A waste crisis is looming in Lebanon as the government-contracted waste management company warns it will soon cease operations due to unpaid wages and dangers at landfills where people collect scrap metal.
“We will probably stop operations after February because the government is still not paying us,” Walid Bou Saad, Ramco’s chief financial officer, told dpa at the company’s headquarters north of Beirut.
According to Bou Saad, the company’s problems started when the Lebanese pound began to lose value against the US dollar on the parallel market in 2019.
Since then, the cash-strapped government lacks funds, especially foreign currency.
This halted payments to a slew of utility providers, including the waste management company tasked with collecting rubbish from and around Beirut.
Lebanon is suffering one of the worst economic crises in the world for more than 150 years, according to the World Bank.
The national currency has now lost around 95% of its previous value.
“How can you work in an environment like this? No money to pay employees, no money to buy spare parts,” Bou Saad said.
He now spends most of his time collecting money the company owes the government, saying he is left with only “false promises and lies”.
Lebanon’s economic difficulties are a blow for Ramco, which is making just under a tenth of the revenue initially forecast at the start of the contract.
“We informed the municipality in a letter that we are unable to continue working until the end of our contract in 2023,” Bou Saad said.
Lebanon’s Environment Minister Nasser Yassin admitted there was a problem and said he and his ministry were working to ease the pressure on the contractor.
“We had endless discussions and negotiations to keep the system running at a certain level so that we don’t have litter on the streets of Beirut and other major cities,” Yassin told dpa.
He said the current problems are largely due to the financial crisis and affect all public services in the country, as well as waste management and collection.
Yassin added that he was trying to rebuild the waste management sector to make it more “comprehensive, more integrated and more sustainable”.
However, Ramco’s problems don’t stop with government promises and late payments.
The situation at landfills has become too dangerous for workers due to the crowds of desperate people digging there, he says.
Facilities belonging to a company responsible for separating garbage were destroyed in the August 2020 Beirut port explosion that devastated much of the city.
The garbage company was forced to shut down operations and since then Ramco has been dumping all the trash it collects at a landfill near the coast, where hundreds of people gather every day.
Every time a Ramco truck drives up the muddy hillside to dump trash, dozens of young men and children crowd into the vehicle, hoping to find plastic and scrap metal to sell.
Fights broke out frequently and some people attacked a Ramco driver with a knife the other day, Bou Saad said.
As soon as a garbage truck approaches the landfill, dozens of people rush in, mostly boys and young men from Syria, oblivious to the dangers they might face.
The company has told drivers to be careful when dropping off waste, but workers are struggling to keep people picking up waste at the truck dump long enough for them to unload what they are carrying.
“I have to work here to earn money and help my family,” a seven-year-old Syrian boy shouted at a driver after being asked to step away from his vehicle.
The boy had fled his war-torn country and taken refuge in neighboring Lebanon.
“We need every penny to survive,” said 13-year-old Syrian boy Mahmoud.
Fighting breaking out in landfills as people fight over rubbish is the latest example of the desperation sparked by Lebanon’s economic collapse, the collapse of most public services and growing poverty.
Activists like Raja Noujaim blame recent governments for failing to solve the garbage crisis.
“Corrupt governments were only interested in signing a contract with a private contractor to serve their interests and not those of the public,” he said.
“They were just dysfunctional and only interested in making money to line their pockets.” – dpa/Weedah Hamzah and Arne Bansch