Beirut, 27 August 2015

Open Letter to Mr. Bilal Hamad, President of the Municipal Council of Beirut

Dear Mr. Hamad,

I am writing to you as a Lebanese citizen and taxpayer, and a permanent resident of Beirut. I did not vote to elect you for the Municipal Council, because of our country’s twisted and sectarian election laws that do not allow us to elect our representatives based on our main area of residence. But nevertheless I believe it is my right to address you as the only elected municipal representative in the city where I live. And my main complaint is pretty straightforward: Either you and the municipal council take concrete actions to resolve the waste crisis immediately, or you should resign.

I like many of my fellow Beirut residents, Lebanese or foreigners, am a law-abiding citizen, who pays a lot of taxes to finance your and other civil servants’ salaries and expenses. In fact I have calculated that as much as 30% of my income is swiped away by taxes (income tax, Value Added Tax (VAT), benzene tax, mobile phone tax, Beirut municipal taxes – which by the way are 50$/month! – etc…). This comes on top of having to pay two bills for every public service, which in other countries are typically provided by municipalities: I have to buy additional electricity (Beirut municipality doesn’t provide any); I have to buy drinking water in gallons (Beirut municipality doesn’t provide good quality tap water); I need to have a car to go anywhere (Beirut municipality doesn’t have an efficient public transport system); and the list goes on! I am not expecting you and your council to solve all of these issues now (although I believe this can be done, look at some other cities in Lebanon!), but the least you can do immediately is to address the trash issue, before this also becomes a public service that we have to pay two or three times more for it to be resolved!

You will tell me that all of this is none of your business, as almost all public services in the city are handled by the central Government. You will also tell me that the city of Beirut has a peculiar governance structure, where the Government-appointed Beirut Governor shares executive powers with the municipality. You will also mention that your municipality has a limited budget, and no space to handle waste treatment, thus the need to find another area in Lebanon to dump our waste on it. Well Mr. President all of these arguments are invalid.

There is nothing that prevents you from offering public services, even if this were to go against the wishes of the central government. The city of Zahleh has electricity, Jbeil has electric cars in the old town, and Saida has its own freaking waste treatment plant! Since the beginning of the current crisis several Lebanese municipalities have already engaged in sorting household waste at source and recycling. If there is a will there is a way, and no one can prevent your Municipal Council from actively engaging in any public service, especially waste management. Go ahead and you will have mine and all of the Beirut residents’ (voters and non-voters) support.

Also don’t tell me there is no money and space. Your municipality has a cash reserve of 1.2 billion USD, 170 times the budget allocated to the Ministry of Environment! But somehow during your tenure you only found money (and executive powers!) to close down one of Beirut’s last public green spaces (the Dalieh), to install controversial surveillance cameras, and to expropriate land and public parks to build controversial highways (Fouad Boustros Boulevard) and parking lots!

Mr. Hamad you and the Beirut Municipal Council are requested to implement immediately a waste management plan that in my (and many experts’) opinion consists of the following:
1. Implement a city-wide campaign for sorting waste at source, including separation into recyclables, organic, and non-recyclable items. This would immediately reduce the amount of garbage on the streets and engage Beirut residents as partners in the solution. If you want tips on how this is done, please call the municipalities of Roumieh, Bekfaya, Joun, Arsoun, and many others.
2. Upgrade the existing waste treatment plants of Karantina into more efficient ones: Once the amount of garbage is reduced through sorting, the existing plants (which fall under the municipality’s jurisdiction) could be easily turned into more efficient waste treatment facilities, therefore minimizing the amount of trash that has to be dumped. By producing better compost and extracting more recyclables, we can minimize the percent of trash currently going to landfills from 75% to only 15%!

The only solution for the waste crisis is that municipalities take back their executive powers and implement sustainable and responsible solutions. If you and your colleagues at the Beirut Municipality cannot do this, then I invite you all to submit your resignations immediately.

Sincerely,

Jad Chaaban
Beirut resident and Lebanese economist