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Claims of corruption add to Al-Qaa water woes

  • A sign at the entrance of al-Qaa village. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

  • File - A general view shows the lebanese village of al-Qaa, front, facing the Syrian villages of Joussi and Nazaria, background.

AL-QAA, Lebanon: On a warm spring day in the Bekaa Valley town of Al-Qaa, Hana Rizk stood outside his neighbor’s one-story house, a tired grimace on his face from coping with the town’s insufficient water supply.

“The water came for two hours today,” Rizk said with quiet anger. “The last time it was turned on was two days ago and now it probably won’t come for another two to three days. How much use can we get out of two hours of water?”

Many residents in Lebanon’s semi-arid Bekaa Valley have received what they say are inadequate amounts of water in recent months, a situation attributed to complications including the lack of precipitation this past winter and the torrential influx of refugees from neighboring Syria.

The water concern is magnified in Al-Qaa, a Greek Catholic town 10 kilometers from the Syrian border, by tales of mismanagement and accusations of corruption among the town’s municipal water committee.

The Bekaa Valley is Lebanon’s driest region and normally receives an average of up to 600mm of rainfall each year. And as summer rapidly approaches fears of drought are escalating because the region has only received 240 milimeters of rainfall, making 2014 the driest in 100 years.

“It didn’t rain or snow enough this year and many people are pumping wells that aren’t deep enough,” said Dr. Nadim Farajallah, faculty research director of the Climate Change and Environment in the Arab World Program at the American University of Beirut.

Competition for water has also intensified following the startling influx of Syrian refugees into the Bekaa Valley, thought to clock in at a figure significantly higher than UNHCR’s estimation of 352,000.

“People are competing for limited resources that are perishable and this year there’s a limited supply,” Farajallah said.

“There are so many more people in this area, specifically Labweh, Al-Ain, Ras Baalbek and Arsal. Many Bekaa villages are complaining about the competition for water.”

“This sudden dramatic rise in population has a deep impact on the limited water resources of the region and increases the strain on the economies of the mostly underdeveloped villages of the Bekaa,” read a report released earlier this month by AUB’s Issam Fares Institute entitled the Impact of Population Growth and Climate Change on Water Scarcity, Agricultural Output and Food Security.

Al-Qaa is currently home to 8,422 registered refugees, according to the UNHCR, though local officials claim the real figure is substantially higher considering its proximity to the porous Syrian border.

The deluge of refugees and a lack of rainfall aren’t the only factors concerning residents. Also of concern are allegations of corruption as many locals and officials hold the municipality’s water committee responsible for the shortage.

Eid Mattar has been acting-president of Al-Qaa’s water committee, responsible for distributing water and bill collecting in the town, since 2010. His assuming of the post was controversial, with various sources accusing him of strong-arming the last committee head out of office.

A lawsuit was subsequently filed against Mattar with the Shura Council, where it has been pending for the last few years.

In the meantime, a long list of his adversaries has charged him with corruption and mismanagement, on top of other illegal activities.

“Eid Mattar is a thief,” said a former employee at the Energy Ministry, who spoke to The Daily Star on condition of anonymity.

The former employee, who has since moved on to another ministry, began working for the Energy Ministry in 2012 and was introduced to Mattar while working on a project in the town last year.

Mattar said at the time that his treasury had accumulated thousands of dollars in losses, a claim disputed by the former ministry employee.

“He’s stealing money and not keeping financial records. He should be in jail,” he said.

The former employee and a member of the town’s municipal office separately accused Mattar of hiring staff and appropriating their salaries.

“He hired these employees and registered them with the daman [NSSF]. But instead of paying them he takes their salaries,” the former employee said. “It’s a huge thing.”

Elie Chahoud is an elected member of Al-Qaa’s municipality and the son of Mattar’s predecessor Camille Chahoud, giving his crusade against Mattar a personal twist.

At his home in Dikwaneh, he showed The Daily Star a letter written by Elias Khalil Mattar, a money collector with the local committee who has no relation to Eid Mattar.

In the letter dated Oct. 23, 2010, Elias Khalil Mattar addresses Hassan Jaafar, head of the Bekaa Water Authority’s Union Workers, and accused the president of the water committee of keeping his own financial records and not declaring the money in his treasury.

Elias Khalil Mattar wrote that he was unable to register financial records with the government because he had not received any information from Eid Mattar.

This claim was supported by Al-Qaa’s Mayor Miled Rizk.

“Collectors and the treasurer are not receiving money. The treasurer came to my office and since I have the authority I asked him about the money. The treasurer said ‘I don’t know. I have no role, I’m just a face.’ Eid Mattar collects the money and keeps his own records,” he said.

Rizk added that the treasurer hasn’t been able to pay for generator fuel needed to extract water from the well because Mattar was in control of the required finances.

“There are three wells in town. The well we dug is huge and should provide drinking water for at least 10 months out of the year,” the former employee said.

The former ministry employee said that during his stint working in Al-Qaa, he tried to bring Mattar’s committee under the rule of the Water Authority after receiving complaints from three mukhtars, members of the water committee, and a Parliament member.

In 2000, Law 221 was passed ordering water committees to come under the control of the regional Water Authority.

Nevertheless, four out of the Bekaa’s seven local water committees are still operating independently.

Supported by then-Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, the delegation lobbied the Director General of the Bekaa Water Authority Maroun Msallem to take control of Al-Qaa’s committee but Msallem didn’t support the idea.

“He is either afraid or something else. You figure it out,” said the former employee.

Speaking to The Daily Star over the phone, Mattar denied the accusations against him and said his office was fully transparent.

“We are ready to receive anyone who wants to monitor our [financial records],” he said.

Mattar also blamed the town’s lack of water on the distance it must travel from the source. He said the water runs through many other villages before arriving to Al-Qaa, a claim AUB’s Farajallah said was “probably true.”

It is likely that Al-Qaa will face water shortages regardless of whether the accusations against Mattar are true. For the town’s people the important thing is finding a way to receive water in the dry summer months.

Standing outside his neighbor’s garden, Al-Qaa resident Hana Rizk turned to head back toward his waterless home.

“I don’t know if someone has a problem with someone else. We don’t care. I just care about this village and my little kids who need to drink,” he said. “We are the sons of this village and we want to drink.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 17, 2014, on page 4.
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Summary

On a warm spring day in the Bekaa Valley town of Al-Qaa, Hana Rizk stood outside his neighbor's one-story house, a tired grimace on his face from coping with the town's insufficient water supply.

The water concern is magnified in Al-Qaa, a Greek Catholic town 10 kilometers from the Syrian border, by tales of mismanagement and accusations of corruption among the town's municipal water committee.

Eid Mattar has been acting-president of Al-Qaa's water committee, responsible for distributing water and bill collecting in the town, since 2010 .

The former employee, who has since moved on to another ministry, began working for the Energy Ministry in 2012 and was introduced to Mattar while working on a project in the town last year.

Mattar also blamed the town's lack of water on the distance it must travel from the source. He said the water runs through many other villages before arriving to Al-Qaa, a claim AUB's Farajallah said was "probably true".

It is likely that Al-Qaa will face water shortages regardless of whether the accusations against Mattar are true. For the town's people the important thing is finding a way to receive water in the dry summer months.


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