This policy brief analyses the role of state authorities and municipalities in service provision in Libya; asks how it has developed since 2011; and how it changed during the 2019-2020 waste management crisis.
It also sheds light on structural issues, such as: the absence of policy planning; the gaps in the state administrative structure; the overlapping prerogatives of specialised bodies; as well as obstacles to decentralisation.
The armed conflict between the Libyan Arab Armed Forces and forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA) from April 2019 led rapidly to a major waste management crisis in Tripoli.
While the crisis ended in June 2020, with the military operations, it flagged up some of the key service provision challenges for the Libyan authorities.
In April 2019, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) led by Khalifa Haftar and the forces supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA) clashed in the south of the capital, Tripoli.
The GNA’s priorities were subsequently to change, as it focused its efforts on achieving security and stability in Tripoli and on military operations in the western region.
The fourteen-month conflict affected the public services sector by increasing power outages, interrupting water supply, and hampering waste management in the city. As such quality of life suffered in the capital. Within a few months, waste had accumulated in the streets and landfills.
The authorities failed to find adequate solutions. In late 2019, with the conflict still raging, the build-up of waste became an administrative and environmental crisis threatening public health and hindering the population’s movement.
The crisis also led to tensions and confusion amongst the authorities and local government organisations.
It was not until the conflict ended in June 2020 that Tripoli’s waste crisis was finally resolved. The permanent landfill in Sidi al-Sayeh became operational once again, and a campaign to clean up the city was launched in August. However, the crisis raised questions.
Was this merely a temporary issue linked to exceptional security, economic, and political circumstances?
Or was it, in fact, rooted in deeper legal and administrative factors, compounded during a period of open conflict?
This policy brief explains the role of state and municipal authorities in providing waste management services in Tripoli; how this role has developed since 2011; and particularly how it has developed since the waste crisis. It also looks at the challenges facing waste management policies.
This includes: the overlapping responsibilities of administrative authorities in the city; the weak role of local government; the weakness of the administrative structure in Tripoli generally; and the lack of planning in the capital.
1. The 2019 waste management crisis in Tripoli
1.1 How the crisis began
The waste management crisis in Tripoli began with the armed conflict that broke out between the GNA and the LAAF in April 2019. Waste accumulated after waste transport trucks were unable to reach the city’s permanent landfill in Sidi al-Sayeh.
This was due to its location on the front where fighting was. This landfill had previously received the solid waste produced in the municipalities of Greater Tripoli, after it had been collected from interim landfills in the city.
With the Sidi al-Sayeh landfill rendered inaccessible, waste began to accumulate in three interim landfills in Tripoli: the Abu Slim landfill; the Tajoura landfill; and the Sawani landfill in Hay al-Andalus municipality. However, given that these landfills were temporary and of limited capacity, waste management services in Tripoli were quickly affected.
The rate of waste production also spiked due to the displacement of families, who fled from fighting in areas like Ain Zara and Abu Slim in southern Tripoli, towards the city centre.
In the course of just one month, waste accumulated significantly in Tripoli Centre, Souq al-Jum’a, and Hay al-Andalus municipalities. There the areas available for waste collection were small and population density was high.
By Ramadan of that year (May 2019), the municipalities most affected by the waste crisis in Tripoli led waste collection campaigns in coordination with the General Services Company-Tripoli, the authority responsible for transporting and collecting waste.
Nonetheless, municipal officials continued to complain about the quality of waste collection services, and the Abu Slim landfill – the main landfill, where most of the city’s waste was transported – reached capacity. This was all compounded by the fact that the salaries of waste collection and transportation workers were delayed.
Souq al-Jum’a municipality described the deteriorating waste management services in July as “a recurring [issue], and an ongoing environmental problem.”
In the third quarter of 2019, the main problem facing waste collection and transportation services was the lack of sufficient interim landfills to accommodate the quantities of waste generated.
In September, the General Services Company-Tripoli, closed the Abu Slim landfill, after waste had reached a height of 25 meters, weighing in at over 250,000 tons.
The Sawani landfill was also closed. The Company maintained that it was only responsible for operating landfills, not for finding alternative ones.
It declared that there were no alternative sites for receiving the rapidly accumulating waste. After the closure of the Abu Slim and Sawani landfills, a dispute arose among the municipalities over the landfills that fell within their respective jurisdictions.
Waste transferred from outside a given municipality was considered “incoming waste,” and not the municipality’s responsibility. Therefore, some municipalities refused to receive waste transported from neighbouring municipalities.
Meanwhile, waste continued to accumulate in municipalities that lacked interim landfills, such as Tripoli Centre and Souq al-Jum’a.
1.2 Effects of the crisis on Tripoli residents
The waste crisis, with informal landfills and other interim landfills reaching their maximum capacity, had significant health and environmental consequences for the residents of Tripoli, while also impeding other service sectors in the city.
For example, after waste accumulated in the streets, and near residential areas, residents opted to start fires in the informal landfills in attempt to get rid of associated stenches, pollution, traffic jams, and eyesores.
This kind of crude incineration of waste, however, meant the burning plastic, and sometimes medical waste. There were emissions of toxic gases and carcinogenic compounds.
Another consequence of these informal landfill fires was operational breakdown in the electricity sector. During the crisis, the turbines of a power plant in southern Tripoli broke down as a result of the smoke emissions from a nearby informal landfill.
It fell temporarily out of service, further exacerbating the power outage crisis in the city.
An additional danger from open landfills comes in the form of gases emitted from the decomposition of organic matter in untreated waste. For example, fires and explosions continue to occur from time to time in the de-commissioned Ain Zara landfill.
According to environmental sanitation experts in Tripoli, open, untreated landfills were time-bombs, filled with highly flammable methane gas.
They were either to be shut-down or vented to allow the escape of combustible gases. Another service that was impaired by the accumulation of waste was the drainage of rainwater from the city’s streets.
In September 2019, waste build-up peaked with the onset of the rainy season. As a result, non-biodegradable materials such as plastic and solid waste clogged the rainwater drainage gutters on the roads.
On the one hand, the blockages posed a challenge to the General Sewage Company, while on the other, the infrastructure, damaged by flooding, increased the economic burden on the state. At the public level, the blockages resulted in increased traffic congestion.
1.3 A disorganised response to the crisis
The GNA’s response to the crisis in 2019 was disorganised. This was, in part, a result of administrative overlaps in waste management prerogatives. For example, the budget was distributed among the municipalities and General Services Company-Tripoli without clear demarcations.
This resulted in administrative and legal disputes, as well as objections – due to each party receiving only half of their share of the budget – and further added to the confusion in waste management.
In their efforts to overcome the waste crisis, the municipalities and the General Services Company-Tripoli worked almost entirely independently of each other, with no clear coordination or budget. They sought out different solutions.
The Souq al-Jum’a municipality disposed of its waste in an interim landfill that it established on the borders of Maitiqa International Airport, after gaining the approval of the Environment General Authority.
However, this landfill failed to comply with the set regulations, according to the Environmental Sanitation Office.
Meanwhile, the Tripoli Centre municipality coordinated with its counterpart in Souq al-Jum’a, and employed the Maamoura landfill outside Tripoli – in cooperation with the armed group guarding it – to get rid of its waste.
The municipalities of Tajoura, Abu Slim, Ain Zara, and Hay al-Andalu, meanwhile, continued to use the interim landfills in their municipalities or the larger public areas available to them.
The waste management crisis began to ease with the cessation of the armed conflict in Tripoli in June 2020.
In July, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Libya helped provide waste collection containers for the municipalities of Tripoli Centre, Souq al-Jum’a, Tajoura, Hay al-Andalus, and Ain Zara.
By August, the city showed growing concern for collecting waste from the streets, as the General Services Company-Tripoli began clearing the interim landfills and launched a campaign to clean up the main streets in Tripoli.
By October 2020, the municipality of Souq al-Jum’a announced that the Maitiqa landfill would be gradually shutdown. These efforts led to a notable improvement in waste management and collection services.
Rima Ibrahim works at the Orient-Institut Beirut as a Research Assistant since July 2019.