BAROUK, Lebanon: In a Chouf village that boasts numerous springs and a river that feeds several regions with drinking water, residents are increasingly relying on private water companies, another sign of the serious drought that Lebanon is facing.
“It is just unbelievable that the people here are buying water, it was unheard of in the past,” said Naji Kais, owner of a pick-up truck with a large tank mounted on the back.
“Water is supplied for only two to three hours every other day – this is insufficient for many households which have no other choice than to buy water to meet their needs,” Kais added.
At least 50 water trucks are filling up every day, mainly to cater for private households. A full tank of 4,000 liters of water costs LL30,000.
Lebanon is struggling to deal with its worst water shortage crisis in decades following an abnormally dry winter, a situation aggravated by the presence of more than 1 million Syrian refugees and the chronic mismanagement of natural resources, and everything from agriculture to social harmony is suffering.
Barouk, southeast of Beirut, is a microcosm of these problems. Famous for its many springs, making it an attractive summer destination for Lebanese and foreigners alike, the village’s restaurants are set by waterfalls and along rivers in which fruits and drinks are suspended to keep them cool.
But this year, the fragile security situation combined with the lack of water has meant visitors are staying away. “I am 70 years old and I don’t remember ever witnessing such a drought. It is a catastrophe for agriculture and tourism,” said restaurant owner Issam Haddad pointing at rows of empty tables and chairs lined up along the dried up waterways.
“People come here to stay by the water, if there is no water they are not interested,” he said, adding, “Even God is against us ... He did not send the rain.”
According to Lebanon’s meteorological authorities, the country has had a little above 400 mm of rain since September, just half of the yearly average of 820 mm, and far below the previous year’s precipitation of more than 900 mm.
Poor rainfall coupled with the surge in the country’s population due to the influx of so many Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war next door has made this year’s drought the worst on record, according to Water Board official Dr. Ziad Boustani.
Barouk supplies some parts of Beirut and more than 100 villages in the Chouf, Aley, and Iqlim al-Kharroub regions with drinking water, and at least 10 villages rely on its water for irrigation.
“This year only 30 percent of water is available. The river’s level today is as low as it usually is ... by mid-November,” Boustani said.
He said a rationing program had been installed since May under which water was being supplied to the villages only for six hours every six days, while farmers were taking turns to irrigate their crops. Further rationing measures are expected to be introduced toward the end of the summer, depending on how low the water levels get.
Agriculture, the main moneymaker for the region, remains the hardest hit sector in Lebanon, with available water meeting only 30 percent of farmers’ needs.
Barouk’s Deputy Mayor Dr. Marwan Mahmoud said the municipality was braced for the summer drought and had imposed a partial moratorium on irrigation of seasonal crops and fruit tree plantations.
“They are harsh measures for farmers who rely on their crops for income, and we have no means to compensate them,” Mahmoud said.
“[But] we could see it coming as early as February when the springs failed to burst out as usual following normal winter rainfalls.”
As a result of the restrictions, farmers such as Moufid Amatoury have had to drastically cut down on what they are growing.
“I usually plant 5,000 tomato shrubs but this year I only planted 1,000 ... it is better than nothing at all,” he said.
Water shortages are also triggering fights and raising tensions, with some 2,000 Syrian refugees in Barouk increasing water consumption by 20-25 percent, Mahmoud said.
“Almost every day we are settling disputes,” he said. “The presence of Syrian refugees has exacerbated the problem because they consume water without control, whereas supply to Lebanese households is regulated through meters.”
Mahmoud admitted that the drought was also being exacerbated by years of mismanagement of water resources and said the municipality had made at least two proposals to ration water – the installation of a drip system and the rehabilitation of existing porous irrigation canals – over the past decade that had fallen on deaf ears.
Many, however, fear this is just the beginning.
A drought cycle usually lasts between six to seven years, Boustani said, warning there would be much more difficult years ahead given Lebanon is only in the second year.
“What will it be like next year if we have another dry winter?” he asked. “How are we going to manage? ... We just don’t know.”
Successive Lebanese governments have so far failed to either put forward or implement a comprehensive long-term water strategy to reduce the impact of exceptionally dry years.
Although a ministerial committee was set up specifically to draft an emergency action plan to address the shortage, and parliamentarians proposed measures to restrict consumption such as a ban on washing sidewalks and watering lawns, little has yet been done.
Fadi Comair, director general of hydraulic and electricity resources at the Energy Ministry, said Lebanon was suffering as a result of global warming, which is expected to deprive the country of 30 percent of its rainfall.
“All indicators, including intensity and short span of rainfall, show that we are affected by climate change,” Comair said.
But even though the alarm was sounded more than 10 years ago, he said Lebanon had failed to draw up an “anticipation policy” to reduce the effects of the natural phenomenon. “Unfortunately, decision makers have not grasped and acknowledged the intensity of the problem.”
The water expert said constructing reservoirs, lakes and barrages was the only way to meet future needs, especially in big cities like Beirut and Tripoli, where consumption is projected to increase significantly in the coming years.
“Lebanon can stock up to 850 million cubic meters of water annually if equipped with a proper strategy and infrastructure. ... In principle, Lebanon should not have water problems,” Comair said.
In Barouk, however, at least one person is not stressed out by water shortages. Toufic Abu Alwan, water specialist and owner of fruit plantations, is relying on his private well to meet his water needs.
“When I dug the well in 2009, I was the joke of the town, no one could understand why a resident of Barouk needs to siphon groundwater,” he said.
“Today, they call me the clairvoyant,” he added.