BEIRUT: An acute decline in rainfall has sparked drought fears in Lebanon, with warnings of a “water emergency” and urgent calls for new solutions to combat scarcity and conserve water at home.
Though experts say this year’s dry spell is likely a natural variation in weather, they warned that climate change is causing a retreat in the country’s snow cover that replenishes its streams and could lead to a worsening water crisis in the coming years.
“The need is certain and drought will extend to desertification,” said Akram Chehayeb, the agriculture minister, at a briefing with reporters last week. “The seasons this year are threatened with thirst and we must be in an emergency situation to face the acute shortage of water.”
Chehayeb said the country had been “bled” of underground water and the majority of above-ground water is “wasted.”
In sounding the alarm bells, Chehayeb, who served in the 1990s as environment minister, blamed the impact of climate change.
“Our water reality this year is in danger,” he said. “Our hope is that the political climate changes ... so we can face the effects of climate change and desertification.”
The total amount of rain this year is only around a third of the annual average, despite a recent thunderstorm. Optimistic estimates for rainfall in March and April could bring that up to about half the yearly average, according to Chehayeb.
Ordinary consumers will be hit hard. Between May and December, the Greater Beirut area usually needs about 250,000 cubic meters of water a day for a population of 1.9 million, but the government can only provide 130,000 at the moment.
Homes are not the biggest consumer of the country’s water. That is the agricultural sector, which uses up nearly 60 percent of the water supply in Lebanon.
But experts cautioned against attributing this year’s dry spell to climate change.
“We have a major problem with rainfall and we have much lower rain than normal, but it’s not the first time that we have this,” said Nadim Farajalla, associate professor of hydrology and water resources at the American University of Beirut.
Farajalla said that records spanning the years between 1933 and 2003 showed that 32 years featured rainfall below the annual average of 874 mm.
But climate change is causing other damage that is directly impacting Lebanon’s water reserves.
Temperatures are rising – an AUB study found that the minimum temperature in Beirut had increased by 3 degrees Celsius in the last 125 years, the combined result of urbanization and global warming.
Farajalla said that Lebanon’s warming leads to less snow in the mountains, which makes it difficult to recharge the country’s flowing streams from which water is drawn.
With the retreating snow caps, there will be an even greater need to save the rainwater in dams around the country.
Chehayeb said he would work to speed up the building of eight reservoirs as well as cheap sand dams that can trap rainwater, much of which usually goes to waste.
Lebanon currently has three major dams to store water, but will need several more.
Storing water above ground is the only technically feasible way for now, Farajalla said.
Lebanon’s terrain is made up mostly of limestone, with fissures through which groundwater flows from the rocks and directly out of the sea bed in so-called “sea springs,” much of which is lost.
It might be possible to construct subterranean dams to take better advantage of these streams, but the technology has not yet been mastered, Farajalla said.
But one of the groups trying to grapple with Lebanon’s water shortage, including taking advantage of the “sea springs,” is the Civic Influence Hub, a lobby that includes top businessmen, lawyers and academics.
The group brought together 40 experts from the government, private industry, academia, agriculture, engineering and law and produced a 300-page plan called “Blue Gold” to manage Lebanon’s water sector.
“It’s time to move from conflicts to try to unify Lebanese citizens under the umbrella of socioeconomic projects,” said Ziyad Sayegh, the group’s CEO.
Blue Gold’s vision is comprehensive – it will cost $5 billion, paid through private investors and citizen bonds with about a quarter of the revenues going to the government. Its designers hope it will generate a surplus of 500 million cubic meters of water in five years.
It includes a small number of interconnected surface dams to store water that would be available in dry seasons, improving existing irrigation and domestic water networks, building river canals, planting more forests to recharge ground water, harvesting more rain, and treating and reusing waste water.
The plan would also create a national water council, a legal body to oversee its operation and a watchdog. The plan will be submitted to Parliament within three months, Sayegh said.
A constant challenge of course lies in Lebanon’s political dysfunction – a national water strategy that was approved in May 2012 has scarcely been implemented, and will cost more than Blue Gold’s proposal.
But there is cause for optimism. Many of the solutions operate on the assumption that the problem is not that Lebanon lacks water per se, but that much of its scarcity is due to poor management.
Lebanon is a “castle of water,” Sayegh said. The current crisis, he said, represents an opportunity to re-examine the system, despite the political situation.
Chehayeb said Lebanon could explore options of desalination, which removes salt from seawater, and even importing water, in addition to employing efficient farming techniques.
Farajalla said a radical solution like desalination – which is widely used by oil-rich but freshwater-starved Gulf states, should only be considered as a last resort.
Desalination plants need to be built on the sea, which is prime real estate, given that about two thirds of Lebanon’s population already lives on the coast. It would also destroy the marine habitat in the area, and would be prohibitively costly because the process requires much energy.
Instead, Farajalla agrees that efficient management of water would solve many scarcity problems.
Many areas have “unaccounted for” water that leaks from the grid, and some farmers still use outdated flood irrigation methods that waste a lot of water.
Educating those farmers on conservation would go a long way, he said, as would enforcing laws that ban practices like watering storefronts to combat dust during drought periods.