BEIRUT: Tanker trucks of water, a common sight around the capital toward August, are already lining up outside private wells as water supplies dwindle before the summer has even peaked following an unusually dry winter.
But with an estimated 60,000 illegal wells across the country and rampant unlicensed providers, many of these sources are not regularly tested and could be contaminated with sewage, pesticides, fertilizers, gas derivatives, industrial chemicals or saltwater, experts say.
Of three private wells in the Greater Beirut area The Daily Star visited, only two had been tested at all, and then just for salinity and calcium. Truck after truck pulled in, filled up, and drove off to deliver the water to customers left high and dry by city water cuts.
“They only test for salinity and calcium because you cannot sell something that tastes poorly and calcium clogs pipes, but these are not problems of health,” said Nadim Farajalla, an environmental hydrologist at the American University of Beirut. “A lot of our groundwater is contaminated with sewage.”
According to the American University of Beirut Environmental Core Lab, the complete range of tests required by the Health Ministry to license water providers costs $2,000 – more than most are willing to pay when so few consumers know or care about licensing.
Private individuals can get their water tested at AUB’s laboratory for as little as 61,000LL for basic microbiological contamination such as fecal coliform.
Farajalla blamed faulty or nonexistent sewage collection networks, particularly outside of major urban centers where septic tanks and dry wells are more prevalent. Many private water providers also collect water outside the city to sell to urban residents.
“It’s supposed to be leak proof ... But these wells are not dug by any professionals,” Farajalla said. “Wells end up with fractures and sewage leaks into the subsurface and we end up with contaminated groundwater and this is what people get.”
Even in places where a sewage network exists, like in Beirut, aging infrastructure could lead to leaks and contamination. Water wells tap directly into the groundwater, with only a metal sleeve to support the well’s walls and a screen at the bottom to keep out solid sediment.
“If [groundwater] is contaminated, it’s contaminated and that’s it. The bacteria are small,” Farajalla said.
Farajalla tested his own well water at his home north of Beirut and found coliform bacteria, including fecal coliform he suspects soaked into the ground from villages up the mountainside that lack proper sewage disposal.
While most of the water being sold privately is intended for domestic use and not for drinking, activities such as showering, brushing one’s teeth, or washing fruits, vegetables and dishes could introduce the contaminants into the body.
“Just because it’s not for drinking, doesn’t mean it meets the minimum standard of domestic water use,” Farajalla said of the water being pumped into home tanks by private providers.
Ziad Khayat, project manager at the Lebanese Center for Water Conservation and Management, said most wells in the Beirut area suffered from seawater intrusion, but seemed less concerned about the possibility of sewage contamination in the capital.
He added, however, that the public should not assume that the deeper the well, the cleaner the water, because most aquifers in Lebanon are of porous limestone.
“They can store water but they are easily contaminated by multiple sources – industrial sources of pollution, fuel station tanks that could be leaking – the sewage network is just one part,” he said.
Farajalla and Khayat gave several recommendations for the public as the summer months are sure to exacerbate the existing water shortage.
First and foremost, homes that do receive government water should do their best to conserve, as this water has been treated and is subjected to regular testing. Many areas, including Beirut’s southern suburbs, have not received government water for over a year.
Second, those who are obliged to buy water from private networks should know the exact source of the water and ask that it be tested. Ideally, one should stick to licensed providers, which should have completed the necessary testing.
Third, individuals can treat the water themselves using chlorine tablets. Khayat also recommended keeping several bottles of drinking water in the bathroom for the brushing of teeth.
“We have to be realistic,” Khayat said. “When there is no water, people will go to these [private, unlicensed] sources, especially with the low rainfall this year.”
Ahmad Harake, owner of Water and Sewage Conditioning Project, has seen his fair share of dirty wells and faulty sewage containers in his line of work selling water purification systems.
“There’s no such thing as sewage or waste water treatment in Lebanon. They either pump it directly into the sea, or into septic tanks, and not all are well-designed and a lot [of waste] seeps into the ground,” he said. “It’s definitely a serious issue.”
For light contamination, particularly saltwater, Harake said some households choose to invest in a reverse osmosis purification system, which starts at around $6,000. However, even moderate contamination requires different solutions, which are costly and scarce.
“These systems exist but no one installs them,” he said.
“I mean no one.”