Al-MARJ, Lebanon: There’s a curious and unpleasant odor wafting over the road toward Al-Marj, an otherwise picturesque hamlet flanked to the west by the Mount Lebanon range in the heart of the Bekaa Valley. The town’s mayor, however, says the hazards faced by his residents, mostly farmers, extend beyond just the smell.
For Al-Marj is one among many towns experiencing the effects brought on by the widespread discharge of untreated wastewater into the Upper Litani Basin. The pollution in the river system has reached such high levels, scientists say, that its surface water is unfit for most uses, especially during the dry summer months.
“It’s painful to talk about the contamination,” says Nazem Saleh, the mayor of Al-Marj, “because it’s not a river, it’s a sewage pit.”
His days are exhausted by ceaseless complaints from residents weary of the health hazards associated with living in close proximity to the infested waters, not to mention the ubiquitous smell. But the farmers who use its surface and ground water for irrigation, he says, carry on, though one would be hard-pressed to wring out an admission from them.
“The pollution is affecting everyone indirectly, including the people who eat the agricultural byproducts,” he explains. “And of course, there is the look of the site itself.”
The visible extent of the pollution depends which one of the 22 sites, isolated by AUB professor Mey Jurdi as hot spots, one plans to visit: In Hezzine, the river itself is imperceptible under a thick layer of solid waste; in Ferzol the stream has assumed a grayish hue; in Ablah it is red with the visible viscera of cows and chickens; and in Al-Marj, it is black with sewage accumulated from nearby homes. The varied effluence is a testament to the multiple sources that have reduced the basin to its current state.
“There isn’t just one source of pollution,” Jurdi explains. “It’s a combination of factors, and each source impacts the water differently.”
Having spent the summer months monitoring dozens of sites for a joint project with the independent Litani River Authority, she says only about 20 percent contained surface water of acceptable quality.
The pollution is a result of a combination of industrial wastewater from nearby diary, poultry, paper and textile industries, agricultural runoff including a fusion of fertilizers and pesticides and the heavy nitrate concentration they produce, sewage as a result of ineffective or inexistent treatment plants, and solid waste.
“During the summer, with reduced water flow, in some places the river just oozes with sewage water,” Jurdi says.
When high loads of organic materials are discharged, the river requires more oxygen to decompose them. But during the summer and accompanying minimal water flow and depth, there is less oxygen available.
Jurdi concludes by saying: “We are finding that most that the trace matters [pollutants] are associated with industrial affluence, although there aren’t a lot of heavy industries, as well as agricultural runoff and fecal contamination from the sewage.”
A pilot study conducted by the professor confirmed previously alleged trends that the water was being used to irrigate farmland and traces of pollutants could be detected in some of the crops being grown. While Jurdi emphasized that the study was in its preliminary stages, she confirmed that fecal matter had been found in green-leaf crops, and other strategic products such as potatoes.
“Some places only have sewage water flowing in the river, so [farmers] are pumping sewage and using this water directly for irrigation, so the impacts are huge,” she says.
The ULB is home to 500,000 of Lebanon’s 4 million population and produces the bulk of the country’s agricultural output.
For their part, farmers say they are the victims of poor wastewater regulations and nonexistent enforcement mechanisms. They have to resort to tapping into the polluted water, they say, to sustain their livelihoods.
Farmer Kheir Jarrah, from Al-Marj, says he is aware of the water might present a serious public health hazard to those who consume his goods.
“We know the water is contaminated, but we still use it,” he says. “There is no alternative means of irrigation; we don’t have any deep wells around here.”
He downplayed the effect his particular farm was having, saying: “At least I don’t grow spinach or lettuce, water it with garbage and sell it immediately to the market.”
As far as he is concerned, treating the water is not his responsibility but that of the central government: “No irrigation, no crops, that’s what we live by.”
The substandard waste-management infrastructure paired with a lack of legal accountability and a haphazard policy framework was described by a source from the Litani River Authority, who requested anonymity, as the legal roots of the river’s current condition.
The question of cleaning the river, by establishing a wastewater-management facility and imposing regulation for industries, has been the subject of a protracted debate between the affected municipalities and the government.
Municipalities argue that they do not have the capabilities to clean the river independently. Moreover, they say, it requires a comprehensive national strategy to foot the staggering LL342.5 billion expense, the cost of cleanup given by Environment Ministry.
The Litani River Authority, with the help of USAID, is in the midst of helping the municipalities form a viable association, one with enough credentials to qualify for direct aid. A meeting was held in Baalbek last week to see this through.
For Khaled Sharaneq, mayor of Jib Jenin and head of the Union of Municipalities of Western Bekaa, cleaning the ULB has been a 15-year endeavor.
“We have asked the Energy Ministry numerous times to clean the river,” he says.
A decision in 2002 to build five sewage treatment plants, including one in Jib Jenin, alleviated the problem for the municipality, but the issue of solid waste remains.
Taking matters into their own hands, the municipality spent $600,000 to construct a waste-management plant.
Yahya Daher, the mayor of Qaraoun says the municipalities can no longer afford to wait for the central government to act,
“We’ve been waiting for 20 years,” he says.
“The government doesn’t want to do anything about it because it’s too expensive,” he says. “They’ve done studies upon studies on the problem, but they haven’t come up with solutions because they know it is costly.”
“So we have to take the initiative and do it ourselves, somehow.” – additional reporting by Dahlia Nehmeh