BAALBEK, Lebanon: “One of Lebanon’s most significant tourist sites is now a source of repulsive odors,” Mohammad sighs. Lost in thought as he looks down at the Ras al-Ain River, which flows through downtown Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, he forgets to take the order of a customer at the King restaurant where he works. The water has long been polluted, Mohammad says.
“Houses and restaurant owners have been dumping all their waste in the stream. ... This has been happening for years now.”
“The river became a dumpster. People are now avoiding going past the stream.”
However, the issue has recently become more controversial. Though the accumulating garbage on the riverbed was largely ignored while it was covered by water, the shortage of rainfall this winter and sporadic heat waves in the last few months have made the problem more apparent and caused other complications. Now it is not only highly polluted, but is also facing a possible extended drought.
Al-Bayada, the main spring nourishing the river, has been drying up since last September. It is not only vital for the river, but also for the historical Ras al-Ain meadow surrounding the stream. For the residents of Baalbek, the meadow, which dates back 2,500 years, is close to their hearts as both a touristic destination and a key part of the ancient city.
Built by the Romans next to what was formerly a water temple, the once-verdant field has borne witness to centuries of change. Now dying for lack of water, the increasingly poor state of the huge space of land has prompted officials and residents of the city to take action.
“The drought facing Al-Bayada Spring, Ras al-Ain River and the different surface wells foreshadows a major environmental problem in Baalbek,” says Rami Lakkis, president of the Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training, a Baalbek-based development group.
“The organization realized early on what we were up against and this is why we took a series of initiatives.”
The drought is not the only thing drying up Al-Bayada Spring.
“The rise of building and the construction of artesian wells around the spring has had a direct effect on the level of water and its pollution,” explains Hamad Hasan, the mayor of Baalbek.
Hasan believes such activities have endangered the city’s green spaces and damaged tourism and economic development in the area.
“The drying-out spring revealed the need to change the sewage system,” Hamad says. “This has also been contributing to the accumulation of waste.”
The dire need to save both the spring and river has forced the municipality to call on citizens with knowledge of the issue to suggest their own projects.
“One idea we have is to build an underground artesian well surrounding Al-Bayada Spring,” Hamad says. “But it’s very expensive.” The cost of building the 400-meter-deep well is estimated at around $100,000, far beyond the municipality’s budget.
Instead of a costly well, some believe there are cheaper ways to solve the problem.
The Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training has been working on the issue since 2008, organizing awareness campaigns for students and residents. So far, however, despite drawing up petitions calling for those who throw rubbish in the water to be held accountable, nothing has been done.
“The main responsibility lies with the municipality,” Lakkis explains. “It needs to penalize citizens living next to the river and prevent the random settlement of Syrian refugees.”
Time may be running out, however, with Baalbek facing an environmental, economic and touristic catastrophe if the necessary action is not taken to end the abuse of Ras al-Ain River and Al-Bayada Spring.