By Ellen Francis
BAR ELIAS, LEBANON (Reuters) - 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 overflowing 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 poverty.
Makeshift settlements have popped up all around the country as the Lebanese government has long rejected setting up refugee camps.
To stem the flow of Syrians making the perilous journey to Europe by boat, the European Union has funneled billions into Syria's neighboring 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 mud.
"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.
Unrelated to the refugee influx, a waste disposal crisis has plagued all of Lebanon in recent years, with politicians repeatedly failing to agree a solution, sparking several mass protests.
The government has neither adopted a national policy for managing the influx of refugees, nor helped municipal councils deal with it properly, according to Human Rights Watch.
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 infrastructure" 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 displacement 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 institutional paralysis since he was appointed in November, said the plan would "equally benefit Lebanese citizens and displaced Syrians".
Hariri said on Friday he would call for international aid in Brussels in order to ensure "that Lebanon does not fall apart".
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Julia Glover)