Fisherman Wissam Francis paid little attention when Lebanon’s trash crisis drew tens of thousands of protesters, but two years later, he and his fellow fishermen have become a symbol for a problem continuing to blight the country.
Francis, who fishes sardines from a port in Beirut’s Bourj Hammoud district, claims a state-backed plan to reclaim land from the sea by using waste has led to the destruction of fish spawning grounds.
The plan was part of a short-term fix to the rubbish that piled up on Beirut’s streets, sparking the “You Stink” protests of 2015.
“They’ve killed the sea here, and now they’ve killed the fishermen’s livelihoods,” said Francis of those behind the new plan, claiming pollution of the water has increased.
Mountain of trash
A mountain of trash has amassed over Bourj Hammoud’s port since the site was first used as a dumping ground during the country’s 15-year civil war, which began in 1975.
But it is in dumping waste from the mountain into the sea, creating potentially lucrative land in the process, the fishermen claim the most recent damage is being done. A seawall, supposed to be part of the plan to prevent the tide from pulling at the newly submerged waste, has yet to be built.
In Photos: Trash Crisis Hits Fishermen Hard
Francis told VOA his nightly catch has been hugely reduced, while Ali Fawzy, who works on one of his boats, feared for the future of his four children.
“This is the first year it’s been like this — we live off the sea, we have no other source of income.”
Sea wall construction is set to begin in the coming months after compensation talks between the government and petroleum companies, which would have to re-route pipes.
A spokesman for the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the government department overseeing the project, told VOA that daily tests are being carried out to ensure the waste dumped into the sea was not polluting.
But the situation at Bourj Hammoud’s port speaks to a bigger story.
Beyond the port
Paul Abi Rached, president of Lebanon Eco Movement, claims his organization’s calls for the government to carry out a fuller environmental assessment before dumping waste into the sea fell on deaf ears.
The Bourj Hammoud plan is one of two projects launched as a temporary response to the 2015 trash crisis, which many protesters saw as a consequence of inept planning and political corruption.
Another recently-opened dump site, an area south of Beirut airport known as Costa Brava, has also sparked environmental concerns. Earlier this year, seagulls attracted to the site were shot amid fears they could cause a plane crash.
The government has delegated powers to municipalities to deal with their own trash, though many remain cash-strapped.
As a consequence, alongside official dumping grounds like that of Bourj Hammoud, there are reportedly close to 900 illegal waste dumps across Lebanon — a significant increase since before the 2015 protests — with the burning of rubbish a common practice.
Lebanon’s Environment Ministry has drawn ire for its handling of the situation, but Bassam Sabbagh, head of urban environment at the ministry, said the government did not listen to its proposals. Despite numerous suggestions from the ministry, he said there is still no government waste management plan for Lebanon.
The new Bourj Hammoud site is only set to take waste until approximately the end of 2018, according to the Council for Development and Reconstruction.
“What is the alternative then?” Sabbagh asked. “The waste goes back on the streets, there is open burning [of rubbish] again in Beirut? We don’t have any alternatives.”
In deep water
There is deep cynicism about the state’s desire to fix the country’s problem in a sustainable way. Some critics are calling for pressure to be applied from beyond the country’s borders.
With $88 million in European Union money pumped in to help solid waste treatment in Lebanon since 2004, the country’s potential breaching of the Barcelona Convention, which seeks to stop countries polluting the Mediterranean, should prompt action, they claim.
“Why [are] the embassies, why is the European Commission silent? They will have a negative impact on their sea shores, on their tourism, not only in Lebanon,” said Abi Rached.
A spokesman for the EU delegation in Lebanon told VOA it had “always expressed the need for a comprehensive national strategy.”
Back at the Bourj Hammoud port, questions on whether a long-term, sustainable waste management plan can be developed are irrelevant to Francis.
“The damage is already done” he told VOA, “there’s no more fish here.”