Lebanon’s rubbish crisis raises green issues we must not bury

I was admiring what I presumed was a migrating stork, flying low over my village, when multiple shotgun blasts sent it lurching, left and then right like a Lancaster bomber hit by multiple bursts of flak. Another salvo found its mark and the bird folded, plummeting to Earth.

A hundred metres away I found its executioners, three young men inspecting their kill, holding it by its impressive wingspan.

I asked why they had shot a bird that was probably protected and which they were never going to eat. They just laughed, dumped the carcass where it landed and ambled off, presumably in search of other sport. Later that day I saw one of the young men’s fathers and told him what had happened. He also chuckled. Kids, eh?

That was back in 1992. The trio, whom I still know, may have mellowed with age, and while today they might spare the stork, the cri de coeur over Cecil the lion will nonetheless have left them bemused.

Lebanon isn’t really an animal-loving country, and even though hunting is illegal, most weekends you will find groups of young men parked by the side of country roads cheerfully blasting away at anything that moves, including careless humans.

Rural hooliganism aside, there is another criminal by-product to Lebanon’s hunting culture; the mountains littered with hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions (each one takes 500 years to biodegrade so who knows) of spent shotgun cartridges.

And that’s just the debris from hunting. Lebanon has been suffering from a full-blown litter crisis that no one wants to admit to and which existed long before Beirut’s recent rubbish collection fiasco. And one reason why the government felt it could get away with hiding the thousands of tonnes of refuse that had been allowed to gather on the streets of the capital in ravines and wasteland is that, on some level, it didn’t really see anything wrong with what it was doing. That’s how much we’re used to living next to waste. Just ask the people of Sidon, where a mountain of rubbish leaks methane and has been responsible for decades of water contamination and deaths from respiratory illness and cancer.

But sadly the majority of angry Lebanese who blocked roads to deny access to the rubbish collection lorries were not doing it primarily out of a sense of environmental rage. They just didn’t want the stuff dumped near them. You see the Lebanese are the supreme “Nimbys” (not in my back yard) and are annoyingly philosophical about the piles of waste that have come to define the country’s so-called beautiful landscape.

The civil population was surely to blame, but some point to a more entrenched relationship between citizenry and the state, tracing the problem back to the Ottoman era, when the act of throwing refuse on the road was, apparently, a sign of petty rebellion. It is odd, because in all other ways the Lebanese are scrupulously, almost obsessively, tidy and clean.

The British, on the other hand, especially those who live in the country, have a more relaxed attitude to mess – dogs on the sofa; an attachment to threadbare sofas and a take it or leave it attitude to bathing – but are nonetheless rightly fanatical about environmental care.

But to be fair it was never always thus, especially in the urban areas. Even so-called advanced nations have had to educate the population about the benefits of green living. In the 1970s, the UK government encouraged citizens via public service adverts not to be Litter Bugs, while the popular children’s characters, The Wombles, odd-looking creatures with proto-recycling tendencies, spent their days picking up litter on London’s Wimbledon Common.

But back to Lebanon. If the government is both brave and smart, it will listen to the handful of heroic NGOs that have stepped manfully into the breach, not to bury, as it were, the rubbish issue, but face it and push forward with a national awareness campaign.

Lebanon’s chronic rubbish crisis is not over. The anger that threatened to topple the government in the past few weeks was more about incompetence than anything else.

Finding new and safe landfills will not remedy the ignorance. Lebanon’s environment health and economy depend on it.

Maybe then Lebanese can turn their attention to regulating the hunters. The storks will feel safer.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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