* Public services under strain after refugee influx
* Waste processing plant expected to relieve some pressure
* Lebanon to ask EU for aid next week
By Ellen Francis
BAR ELIAS, LEBANON, March 31 At the entrance of
a rural town in Lebanon's Bekaa valley, a blue sign says
"Welcome to Bar Elias, population 50,000" but in the past six
years, that number has more than doubled with Syrians seeking
shelter from the war across the border.
"They are our guests," said Mayor Mawas Araji. "But we don't
have the capacity to serve them as we should."
The refugee crisis has drained public services in the
historically poor area in Lebanon's farming heartland, Araji
said. Yet perhaps the most glaring strain has been the garbage
mountain rising among the hills, or the open water canals
overwflowing with trash in the winter.
With the influx of people, Bar Elias now handles 40 extra
tonnes of refuse every day, in a country that already had no
national waste disposal plan.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, at least 1.5
million people have poured into Lebanon - around a quarter of
the country's population - where most languish in severe
Makeshift settlements have popped up all around the country
as the Lebanese government has long rejected setting up refugee
To stem the flow of Syrians making the perilous journey to
Europe by boat, the European Union has funneled billions into
Syria's neighbouring countries, giving Lebanon 147 million euros
between 2014 and 2016.
For government officials, the need for foreign funding is
clear in cases like Bar Elias, where aid groups have warned of
dire environmental hazards. The EU funded a 4.5-million euro
waste management facility set to open next month in the town,
around 12 km from the Syrian border.
The massive hangar will process 150 tonnes of waste daily
from Bar Elias and two nearby towns, creating several jobs,
Araji said. "For us, this was a dream."
GARBAGE ON TOP OF GARBAGE
Nestled between the fields of Bar Elias, Hassan Ibrahim, 62,
lives amid hundreds of cramped tents pitched haphazardly in the
"We've appointed someone here to collect the garbage...so
when the municipality comes, everything is ready," said Ibrahim,
who escaped shelling in Aleppo five years ago.
But in another makeshift camp a few streets away, Maamar
al-Alawi seems less cheerful. Across from her tent, a large
cesspit is brimming with sewage water and rubbish.
During heavy rainfall, the gutters also spill over with
floating plastic bags.
"It's all garbage on top of garbage," said al-Alawi, who
cleans around her family's spot every day in vain. "You go into
the tent, and it stinks."
As well as the dangers of open dumpsites and burning waste,
trash also often fills irrigation canals that feed nearby
vegetable fields, according to the EU-funded agency that
designed the Bar Elias facility.
Lebanon has been plagued by a waste disposal crisis,
regardless of refugees, with politicians repeatedly failing to
agree a solution, sparking several mass protests in recent
On a recent visit to the Bekaa, European Commissioner
Johannes Hahn said the EU was "trying to do our best to resolve
the Syrian crisis".
"But I'm a realistic man," he added. "And I have to do first
things first" by helping fill Lebanon's shortages.
The new Bar Elias facility represents a prototype that
should become part of broader national plans for development,
said Ziad el-Sayegh, senior national policy advisor for
Lebanon's ministry of the displaced.
Ministries had been putting together a "master plan for all
the infrastruce" but could not undertake it without outside
support, he said.
"The government has an enormous deficit, and then on top of
that, add the weight of the refugee crisis," Sayegh said.
Lebanese officials will take their vision for such a plan to
Brussels next week, highlighting how the refugee crisis has
strained Lebanon's already crumbling infrastructure.
Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has been trying to drag
Lebanon out of insitutional paralysis since he was appointed in
November, said the plan would "equally benefit Lebanese citizens
and displaced Syrians".
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Julia Glover)