Litani River cleanup project to cost much more than expected
July 24, 2012

BEIRUT: Cleanup of the heavily polluted Litani River and Qaraoun Reservoir will cost much more than the originally planned $150 million, Environment Minister Nazim Khoury said Monday. Khoury said it is critical to target the broad range of pollution sources that have made the river and lake a severe health hazard.

But he said current plans to build treatment plants at a cost of $150 million are simply not enough to do the job given how heavily the river is polluted and how many people rely on it.

“A large portion of Lebanese citizens are affected by the subject of energy and water and their repercussions on agriculture in Lebanon,” Khoury said after a meeting on the pollution at the Environment Ministry.

Government efforts to care for the river will be useless without tackling the sources of the pollution and fining violators who dump waste into the river, the minister added.

The Litani River, which irrigates and provides drinking water for much of the country, has levels of bacterial contamination far above safe drinking water levels. The river is used as a dumping site for industrial, medical, agricultural and home waste.

Studies conducted along the waterway have shown an increase in diseases and digestive problems due to ingesting the water and crops grown with it. The river water is so foul smelling and full of insects that many residents by the water’s edge have relocated.

A $150 million government plan to build water treatment plants has been held up by a lack of funds, with lawmakers pointing fingers at the government and Environment Ministry for not contributing their share.

Khoury said he has had to revise his initial endorsement of that plan given all the problems of waste dumping that have not been addressed. He called for the government to seek out new sources of funding to cover the extra expense of additional treatment programs.

The meeting Monday included representatives from local developmental bodies who proposed a number of plans to tackle the pollutant problem. He said attendees of the meeting will meet again to further explore the plans and implement the best solution.

In January Speaker Nabih Berri and Primer Minister Najib Mitaki launched a Litani River project to provide over 300,000 residents potable water and irrigate large areas of land. Phase one of the project cost $330 million, most of which was supplied by the Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development and the Kuwaiti Fund for Arab Economic Development.

It’s unclear how far the various plans will actually go toward cleaning the river and providing people usable water. Similar projects have been in the works for decades as leaders sought to develop the country’s infrastructure and provide water to more people in the countryside.

In the meantime, the problem could get worse if the government doesn’t act quickly. A new plan to allow irrigation with the Litani up to 800 meters will spread the overall footprint of the poisonous water.

“The polluted Litani waters will spread to a larger area if the problem is not treated in as quick a time as possible,” Khoury said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 24, 2012, on page 4.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

Litani River pollutants force residents from homes
July 23, 2012 01:15 AM
By Rakan al-Fakih

ZAHLE, Lebanon: As if the foul smell were not enough, the risk of disease and insect bites from the polluted Litani River have finally forced Khalil Soueid to put his riverside family home in the Bekaa Valley village of Bar Elias up for sale.

The Litani River, Lebanon’s longest, provides drinking water and irrigation for much of the country. But its heavy pollution is forcing many of those who live by it, in Bar Elias and elsewhere, to pack up and leave. Others enclose themselves in their homes, securing doors and windows, preferring to face the heat than sniff the sewage, industrial and household waste that flood the waterway.

Affecting areas from the northern village of Riyaq to Lake Qaraoun in the western Bekaa, the Litani’s waters are used to irrigate some 300,000 dunoms of agricultural land in the Bekaa Valley, a major source of Lebanon’s vegetables.

Riad Qaraawi, professor of microbiology in the faculty of medicine at the Lebanese University in the Bekaa, reports high levels of chemical and bacterial contamination in the river. Tests at the lab he manages show bacterial contamination far above standards for safe drinking water.

Qaraawi says that the dark green water is most deadly because of its use in irrigation. His tests show that germs and pollutants spread to agricultural products and into the soil itself.

His research also shows an increase in typhoid, hepatitis and nitrates in the bodies of those who live near the waterway. They also suffer from pain and illnesses of the digestive system. Qaraawi chalks this up to their ingestion of vegetables that feed on the dirty water. These areas also have high cancer rates.

The microbiologist adds that the Litani River’s contaminants are of two types: bacterial and chemical. The chemical is extremely hazardous, he says, because the carcinogen mercury is building up at the bottom of the river.

Around 160 million cubic meters of the Litani River’s waters are used annually for water and power, while 60 million are stored for use during the dry season on the river’s highly populated banks.

Rida al-Mays, the former mayor of Bar Elias, blames four different sources for the river’s pollution. First is the sewage that flows from villages and towns on both banks – according to the Council for Development and Reconstruction this reaches 50 million cubic meters per year.

Second, 294 companies dump industrial and chemical waste into the water. Third, non-biodegradable pesticides and fertilizers have caused an increase in phosphate and sulfate levels, and finally household, solid and medical waste from hospitals pour into the Litani.

Mays says that successive governments have passed on dealing with the problem. Each forms committees to resolve the issue, but all in vain.

Ten years ago, donor countries contributed part of the funds to construct water refineries and sewage treatment plants, and connect the sewage networks of residential areas to these plants. Once in operation, these improvements were supposed to reduce pollution by 50 percent.

But the plants are not complete, and Mays believes the extent of the problem is such that facilities to treat household solid and organic waste are needed, as is a law obliging companies to build their own plants to treat waste.

Zahle MP Issam Araji calls the Litani River a national disaster, given the dangers it poses to public health. He says the cancer-causing mercury at the river’s bottom is even more of a problem given that the pollution has now spread to ground water supplies. In the summer, water levels sink and the fetid stench stretches several kilometers from where the river runs.

The $150 million plan to build sewage and water refinement plans – which included the Environment Ministry, international organizations and the CDR – is 70 percent finished, according to Araji. He says the project has not been completed because the government has not yet contributed the share it pledged.

The lawmaker believes that the treatment plan, which would be a major step toward cleaning up the Litani, cannot move forward without the government and the Environment Ministry.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2012, on page 4.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::