By Patrick Galey

BEIRUT: Lebanon is facing an unprecedented struggle to effectively manage its dwindling water resources as an unplanned and unchecked surge in regional urban migration threatens Middle Eastern drinking and sewage infrastructure, an international conference concluded Tuesday.

The U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia summit on the occasion of World Water Day featured testimonies from lawmakers and academics concerned over the state of water supply in a part of the world where urban populations will increase by 50 percent by the year 2040.

Lebanon, in particular, was set to suffer from severe water shortages if immediate measures were not undertaken, speakers said.

“When we take into account the water belonging to Lebanon in terms of that which is available … unless we can use and control levels, [this] will not be enough for the country,” Nasser Nasrallah, president of water conservation charity the Association of the Friends of Ibrahim Abdel Al, told the conference.

“We need to stop believing the idea that Lebanon has more than enough water because water is something we must preserve,” Nasrallah added.

With Lebanon’s annual water consumption, according to the Energy and Water Ministry, to rise from the current 1.37 billion meters cubed to 1.8 billion meters cubed by 2035, Nasrallah said instant action was required to avert the financial and health damage caused by water shortages. “We realize that in Lebanon we are dealing with a water shortage and we cannot deliver sources to all of the people, and over the past few years we didn’t have any plans about how best to use water,” he said.

“If the Lebanese government begins to respond to these problems in a serious manner and can come up with a serious plan that is executable, we will be able to achieve something.”

German Ambassador Birgitta Maria Siefker-Eberle, whose mission in Lebanon has contributed 30 million euros (around $42.54 million) to safeguard the Jeita Spring – origin of a large proportion of Beirut’s drinking water supply – from contamination, said that cooperation was needed to avert crippling shortages.

“Efforts to stop the pollution of the environment, in particular the water, will only bear fruit if the central and local governments, farmers, commerce and industry and, most importantly, ordinary citizens pull together, based on a broad social consensus for environmental protection and its benefits,” she said. “This consensus still has to be established in Lebanon.”

Seifker-Eberle added that Arab states ought to begin dialogue and cooperation over shared water resources, in a bid to alleviate the problem of disproportionate regional rainfall and water storage.

ESCWA deputy executive secretary Anhar Hegazi, reading from a speech prepared on behalf of the organization, called on states to take more seriously the issue of urban water shortages.

“We encourage governments to acknowledge the scope of the water crisis in urban areas for what it really is and that it is a result of a weakness and lack of policy, not because of a shortage of water,” she said.

According to ESCWA’s latest research, 29 million Arabs lack access to reliable and safe drinking water, with 34 million living without adequate sanitation facilities, due to paucity of rainfall and functioning storage facilities.

Energy Minister Jibran Bassil, who sent a speech to Tuesday’s event, said his ministry had already come up with a long-term plan to address a looming water crisis. As well as aiming to install up to 1 million water meters across the country by 2020, Bassil said the ministry was working on safeguarding and procuring better access to public and private subterranean wells.

Hegazi insisted further effort from all Arab states was required. “Despite all the efforts that are being exerted to face all these challenges in the region, the progress is lower than realistic expectations, especially when it comes to providing citizens with water,” she said.