This blog post was first published on the 7th of August, 2015, on LBCI.com | link
In recent statements Health Minister Wael Abou Faour appeased the Lebanese population, declaring that although the threat of cholera is real, “piles of scattered garbage across the streets do not generate the bacteria needed to spread the germ.”
While technically correct –since cholera is a waterborne disease- the Health Minister’s remarks failed to cite the many cases in which poor infrastructure and the ill management of waste greatly facilitated the spread of illnesses that include cholera in many countries –some as recent as June, July and August 2015.
The matter remains ambiguous as the media and political forces alike debate a solution to the pressing issue at hand. The government is holding strong to draconian methods that include additional landfills, incinerators and more recently the exportation of garbage at the expense of municipalities i.e. the people.
“We have neared the red line, since random landfills have begun to reach their maximum limit of capacity, notably the one close to the airport and other residential areas, which poses a great threat to air traffic,” Abou Faour noted, as though to deflect attention from the issue of diseases to more tangible problems – in other words, things that can be seen by the naked eye.
The Lebanese are overwhelmed with myriad issues pressing them against the wall, making it easy for politicians to veer attention from one issue to the other.
In another interview, the head of the Communicable Diseases department at the Health Ministry, Dr. Atika Berri stressed: “fears over the emergence of cholera in Lebanon were first sparked with the expansion of the Syrian refugee crisis in the country especially since several cases were registered in Syria, which could thus be transferred into Lebanon,” relaying the Health Minister’s perception on the subject matter.
According to the above statements one would have to dismiss the garbage management crisis as an aggravating factor, which may lead to the spread of diseases that include cholera. But the truth is far from it.
Cholera is an infectious and often fatal bacterial disease of the small intestine, typically contracted from infected water supplies, causing severe vomiting and diarrhea. Of the estimated 3 to 5 million cases that occur globally every year, about 100, 000 to 120, 000 die, according to the World Health Organization.
11 million cholera cases occur globally every year among children under 5 years of age 10. However, adults and older children can also get cholera, and mortality can be high in all age groups.
The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction warned in June, 2015 of poor infrastructure and unhygienic waste disposal methods saying, “A recent cholera outbreak in Kenya was mostly concentrated in informal settlements,” which highlights the link between poverty, poor urban planning and inevitable disastrous consequences.
Similarly, the Kenyan Red Cross blamed underlying issues for the outbreak.
“We need to see a scaled up effort to improve disaster risk management and this means tackling issues like garbage collection and sanitation. The donors and the host countries need to turn the promises into real action…,” Red Cross Secretary-General Abbas Gullet said.
In India, experts warned of garbage dumped in the open all over the city saying that such conditions provide rich breeding grounds for mosquitoes and flies that transmit deadly diseases. Open sewage systems (which are still abundantly found across Lebanon) significantly up that risk.
The excreta of a person suffering from a communicable disease can contaminate the public water and sanitation system in case of leakage and thus transmit that infection to the general public. Unhygienic conditions of the sort cause waterborne diseases like viral hepatitis, cholera and typhoid.
“There is also a great risk of suffering diseases caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites through consuming contaminated food or drink. These include salmonellosis, botulism and travelers’ diarrhea, among other diseases. The condition is also favorable for an attack of vector-borne diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks”.
It’s been three weeks now since the closure of the Naameh landfill and with no plausible solution in sight; piles of garbage continue to accumulate on the side of several streets across Beirut and Mount Lebanon, most of which stand severely close to homes, hospitals, restaurants, hotels and sadly water sources.
On the other hand, we have been made completely oblivious to the fact that Lebanon has experienced a 30% population increase, according to an environmental assessment of the Syrian conflict. This increase reflects a startling growth in the Lebanese population projected for 2041, which means that already fragile environmental resources in the country are under severe strain. The assessment looks at four impacted areas: solid waste, water and wastewater, air pollution, and land-use and ecosystems.
Below are extracts of the report, which I refrained from summarizing or paraphrasing for fear of being accused of rewording facts.
To read the full report, click here.
The report has estimated that the incremental daily quantity of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) attributed to refugees is expected to reach 324,568 tons per year (t/y) by end of 2014. This incremental annual waste generated by refugees is significant and is equivalent to 15.7 percent of the solid waste generated by Lebanese citizens prior to the crisis. The highest incremental quantity of solid waste generated by refugees is recorded in Mount Lebanon (Baabda, Matn, Aaley and Chouf), Zahle, Baalbeck, Akkar, Tripoli, Minieh, and West Bekaa where the highest numbers of refugees are present and in areas with the highest numbers of informal Tented Settlements
The report indicates that 48 percent of the incremental quantities of MSW generated by refugees is being managed within the existing infrastructure, leading to noticeable over-stressing in existing or newly constructed Solid Waste Management facilities (such as Naameh, Tripoli, Zahle, Ain Baal, Minieh) whereby design capacities are no longer adequate to treat and dispose of the generated waste.
So Naameh wasn’t only made to bear the waste of Lebanon, but it also had to withstand the additional solid waste generated by the Syrian refugee community. Areas to also focus on include Zahle, Baalbeck and other agricultural lands that host and employ displaced Syrian refugees.
Impact of the Syrian Conflict on Water Resources
The report estimated the increase in domestic water demand due to the refugees between 43 to 70 Million Cubic Meter (MCM) by the end of 2014. This incremental water demand of the refugees corresponds to an increase of the national water demand between 8 and 12 percent. The report has also indicated that this increase varies across cazas and governorates, with the Bekaa having the highest share, followed by the North, Beirut, Mount Lebanon and the South. Humanitarian agencies providing health interventions have attributed diarrheal diseases with the consumption of poor water quality. This was confirmed by testing the bacteriological quality of water which showed high levels of contamination (ten times higher than the WHO guideline values for some chemicals).
Impact of solid waste disposal on landscapes and water bodies
Solid waste disposal in open dumpsites results in waste dispersion, as well as water and soil contamination. Leachate runoff from open dumpsites exhibit very high organic load, very high ammonia-Nitrogen, and also contain a variety of heavy metals including lead, zinc and copper. Leachate will percolate into the ground and eventually contaminate nearby surface and groundwater. Waste disposal in open dumpsites also consumes additional land area (an estimated 109,075 m2), potentially infringing on agricultural lands. In the absence of containment measures, waste particles carried by water and wind travel long distances and therefore degrade a much wider area.
Impact of the Syrian Conflict on Air Quality
Among the major concerns rising from open burning of waste is the release of very toxic and carcinogenic compounds including dioxins (PCDD) and furans (PCDF). These chemical compounds are regulated by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants which Lebanon ratified in 2002. PCDD/PCDF affect the health of the population living nearby open dumps. With more than 300 open dumps in Lebanon, which are characterized by open burning practices, the assessment estimated an increase of 12.05 g of Toxic Equivalents (TEQ) in PCDD/PCDF emissions. This represents a significant increase from the latest emissions inventory established for PCDD/F in Lebanon in 2004 and which estimated the release into the atmosphere of 80.2 g TEQ/yr from all sources.
Overall, it is estimated that the Syrian conflict will result in an increase of up to 20 percent in emission of air pollutants in Lebanon leading to a degradation of air quality.
Impact of septage disposal on lands and ecosystems
The increase in the rates of generation of Waste Water due to the Syrian refugees will further exacerbate the environmental pressure caused by the disposal of untreated WW as well as disludging of sceptic tanks. Sludge disposal on land and in streams contaminate ecosystems, especially in karstic terrain. The disposal of sludge on open lands, in dolines, and near streams will increase organic loads of these receptors and may alter the composition of aquatic life and riparian ecosystems.
The study was filed in September 2014, so the numbers are merely a shy estimate to the current reality on the ground, which has surely worsened with the catastrophic waste management crisis not to mention the lack of will expressed by the many Lebanese to confront the government responsible for this. Truth of the matter is, the country is now in its worst shape ever. In fact, it is a giant cesspool that will inevitably explode, taking everything we hold dear with it. The shocking part of this all is the political class’ refusal to see things for what they are.
The Health Minister continues his crusade against labneh and fish markets even though garbage is now at the doorstep of Karantina’s Kabalian wheat mills –which provide 40% of Beirut’s flour needs for making bread and other goods.
As for Environment Minister Mohammad Mashnouq, he’s busy playing the victim of circumstance card as he justifies the need for more landfills and incinerators and more recently the export of garbage, all the while negotiating tenders for companies that will take months to set up shop as waste continues to pile under the scathing summer sun.
But all hope is not lost yet, if you care about the environment here’s what you can do. Lebanon, its time we get our heads out of the sand. Burying or burning massive amounts of trash will come back to haunt us very shortly. That’s a promise based on science.