Mohammed Zaatari| The Daily Star

BISRI, Lebanon: Residents have cautiously welcomed the signing of a loan agreement paving the way for the construction of a water dam in the Jezzine town of Bisri, as the project, first proposed a decade ago, makes headway.

The agreement to secure the loan was formalized earlier this month between the Lebanese government, represented by Energy and Water Minister Arthur Nazarian, and the chief of the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) Nabil al-Jisr. The project will cost a total of $474 million and will store 125 million cubic meters of water and help meet the energy needs of greater Beirut.

The Wadi Bisri region in south Lebanon, where the dam will be built, is flanked by thousands of hectares of agricultural lands, stretching from the Bisri River to the towns of Bteddine al-Laqsh, Taeid and Mazraat al-Mathaneh. Most of Bisri’s inhabitants count on agriculture to make a living, and the region is known for the cultivation of citrus, cereals and olives.

Residents expressed their hopes that the project would bring about economic development and tourism, and turn Bisri’s vast meadows into an attraction for travelers, much like the Qaraoun lake in West Bekaa is today, as well as provide irrigation sources for the area’s agricultural tracts, and of course energy production through the construction of a hydroelectric dam.

But along with their hopes, residents also expressed concern as they remain uncertain about consequences that the construction of the dam might have.

Some Bisri locals asked whether the dam might alter the region’s geography or affect its natural landmarks; others asked whether it would submerge the area’s prized Roman monuments or their beloved church of Mar Moussa in the north.

Others are uncertain whether studies to assess the dam’s construction had taken into consideration the nature of the land, which lies above the Roum seismic fault.

A group of landowners, some coming from Sidon and many others from outside the region, opposed the appraisal price of LL50,000 per square meter of land allotted for the area around the dam project by the expropriation committee, which reports to the municipality and the government. Among them, the fruit farmers were the most vocal critics. The Union of Jezzine Municipalities has also openly opposed the project.

“The union is following the matter of Bisri’s dam with the CDR and we are communicating with the council’s president, Nabil al-Jisr. We’ve already held a meeting with them and will hold a second meeting next week,” said Khalil Harfoush, chief of the Union of Jezzine Municipalities.

Another concern was the question of how the dam’s construction would affect sanitation networks in in the Jezzine and Iqlim al-Kharroub areas. A study is reportedly underway to clarify the matter, and according to Harfoush, the construction of a waste refinery is also in the works.

“We were told that funding for the dam’s construction was provided. However, there are problems that need to be fixed,” he said, referring to the sanitation networks in Jezzine and Iqlim al-Kharroub. “These two problems will be fixed by the construction of two waste refineries in the two areas.”

Referring to the issue of land purchases and the rejection by the landowners of the initial LL50,000 price, he said: “We have sent the objections concerning this problem to the relevant authorities, so that they may be taken into consideration.”

Harfoush said the Bisri dam was considered a vital project that would help address pervasive water shortages in Lebanon, especially in Beirut.

“We support this project despite the fact that we don’t benefit from it directly, but we believe it will have positive impacts and we are counting on the revival of tourism in the area with more projects around the dam,” he said.

The idea to establish a dam in the area dates back to 1995, when the late Rafik Hariri was still prime minister. The latter went to several countries to shore up financial support for the idea until 2004. Russia had reportedly expressed its willingness to fund the project. In 2010, the project was revived, and a study was conducted, which concluded that the dam should be set up along the Bisri River at 395 meters, 17 kilometers away from the Awali River estuary.

If constructed, the dam will stand 74 meters tall, and conserve 105 million cubic meters of drinkable water annually for greater Beirut.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 22, 2014, on page 4.

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