By Ranim Hadid
LAU Tribune staff
After a long a day he sat down to eat his black olives in the old rusty tin with a loaf of Arabic bread by his side, Bshara Amin, an old Lebanese fisherman who lives right between Beirut’s riverbank and the sea, complained that the stench he wakes up to everyday is only worsening.
“I think people have forgotten the beauty of nature and what God has blessed us with, or else the river wouldn’t look the way it does now,” he said.
Having seen cement, tires and rotten garbage dumped into the Beirut River by trucks that belong to various surrounding factories, Amin still cannot hold one party responsible. “The factories bring all their garbage and dump it in the river and it flows in to the sea,” he said. “It makes our journey for fresh fish more difficult.”
“But this doesn’t mean civilians are not throwing their trash in the river,” Amin continued.
“I have neighbors who contribute to this disaster.”
Beirut River runs from the east to the west of Lebanon. Its curve separates the capital from its eastern suburbs –mainly Burj Hammoud and Sin El Fil, known to be one the largest in Lebanon, the river stretches through a mixture of villages and areas.
In the 1960’s, there was enough water in the Beirut River for boats to navigate it. But degeneration started with the Civil War in 1975 and has not stopped since.
Currently, the water height varies between ankle- to knee-length –which ultimately makes some wonder if the river is even a river at all.
As I explored the “browner” parts of the Beirut River, I came across Maroun Hayek, a shop owner near Burj Hammoud. He complained that, since he opened his shop in 1983, the state of the river has only deteriorated.
“Thirty years and no progress,” Hayek said.
“The problem is in the areas that are not being monitored by the government. The garbage accumulates from the mountains all the way to the sea.”
In a remotely cleaner location such as Burj Hammoud, the municipality keeps a close watch.
“All the shops that overlook the river have bars on their windows, to minimize the garbage that is thrown in,” Hayek said. “But this doesn’t stop the diseases and bacteria that we inhale every day.”
Citizens living or working near the Beirut River face major health risks because of the toxic fumes. “We take immunity medication to avoid getting sick because we are being exposed to so much bacteria in the air,” Hayek explained.
Ramzi El Hajj, a helper in one of the nearby stores knows how rivers are cleaned. “The government is supposed to clean the river every year,” he said.
“Here, it is only cleaned every three.”
As an observer of the municipality’s cleaning operations, El Hajj has been able to analyze how the job is done. “They don’t even clean it properly, they take out the sand to sell and leave the dirt in the river,” he continued.
The smell worsened as I moved further away from the sea and discovered families living on the riverbank who struggle to find alternatives to dispose of their garbage.
Mohammed Khodr has lived on the bank of Beirut River for 15 years and admits to be a contributor to the garbage disposal into the river. “For us, people who live on the river, the only way to get rid of our trash is to burn it,” he said. “But some things can’t be burned.”
Many who live around the river are unaware of the consequences of their actions.
“The smell now is pleasant compared to how bad it gets in the summer,” Khodr said. “We face a problem when the garbage accumulates and are forced to throw stuff in the river to minimize the smell.”
Most recently, the color of the Beirut River turned red.
Saad Elias, media representative to the minister of environment, explained that the change in color was caused by red dye dumped inside the sewers of Chevrolet in Sin El Fil. “The sample turned out not be harmful, it did not include neither chromium 6 or cyanide –which are dangerous to the environment,” he said.
“As soon the source of this spill is uncovered, the party responsible will be tried in court because this is a crime against the environment,” Elias continued.
The long-term cause for the Beirut River according to the ministry official is overpopulation; buildings are constructed closer to the river every day.
“More people are living closer to the river so more things are being thrown into it,” Elias said.
The ministry of environment in Lebanon was established in 1981 but has since been unable to enforce regulations. As of July 26, 2002, the government allowed the ministry to enforce environmental laws –the first being severe punishment to anyone who attempts to endanger the environment in Lebanon.
But Elias complained that the ministry does not have the adequate resources to help the environment.
“Because we do not have an executive department, we can only do so much. It is difficult to implement the necessary plans of operation,” he said.
As a preacher for the environment the minister continues to spread awareness. “We are now focusing on schools and organizations, we hope to turn the Beirut River back to a green area,” Elias added.
Amin finishes eating his olives and goes to wash his hands in the grey-colored river.
“For us who live around the river, it becomes a choice.
We can’t survive if we don’t clean the river,” he said. “In order to make things better, we must work together. It starts with providing resources.”