Sarah Weatherbee| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Lebanon witnessed an exceptionally wet winter in contrast to the severe drought which the country saw last year, a development which many hoped would help solve the country’s chronic water shortage. But according to Roland Riachi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Issam Fares Institute, Lebanon’s water crisis won’t be permanently solved by a race to control nature, or keep each last drop from slipping into the sea.

Presenting findings from his research at AUB this week, Riachi advocated for an approach that “looks mainly at the relationship between society and nature, who is gaining from water distribution, how water is appropriated, and the struggles [of the powerless] coming out of that.”

It’s a perspective grounded in political ecology, with an eye toward injustices of water distribution and access.

Through his research, Riachi explored the determinants of inequitable water access in Lebanon, a country where water resources have become increasingly privatized and commoditized. Laws guarantee a tight relationship between water control and land ownership.

Drawing from previous surveys, Riachi said that 75 percent of the Lebanese household budget goes to private water providers, with the other 25 percent spent on water from the government.

Water supply and quality are an increasingly pressing topic in the country, as private providers have come to dominate the market, filling the gap in water provision left by the public sector.

“The system makes people go to private providers of water, rather than being able to rely on public networks,” Riachi said.

Riachi explained that three main pillars of focus underlie the water situation in Lebanon: ownership laws, political discourse on dams, and understaffed public sector water institutions.

Since the early 1800s, the laws governing the country’s water resources have allowed private landowners to deplete groundwater resources through excessive pumping of wells, Riachi said.

“Well usage is our main problem. Today we have 80,000 wells in Lebanon, 8 wells per square kilometer, This is huge, this is pumping the last drops of [ground] water.”

By contrast, there were only 3 000 wells in Lebanon during the 1970s.

Riachi stressed that politicians should be focusing on the consequences of laws that have crystalized the relationship between control of water and land ownership. However, the current political discourse is over increasing dam construction and privatizing water management.

As for why politicians prefer to build dams, Riachi said, “political power and engineering are highly correlated.” With respect to public water establishments, he said “since [post-Civil War] reconstruction, we are living in a situation of structural adjustment policies that put aside the role of the state and say ‘let the market decide.’”

“This has led the politicians to systematically impoverish the public management of water in Lebanon in order to say, ‘your only redemption will be privatization.’”

Riachi said that there are many dams under construction, financed through international loans, yet, concurrently, 50 percent of existing water networks suffered from leakages and needed repairs.

The hiring freeze on public servants, from plumbers to engineers who could address these leakages, is paralyzing progress toward efficient use of water resources.

Riachi said that the government has relied on neoliberal policies and international loans that hinge on a shift from public to private sector water management. In turn, this has led political leaders to “cut the budget” necessary to hire the staff to fix infrastructural deficiencies, “Structural adjustment policies led us here,” he said.

He suggested that political leaders not only focus on repairing current public water networks, but also on “constructing small reservoirs in cities to double the capacity to meet daily water supply.”

Riachi highlighted another element of injustice: the way in which water projects are funded and distributed throughout Lebanon.

“Project funding is targeted in constituencies of politicians who are working in water-related government authorities, not in areas where they are needed,” he said, adding that economically and infrastructurally deprived areas are in most need of funding for water projects. These include: urban slums, informal settlements, rural areas and remote locations.

At present, there are 10 major wastewater treatment plants in Lebanon that are non-operational. Riachi said the plants were funded by international donors who were only in the country for a short period of time. They remain empty of the engineers, plumbers and other technical personnel necessary for operation. He cited examples of plants in Tripoli and Jiyyeh, where sewage water is flowing directly into the sea. “Less than 20 meters away, there is a wastewater treatment plant,” he said.

Riachi also spoke on the consequences of water-intensive agriculture production. For many fruit and vegetable staples, Lebanon produces double what it needs and exports the rest. Riachi explained that the agricultural practices of growing this produce bound for export cause a 25-30 percent annual loss of freshwater resources.

“At some point we will have to make a choice between drinking and using domestic water, and relying on profitable markets that exports our water through agricultural production.”

Since produce exports are subsidized by the government, Riachi suggested that policymakers use subsidies to promote efficient water usage. For example, farmers would receive subsidies only on the condition that they use precise irrigation techniques.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 25, 2015, on page 2.