's A Whole Lot Of Waste Outside Beirut's Gates

Lebanon's stylish capital is looking shabby. Mounds of stinking garbage are piled in Beirut's streets, byproducts of an ongoing political crisis that has paralyzed the government. Angry locals have staged a sit-in outside an overflowing landfill, and waste disposal has ground to a halt. The protesters — and the trash — could be there awhile.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And to Lebanon now where mounds of garbage are piling up in the capital, Beirut. Trash collection was halted after environmental activists staged a sit-in at an overflowing landfill just outside the city. Today police briefly arrested a leader of the protest. NPR's Alice Fordham spoke with him earlier this week.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: This could be quite idyllic. It's a warm Lebanese night, the stars are bright, I'm in between two cliffs covered in trees and there's a little creek running out to the sea. But the idyllic climate is spoiled about every five minutes when a huge garbage truck rolls on by.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARBAGE TRUCK)

FORDHAM: This is the little town of Naameh, home of the garbage dump, much bigger than it was ever meant to be. The smell is terrible and the residents have had enough.

ASHUA DIASH: Boy, it's really unbelievable when you have that stink.

FORDHAM: That's Ashua Diash, a professor and environmental activist. He's watched and smelled the landfill here grow since it was first built in 1997.

DIASH: It's becoming bigger and bigger, more and more, worse and worse everywhere.

FORDHAM: Mr. Diash is the leader of this protest camp that's blocked garbage trucks from driving into the landfill. He was briefly arrested earlier today but he says he will keep protesting. He's a Lebanese-American who spent 25 years in the U.S. And he says he wants to bring what he learned there about waste management to Lebanon.

DIASH: What we propose as a solution for this, I mean, tragedy that we have here, the landfill, the three R: reduce, reuse and recycle.

FORDHAM: After the trucks were turned away from the site for two days, Beirut's waste disposal company said that since it couldn't dump trash it wouldn't collect it either. And for a week it didn't. So dumpsters overflowed. In the wake of Lebanon's 15-year civil war, this landfill was created as part of an emergency reconstruction plan. But projected recycling plants and waste energy schemes were never completed. Almost all of Beirut's trash is dumped. The government collapsed last year and a caretaker cabinet doesn't have the authority to address the situation.

The plan was that this site would hold 2 million tons of waste and be closed by 2003. It's now set to hold 12 million tons. Mark Dual, an academic and activist, told me about the first time a couple dozen of them managed to stop a truck coming in.

MARK DUAL: We got the truck, climbed on it. We had all our posters, stamped them all around the truck, took the pictures we wanted and that created the big buzz and a lot of support for us. Because people knew it was doable. You could stop the trucks.

FORDHAM: Environment Minister Nasamel Houri told NPR that he sympathizes. But the problem can't be solved immediately. Politicians are still trying to deal with problems, like trash, left over from the civil war. After the release of Mr. Diash from detention earlier today, protestors went home. But they vow to be back on Monday staging sit-ins and demonstrations in new locations.

(SOUNDBITE OF GARBAGE TRUCK)

FORDHAM: For now the garbage trucks are rolling again but Beirut may have to prepare for even bigger trash piles. Alice Fordham, NPR News.

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