Lebanese campaign to save water amid a shortage is unlikely to work without government regulation, experts say.
Sophie Cousins Last updated: 24 Aug 2014

Beirut, Lebanon – Plastered across billboards, flashing across television screens, and splashed on pamphlets and stickers, a new message is suddenly everywhere you look in Lebanon: “If you love me, save me some water.”

This year, in an attempt to mitigate a growing water crisis, the Ministry of Energy and Water has encouraged people to turn off their taps and conserve precious drops. But according to Lebanon’s National Water Sector Strategy (NWSS), which was adopted by the government in 2012, only approximately 10 percent of water connections in Lebanon are metered, meaning that the overwhelming majority of people pay the same rate, regardless of how much water they use.

So as people in Beirut continue to hose down sidewalks, wash their cars, take long showers, and flush their stairwells instead of mopping, the awareness campaign has left many wondering: What’s the incentive?

“A lot of the time we don’t have any water at my [vegetable] shop anyway, so why would I save water when I pay the same rate per year?” said Fadi Hammoud, a shopkeeper in the affluent neighbourhood of Achrafieh in east Beirut. “This all comes down to government mismanagement and, really, without a proper government, what are we meant to do? Water and electricity issues have long been a problem for us.”

The lack of metering also gives no incentive for “water establishments to increase water supply or spend more on operation and maintenance… as water deliveries generate no extra revenue”, according to the Water Sector Assistance Strategy for 2012-2016, published by the World Bank.

Nadim Farajalla, associate professor of environmental hydrology at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences at the American University of Beirut (AUB), said that while the campaign is well-intentioned, it is not educational.

“The government has no authority to prohibit wasteful use; [that’s why we need] legislation to allow water establishments and the Ministry of Energy and Water to control water consumption at all levels,” he told Al Jazeera.

“An advertisement campaign asking people to save water without actual instructions as to how to do that is useless. We cannot have financial incentives, as there are no metres at the household level in most areas of Lebanon, thus no one knows how much each household is using or abusing. If you can’t measure it, you can’t tax it.”

However, Randa Nemer, an advisor to Energy and Water Minister Arthur Nazarian, said the campaign was not about financial incentives. “We are not telling people to save water so they pay less or more, the idea of the campaign is for children to tell their parents to save water not only for now, but for the future generation,” said Nemer, adding that she didn’t have exact figures on how much water Lebanon uses annually.

“It’s not about money, it’s about saving water for the coming generation,” she said.

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Water scarcity has long been a concern in Lebanon, fuelled by a lack of precipitation, climate change, and mismanagement of the sector. This year, Lebanon experienced an unusually dry winter, where precipitation during the rainy season was half the seasonal average of 800mm, prompting widespread water shortages. This drought was also exacerbated by the influx of more than one million Syrian refugees into the country.

Aside from the awareness campaign, the ministry also has said it would dig more state-owned wells and erect more dams “where possible”. The new wells are expected to produce between 40,000 and 50,000 cubic metres of water per day.

But Lebanese water resources expert Claude Tabbal, who has worked on water projects in partnership with the United Nations, said that digging new wells was not the answer to the water shortage.

[The] over-exploitation of wells leads to the abstraction of [an] excessive amount of water, putting pressure on the aquifer and leading to seawater intrusion and the degradation of the quality of water.

– Claude Tabbal, Lebanese water resources expert

“Digging more wells is particularly dangerous [in coastal places] like Beirut and all other cities on the coast because the practise and over-exploitation of wells leads to the abstraction of [an] excessive amount of water, putting pressure on the aquifer and leading to seawater intrusion and the degradation of the quality of water,” he told Al Jazeera.

“This is confirmed by the elevated total dissolved solids and chloride levels in well water samples. Today, everybody in Beirut is complaining about the salty taste of water [from] the tanks.”

This reality is evident in the seaside suburb of Hamra, one of the commercial hubs of Beirut. “Hamra has had water shortages throughout the summer, but at my house we haven’t because we had a well underneath,” said an AUB student who lives in Hamra, who did not want to be named.

“If you don’t have a well underneath your apartment block then you’re [out of luck]; If you run out of water, you order a roof tank. But our groundwater is so salty because we’re now hitting the seawater. It’s gross,” the student said.

Farajalla said this was occurring because wells are being pumped at a higher rate than the recharge rate from snowmelt and other filtration in coastal aquifers allows, meaning that seawater is entering the wells. He said the construction of dams is a good long-term approach that would satisfy the need by capturing run-off during the wet season for use during the dry season.

“In the short-term we need to stop wasteful use of water, prohibit the use of fresh water in all water parks and restrict irrigation of annual crops, leaving water only for perennial crops such as trees and vines,” he said, adding that another long-term solution was to improve water conveyance and distribution systems so that leaks are minimised or eliminated.

THE STREAM: Water wars?

But it is not only those in Beirut who are feeling frustrated by a lack of water. Cristiano Pasini, country director of the UN specialised agency for promoting inclusive and sustainable industrial development in Lebanon (UNIDO), said Syrian refugees throughout the country were suffering.
Approximately 27 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack access to potable water [AP]

“Unfortunately the problem of water in Lebanon is much wider than industrial use,” he said, explaining that 27 percent of Syrian refugees lacked access to potable water.

According to UNHCR Lebanon’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene update, many refugees have taken to drinking unfiltered water because of soaring temperatures and scarce water supply, which has put them at risk of water-borne diseases.

Farmers have also been hard hit by the water crisis. According to a report produced by AUB and the American University of Cairo earlier this year, more than 80 percent of farmers in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley said they were facing water shortages, exacerbated by the country’s close proximity to Syria, which affects the quantity and quality of water available to the villages.

The report recommended that more efficient irrigation infrastructure and practises be introduced in the Bekaa, given that the area is the country’s largest water consumer and has very limited metering. And as the Lebanese continue to struggle through the last few weeks of summer, many are hoping the rainy season will bring just that.

Follow Sophie Cousins on Twitter: @SophCousins