In an area of a little over 10,000 square kilometers, Lebanon today has a population of some four million and the figure is increasing by 25,000 yearly. To get a better grasp of these figures, one should take into account uninhabitable areas located higher than 1,600 meters, where mountains rise to nearly 3,000 meters.

Most densely populated areas are therefore distributed in and around coastal zones, on both sides of the roads connecting Beirut to the hinterland. In the middle of the Lebanese coastline lies the capital Beirut, with roughly two million inhabitants, a population density that is not compatible with the country’s pace of growth. The same can also be said of the hub of northern Lebanon, Tripoli, and the capital of southern Lebanon, Sidon. It is therefore evident that efforts must be made to explore new resources in Lebanese territories and strike a balance between rural and urban areas. Among main natural resources that could help attain this goal are spring waters and sustainable rivers.

Obtaining water for drinking and for domestic uses leads to the development of many areas. Expanding agricultural irrigation also leads to reclamation of lands, boosting their production and revenues. Finally, the use of waterfalls for power generation makes it possible to spread out lighting and provide power supplies to villages and rural areas, and to develop small local crafts.

The full exploitation of the natural water supplies could bring a full transformation of Lebanon toward natural reclamation, improved health and social welfare.

The Lebanese government had attempted at the end of country’s warfare to face up to the grim state of drinking water infrastructure, which was coupled with problems of surface and ground water pollution resulting from unregulated wastewater disposal. According to a 2010 progress report by the Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDR), the government’s response came in the form of emergency works of rehabilitation for existing water resource infrastructure, finalizing networks according to needs, developing and augmenting water sources, curbing water waste, and other urgent measures to save water supplies and optimally meet water demands.

At the institutional level, issuing Law 221 of 2000 was a major step toward restructuring and modernizing the water and sanitation sectors all over Lebanon. Public water ownerships (both surface and groundwater) were specified and integrated water management was assigned to four independent public investment enterprises.

Other immediate measures were implemented throughout the country as well. In Beirut, for example, water sources (Qashqoush Spring) were rehabilitated, drinking water pumping and distribution networks were created or renewed, and the Dbayyeh drinking water purification plant was expanded.

Beirut city’s needs are increasingly growing and they are not yet assessed by clear statistical rules. The city needs more waters due to three major reasons: natural population growth, rising volumes of trade and tourism resulting in an increase in the number of hotels, and individuals’ mounting consumption due to higher standards of living. To meet this growing demand for water, new water sources needed to be found. Therefore, a project is under way to tap into the Awali River’s waters for Beirut and build a dam in the Bisri area for the same purpose. Preparations are also ongoing to complete the second phase of expanding a drinking water purification plant in Dbayyeh.

We thus find that population growth, unbalanced development distribution in urban and rural areas, migration from rural to urban parts of the country and particularly to Beirut, urban expansion with its negative consequences on water resources and pollution, all necessitate that we search for new water sources. This challenge for sustainable urban development despite water scarcity for said reasons, in addition to the climate change impacts on water resources, requires provision of capitals and funding by the state to implement future projects. But such projects are still lacking the priority they merit. Not enough attention has been given to facilitate the work of water utilities that were set up and which suffer to this day from wasteful operation in distribution networks, when and if such networks exist, the lack of specialized human resources, shortage of financial resources and the absence of rules to set fair tariffs for water and sanitation services they provided to the general public.

The celebration of World Water Day (WWD) this year is an opportune occasion to highlight these water management challenges facing modern cities. Underlining these challenges, especially for developing countries, the United Nations has chosen to celebrate this day in 2011 under the theme “Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge.” According to statistical data from UNESCO, half of the Earth’s population lives in cities. In two decades, five billion people, or 60 percent of the world’s population, will be urban dwellers. UNESCO also reports that urban population is growing by five million people every month. By choosing this theme for WWD 2011, the United Nations hopes it will serve as an incentive for governments, organizations, councils and local institutions and citizens around the globe to pledge to face water management challenges in cities.

The official celebration of WWD by the world body this year will be held on March 22 in Cape Town, South Africa. In Lebanon, AFIAL is collaborating with ESCWA and the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) to mark it in a ceremony at the U.N. House in Beirut, which will be attended by a large number of Lebanese and regional officials and experts who will discuss this challenge and seek adequate solutions for water and sanitation management in the cities of the region.

The Association of the Friends of Ibrahim Abd El Al (AFIAL), founded in 1991, is a Scientific Association that honors the memory of one of Lebanon’s leading scientists in the fields of water and energy, Ibrahim Abd El Al.