Plumes of toxic smoke from burning piles of trash are all too common throughout Lebanon. The picturesque Mediterranean coastline is regularly marred by pockets of smoldering refuse.
Just like the daily power-cuts, routine water shortages and unbearable traffic, burning garbage has just become accepted as a part of daily life for many Lebanese.
But, a new campaign launched by Human Rights Watch (HRW) hopes to raise awareness about the serious public health crisis, while also pressuring the Lebanese government to counter the problem.
"Where did the trash go?" ask billboards for the campaign, which was officially launched throughout the country on Friday.
Then comes the ominous response: "It's in the air you breath."
Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at HRW, explained that the campaign aims to raise awareness about the health hazard caused by burning trash, while also pushing for reforms.
“Through this campaign we want to raise awareness about the ongoing danger open burning poses to families across Lebanon, and of the need for urgent action to stop open burning and adopt a sustainable long-term strategy,” Fakih said in a statement. “Open burning is one symptom of the larger waste management crisis in Lebanon and is a serious threat to public health.”
Since the summer of 2015, Lebanon has been dealing with a serious waste management crisis. The problem came to a head after the closure of the infamous Naameh landfill, which had already been filled far beyond its capacity.
With no place to deposit and treat Beirut's garbage, trash began piling up in the streets. Lebanese responded with large-scale protests and calls for government reforms .
The trash was eventually removed from the streets, but this didn't resolve the issue or come close to solving the nation's waste management issues.
“Although the government moved the garbage off the streets of Beirut, the more than 900 open dumps across the country continue to pose environmental health risks,” Fakih explained. “The government needs to show leadership on this issue and put in place a solution that respects people’s right to health.”
Environmental activists have continued to push for change, but the Lebanese government has dragged its feet in finding a solution.
Lebanese were quick to share the new campaign on social media
Many are still oblivious to the disturbing reality
The health risks are real and serious
Lebanon does not have a solid waste management law or strategy for the entire country. In the 1990s, the central government arranged for waste collection and disposal in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, but left other municipalities to fend for themselves without adequate oversight, financial support, or technical expertise.
As a result, dumping flourished across the country, with open burning of waste taking place at 150 dumps every week according to the Environment Ministry.
According to researchers at the American University of Beirut, 77 percent of Lebanon’s waste is either openly dumped or sent to landfills even though they estimate that more than 80 percent could be composted or recycled.
Lebanon’s cabinet approved a draft law in 2012 that would create a single Solid Waste Management Board, headed by the Environment Ministry, responsible for national-level decision-making and waste treatment, while leaving waste collection to local authorities.
However, parliament has not passed the bill. The joint committees of parliament considered an amended draft of that law on Jan. 9, and returned it to the environment committee for further amendments. The Environment Ministry says that open burning violates Lebanon’s own environmental protection laws.
How the government deals with the crisis remains to be seen. In the meantime, Lebanese continue to breath the toxic fumes of smoldering garbage.