BEIRUT: The nearly rainless months of January and February have hit Lebanese farmers hard, and if the drought persists, experts warn it could further dry up groundwater wells and reservoirs increasing the water deficit for both household and agricultural use. While the government has done little except to warn the public that the water supply to households across Lebanon will be further rationed due to the low precipitation this year, one civil society group has decided to take action.
The Civic Influence Hub, which was behind the Blue Gold initiative – a five-year management plan to reform the water sector in Lebanon launched last December – is stepping up its efforts to cut water waste and limit the effects of the shortfall.
CIH is launching a campaign this week aimed at enforcing measures that could be implemented relatively quickly in collaboration with municipalities and concerned ministries to counter the water shortfall, CIH CEO Ziad Sayegh told The Daily Star.
Despite an annual rainfall average of 8 billion cubic meters, Lebanon suffers, according to the latest official statistics dating back to 2011, from an estimated shortage of 73 million cubic meters of water.
Though no reliable forecasts exist for 2014, Sayegh said the deficit was expected to increase not only due to the low level of precipitation but also due to an increase in consumption by some 1 million Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon.
The Blue Gold project’s short- to medium-term top three priorities, according to Sayegh, are to work toward implementing appropriate irrigation schemes, monitoring water quality and seeking to extract water from undersea freshwater springs.
Sayegh said the adoption of efficient irrigation techniques could cut water loss in agriculture by 25 percent and consequently reduce the overall deficit since the sector represents 55 percent of the country’s total demand.
CIH members have already held meetings with a number of municipalities and farmers’ associations across south Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, Akkar and Mount Lebanon to discuss a shift to appropriate irrigation schemes such as drip or localized instead of open irrigation, Sayegh said.
According to the Blue Gold project, the adoption of appropriate irrigation techniques could save Lebanon up to 270 million cubic meters of water annually.
Sayegh said CIH would be looking to cooperate with concerned ministries to promote public-private partnerships to help achieve those goals.
“Rather than characterize it as a PPP, I would say PPCP, which stands for public-private citizen partnerships,” he said.
Though CIH is currently pursuing those short- to medium-term goals, it won’t neglect its long-term goal of implementing a comprehensive strategy to manage the water sector, Sayegh said.
The comprehensive strategy requires a legal framework to allow for the establishment of a national water council including representatives of the government and civil society, a water regulatory authority, a national monitoring center, a users’ association and an independent watchdog.
“The Blue Gold project’s aim is to change our perception of water from a consumption need to a national economic wealth,” Sayegh said.
According to Blue Gold, Lebanon could reverse the water deficit to a surplus generating more than $600 million in revenues by 2020.
However, the failure to take immediate action is forecast to result in a deficit of 876 million cubic meters in water supply by 2020 as domestic and agricultural demand is estimated to increase by 5 percent and 3 percent annually, the study said.
Due to inefficient management, Lebanon makes use of only 17 percent of an average annual rainfall of 8 billion cubic meters. Out of 2.7 billion cubic meters of available water through eight aquifers and 17 perennial rivers fed by more than 2,000 springs, Lebanon makes use of only 1.4 billion cubic meters.
While the agricultural sector has been suffering the most from the drought this year, Lebanese households are expected to endure further water rationing as the summer dry season approaches.
Many households across Lebanon and in the capital rely on private suppliers for water for both drinking and domestic use at a cost of around $4 per cubic meter.
The average annual water bill per household is $700, according to the Blue Gold study, while tourism enterprises pay around $50,000.
“Given the current situation, the 2014 annual bill per household is expected to increase by at least 10 percent if no action is taken,” Sayegh said.
Some ministers in previous government have proposed building dams across the country to store water during the winter season.
But these suggestions have never been implemented, under the pretext that the government did not have sufficient funds to implement such bold projects.