Unusually dry autumn and poor infrastructure leading to water ‘crisis’ experts say
By Tamara Qiblawi

Friday, December 03, 2010

Steep water shortage takes toll on economy

BEIRUT: While Lebanon’s beach-goers bask in the sun of a clear skied autumn season, many potable water tanks in neighborhoods throughout the country are hollowing out and families are quietly scavenging new ways to supplement dwindling government rations.

Electricity and Water Minister Jibran Bassil has warned that water shortages could bring the country to the brink of a civil war if they are not immediately addressed. The general director of hydraulic and electrical resources Fadi Comair predicts that water resources could run out by 2015.

Environmental experts have chimed in on the debate by bringing forward climate change models that show that rainfall could be expected to drop dramatically in the next century and that snow, Lebanon’s other major source of water, will recede to the mountain tops.

Lebanon’s average annual rainfall totals roughly 800,000 million cubic meters. However, rain seasons are slowly contracting. Recent years have had 70 days of rain, while 20 years ago the number of rainy days ranged between 80 and 90. This year’s autumn season has seen only one third of the rainfall of last year’s season, studies by the Energy and Water Ministry show.

But for many in the country, climate change is not the only thing to blame for Lebanon’s water problems. Years of government mismanagement, in municipal and central bureaucracies alike, must be taken into account.

“We are in a crisis. Do we get water every day? No. That’s to me a crisis,” said Nadim Farajalla, professor of hydrology and water resources at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

The Daily Star surveyed municipal offices in the greater Beirut area in order to gauge the effects of the dry autumn on Beirut households. All of the municipalities reported “extreme” water shortages, with some households receiving water “one hour every four days.”

“We believe that we are of the deprived [regions],” said Furn al-Shebbak municipality chief Raymond Semaan. Semaan complained that water networks that are channeled primarily toward Beirut have marginalized several neighborhoods, so that some regions have suffered significantly more from water shortages than others.

For Farajalla, problems like this signal that Lebanon has been in the throes of a severe water problem since “a long time ago.”

“We have been mismanaging our water resources for a long, long time. Our networks are not up to standard in many places, our public is not aware of the severity of the problem – people keep using water wastefully,” said Farajalla. He projects a sharp drop in groundwater, the primary agricultural water resource, and a rise in the concentration of pollutants in drinking water, unless the government undertakes steps to prevent leakages, as well as wasteful consumption.

According to a study by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization, Lebanon generates a total flow of 1150 million cubic meters a year. Roughly half of that flow seeps out of the country and into the Mediterranean Sea as well as into Lebanon’s neighboring countries.

With climate change models predicting shorter rainy seasons, but more intense rainfall, water seepages are expected to increase, as the soil can absorb only a limited amount of moisture.

That’s why officials at the Ministry Energy and Water (MEW) are scrambling to push forward plans to revamp Lebanon’s water resource infrastructure, warning that the government can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the torrential leakages.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Star last month, Comair said that Lebanon’s $1.5 billion water plan, published by the ministry in 1999, was in urgent need of joint public-private action and funding. The plan was supposed to have been fully implemented this year, but little progress has been made since its conception.

Two-thirds of the costs of the project have been allocated to securing water supply through the construction of dams and reservoirs.

“We are not going to have water in coming years because we are delaying the implementation of necessary projects,” said Comair. He added that one of the plan’s projects, the Chabrouh Dam, which would have cost $43 million in 2003, now costs roughly $200 million.

The Cabinet has decided to delay all discussion on Bassil’s proposal to construct 11 water dams, with analysts pointing out that this project cannot be implemented before the budgets have been allocated for it.

Studies show the Lebanese spend nearly $660 million on water each year, or two percent of the country’s GDP.

One of the more harrowing signs of Lebanon’s degenerating water infrastructure network is Lake Qaraoun, the country’s only artificial lake, built in 1959 with a capacity of 223 million cubic meters. Qaraoun now holds only 20 million cubic meters of water, according to the National News Agency, which has declared the structure “clinically dead.” Lake Qaraoun powers three hydroelectric plants and supplies 140 million cubic meters for irrigation purposes in the Bekaa Valley and south Lebanon.

Another solution to Lebanon’s water conservation problems that some are proposing is water recycling. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), potential reuse of domestic wastewater stands at 100 million cubic meters per year; in one of the recorded years, 2006, only four million cubic meters of wastewater was treated.

Hamzi Mughrabi, engineer and founder of IBC Inc., a consulting company that developed the Sidon’s Solid Waste Treatment Plant in Sidon, told The Daily Star that Sidon’s wastewater treatment plant has “operated not as a treatment plant but as a pumping plant, dumping more than 1.2 kilometers [away] from the city’s sewage system into the sea.”

He added that Sidon suffers from a lack of water program management, making water storage an exceedingly difficult endeavor; the city’s residents experience those effects acutely during dry seasons.

But the most pronounced damage can be found in the country’s farmlands, which receive nearly 80 percent of the country’s water flows.

The dry weather has stunted the growth of wild pastures and fruit trees and yields can be expected to plummet when the cold comes, as a result of growth retardation.

The associate dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences at the American University of Beirut, Rami Zurayk, believes there is only so much that the government can do to ward off the effects of unseasonably dry seasons. However, he says that there “should be a preparedness to support the farmers during these outlier years.”

Zurayk argues that the Agriculture Ministry should play a greater role in determining water policy, as farmers are the policy’s largest single stake-holders.

For AUB’s Farajalla, improving irrigation mechanisms by introducing cost-saving technologies is key to mitigating shortages. “We can drop irrigation water demand from 70 percent to 50 percent or maybe 40 percent and the rest can come back to be distributed here in urban areas. We need not get into a conflict of allocation,” said Farajalla, warning that perpetuating the water problem could lead to mass displacement in various rural areas in the country.

Various civil society groups in the country have worked to gather political momentum on the water shortage issue.

One group, IndyAct, have rallied against proposals to construct dams, arguing that they are too costly and damaging to wildlife. Other groups, notably Green Party Lebanon, have called for a National Environmental Policy to be formed and have said that the water shortages should be considered “an emergency situation.”

“It’s difficult to get appropriate action to remedy the situation with the way government is now,” said Green Party chief Philip Skaff, “this is not a democracy, it’s a multi-dictatorship.”