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Water crisis plan deemed unrealistic

A worker fills a water tank in Beirut, Wednesday, July 9, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Experts dismissed an ambitious parliamentary proposal put forward Wednesday to address Lebanon’s water crisis as impractical and unrealistic, saying the infrastructure, enforcement mechanisms and legal grounds for many parts of the plan were missing.

Beirut MP Mohammad Qabbani called on the government to declare a “state of water emergency” following a meeting of several concerned parliamentary committees that was also attended by the ministers of environment, agriculture, energy and tourism, as well as the head of the Higher Relief Committee, Maj. General Mohammad Khair.

Qabbani then announced a series of proposals as part of a comprehensive plan to address the crisis, which has resulted in water shortages throughout the country.

The plan calls for restrictions on water use, including a moratorium on irrigation for seasonal crops, in exchange for compensation to farmers, and a ban on washing cars and sidewalks and watering lawns, under threat of fine.

The government would effectively seize control of private wells while compensating their owners. Some of these wells would be integrated into the existing networks through an undetermined monitoring system.

The plan also called for patching up existing infrastructure in order to prevent leaks and lifting T.V.A. taxes on the importation of water. The proposal called for exploring the possibility of importing water from Turkey by sea using huge fabric balloons called Spragg Bags.

The restrictions would be enforced by the Interior Ministry in coordination with local government, municipalities, and the state water authority, Qabbani said.

But a water expert who has worked closely with the government on public water projects called the plan “impractical to say the least.”

“We can’t even get the Interior Ministry to stop illegal wells being dug, which is much easier than forcing people to conserve water,” said the expert, who asked to remain anonymous.

Moreover, the expert said it would take at least a year to put the enforcement mechanisms in place, and negotiating compensation with farmers and well owners would likely be a complicated process.

“Who decides how much and which farmers, and if you’ve decided not to produce seasonal crops, is there a plan to import these? How do you meet the demand of the local market?” the expert asked. “And as for taking over private wells, I don’t think we have the legal capacity.”

The expert also pointed out the technical challenge of hooking private wells up to the government network.

“There’s infrastructure that goes into it, and they have to control the quality of the water,” he said. “It’s been a dry year. Taking over wells is not the solution if they are all tapping into the same source.”

“Realistically, in the short term, given how poorly prepared we are, conservation is the only thing that can do,” he continued. “Raising awareness to conserve water and trying to aggressively fix any leaks in the networks, this is what we can do in a short period.”

Many of the expert’s concerns were echoed by Nadim Farajalla, an environmental hydrologist at the American University of Beirut.

“I would start with restrictions and really applying those, and then when push comes to shove, we would start looking at purchasing,”  Farjalla said, adding that importing water from Turkey would likely be “cumbersome and very expensive.”

He also criticized the proposal for calling for more wells, saying the government should invest instead in water treatment and reuse.

Farajalla explained that while this year’s drought was severe, it still fell within what is considered the normal climate cycle for Lebanon.

“If it persists, becomes more frequent, then you can tie it to climate change,” he said of Lebanon’s dry spell. “What we’re seeing now is what we will be facing a decade or two into the future.”

Farajalla also pointed out the irony of the government’s recent decision to eradicate the hashish crops in the northern Bekaa Valley.

“Hashish grows well without water; that’s actually one of the few crops that economically makes sense right now,” he said sardonically.

“Our concern should be not only this year, but next year,” he concluded. “What is the plan to collect and store water and to prevent people from uncontrolled pumping?”

When reached for comment, Qabbani defended the plan but declined to speculate about the timeline for implementation or the estimated cost.

“We hope that at least we can do something before the peak” of the drought in August, he said, adding, “We have been making noise about this since March and nobody did anything because nobody cares.”

Regarding enforcement, Qabbani reiterated his proposal that the security forces in coordination with municipalities ensure compliance with the plan, which has yet to be adopted by Parliament.

“Our priority is not to close down wells; our priority is to get water, whether the wells are legal or not,” he said. “If we are serious, we can do serious work.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 10, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

Experts dismissed an ambitious parliamentary proposal put forward Wednesday to address Lebanon's water crisis as impractical and unrealistic, saying the infrastructure, enforcement mechanisms and legal grounds for many parts of the plan were missing.

Beirut MP Mohammad Qabbani called on the government to declare a "state of water emergency" following a meeting of several concerned parliamentary committees that was also attended by the ministers of environment, agriculture, energy and tourism, as well as the head of the Higher Relief Committee, Maj.

Qabbani then announced a series of proposals as part of a comprehensive plan to address the crisis, which has resulted in water shortages throughout the country.

"I would start with restrictions and really applying those, and then when push comes to shove, we would start looking at purchasing," Farjalla said, adding that importing water from Turkey would likely be "cumbersome and very expensive".

He also criticized the proposal for calling for more wells, saying the government should invest instead in water treatment and reuse.


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