Dana Halawi| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: The World Bank’s country director for the Middle East has urged the Lebanese Parliament to speed up the approval of the construction of the Bisri dam, a $612 million project financed by the World Bank and the Islamic Bank. “Lebanese officials have already expressed a great interest and willingness in the implementation of this project,” Ferid Belhaj said.

“But what we really need now is an official approval by Parliament for us to be able to start with this crucial project,” he told The Daily Star in an exclusive interview.

The World Bank Thursday signed an agreement with the Lebanese government granting Lebanon a $474 million loan for the construction of the Bisri dam, which aims to improve water supplies in the country.

The dam, which will take around five to seven years to be completed and to start operating, will store an additional 120 million cubic meters of water for potable use. The Islamic bank will be financing the difference between the total cost and the amount paid by the World Bank.

“This project is crucial because it will bring potable water to about 40 percent of the population in Lebanon including half a million people living under the poverty line,” Belhaj said.

“We are very much looking forward to the whole process to be finalized within one month to start working on it soon,” he added.

In addition to water issues, Lebanon needs to remove constraints in the telecom, electricity and transportation sectors in order to be able to foster a more conducive environment for the growth of the economy, Belhaj said.

With regard to electricity, the World Bank is working on a small project that would give the private sector a role in energy production in the country.

The project mainly consists of a private company creating a Floating Storage Regasification Unit for importing Liquefied Natural Gas, a source at the World Bank told The Daily Star.

The source explained that this terminal would allow the private firm to import LNG, re-gasify it and ship it via underwater pipelines all the way to the shore, where other pipelines route the gas to its destination.

The source added that the private sector would make the investment and sign a terminal-use agreement with the government, whereby the latter would pay for the services provided by the company.

“The World Bank’s role in this process would be to guarantee the payment by the government for these services to the private company,” the source said. “If it doesn’t, then the World Bank would give the company its money and wait for the government to pay its dues to the bank.”

The source added that the project is still under development and the government still needs to issue a tender and give the project to the most qualified company.

Belhaj stressed that the World Bank is serious in its commitment to Lebanon with regard to the electricity sector.

“We reached a point where we need to move ahead with this particular file but we just need political actors to be aligned on this issue for us to move forward,” he said.

“The World Bank is ready to help on the financing and technical levels,” he added.

Among the World Bank’s long-term plans is a transportation project aimed at managing traffic from Beirut all the way to the north.

“We are looking at a rapid bus transfer system which would help Lebanese citizens get access inside and outside of Beirut in a smoother and less costly way,” he said.

Belhaj said that the project, which has already been successfully implemented in a number of countries including Turkey and Argentina, would contribute in reducing traffic.

“The cost of the project will hopefully be assessed within nine months from now and we may see something happening in this regard within two or three years because there is a broad consensus on it,” The World Bank official said.

Belhaj emphasized the World Bank’s commitment to its short-term objectives in Lebanon which consist mainly of managing the country’s immediate needs stemming from the Syrian crisis and its impact on the economy.

“We have put together a financing mechanism to allow the partners of Lebanon to donate money in a bid to help hosting communities who are welcoming Syrians not to fall under the pressure of this huge number of refugees coming into the country,” he said.

The World Bank is financing projects in health and education while helping the most affected municipalities continue delivering services to their citizens.

It is doing this through a multidonor trust fund created last year with donations from Norway, Finland, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden and the World Bank.

“The fund has $75 million so far and we are looking forward to having it reach about $100 million until next July,” he said.

Belhaj said that the World Bank is in the process of putting this money through the government processes for municipal projects, mainly in the fields of health and education.

“When it comes to education, we are financing a project that would allow for a second shift to absorb Syrian kids,” he said.

With regard to health, the World Bank is trying to make sure that hospitals can receive more patients by providing for dispensaries in places populated with refugees.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 26, 2015, on page 15