World Bank report to urge government action on issue
By Simona Sikimic

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

BEIRUT: Many of Lebanon’s waste water treatment plants are lying unused due to high operating costs, insufficient support infrastructure and a lack of awareness, several experts told The Daily Star on Tuesday.

Eight government-backed waste water treatment facilities have been built in recent years, but only Ghadir, Sidon and Baalbeck are currently operational, said environmental engineer, Jean Paul Boueri.

“Even these are not fully operational … and are basically working at the bare minimum to make sure that the machinery doesn’t fall into a state of irreversible disrepair,” said Boueri who has recently assisted in the compilation of an, as-yet-unpublished, World Bank report on waste water management in Lebanon.

“The plants are there, but the piping which should link the households to the plants is not in place so while the Tripoli plant has the capability to deal with a million people, it is not processing even a fraction of this,” said Boueri.

Plant construction was mainly funded by the European Investment Bank (EIB), meaning that although the loans are low-interest, they are not unconditional and the plants are costing money, without providing basic services.

Lebanon is also scattered with many other non-functioning smaller waste water recycling plants, built by NGOs and private businesses.

“Improving Environmental Practices and Policies,” a development project operated by international NGO, Mercy Corps and funded by the USAID, construct eight waste water treatment facilities in rural areas between 2003 and 2007. Of these eight, however, only half are now thought to be functioning, due to rising maintenance costs and the reduced capability of municipalities to meet these demands.

“We have a mandate to take programs to fruition and we make sure that we train people so that the projects are sustainable but we do not have the funds and resources to keep running the follow up operations indefinitely,” said Dahlia Khoury, Mercy Corps program manager. “[But] the municipalities have few capabilities and their budget has been cut in recent years, further reducing their scope of action.”

The Mercy Corps waste water plants were built with the permission, but not the involvement, of the government, leaving to the municipalities to run them unassisted.

“Without government commitment it is very hard to set up and run such a system,” said Khoury. “I hope that the government will step in and support the water projects because at the end of the day this will help them as well.”

But even government backing has failed to improve access to water treatment facilities, which presently serve some 8 percent of Lebanese residents.

“A lack of awareness is a huge problem and people have no idea of the devastating impact waste water is having,” said water expert Eliane Acaf, who also assisted in the compilation of the coming World Bank report. “The lack of water tariffs and meters mean that people are given very little incentive to reuse water and they just keep polluting.”

Much of this contaminated water makes its way into the country’s rivers, the Mediterranean, or sometimes back into agricultural use, where it causes a hazard to human health.

As water is not reused, natural groundwater reserves are depleted at an increasing rate, leading to salination of the Lebanon’s natural fresh water, said Boueri.

This is a worrying trend in a country which is forecast to experience increasing water scarcity with knock-on effects from global warming, and the dual demands of a growing population and booming demand.

Water treatment plants, which refine to different purity levels, can be used for a variety of reasons including; human household use, agriculture and refined industrial purposes.

“Properly treated and safely recycled water can potentially offer a ‘triple dividend’ to urban users, farmers and the environment,” said Pasquale Steduto, deputy director or the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) land and water division.

His remarks were made in support of an FAO report, “The Wealth of Waste: The Economics of Wastewater use in Agriculture” published this week to coincide with the UN World Water Week.

Although far behind the regional leaders, Lebanon is beginning to catch on the potential. Passage of a recent law requiring all new construction applications to include water recycling sewage treatment plants, indicates that demand is growing and will help boost the industry.

Findings that the construction of a mere 12 additional plants along the coast could help provide coverage to almost 65 percent of the population, also hold promise of fast future growth.

“Even if not at full capacity, most of the people we have worked with now know that water should be recycled, must be valued and that recycling plants can make a big difference,” said Mercy Corps’ Khoury.