SHABROUH, Lebanon: Below a giant reservoir of mineral-tinted blue water in the snow-capped mountains of Shabrouh, water gushes across a spillway that runs down through a 63-meter-high jagged stone wall.
This small-scale dam on a minor waterway could well be the model to alleviate the country’s water and energy shortages.
The Energy and Water Ministry has extensive plans for dozens of dams such as the one in Shabrouh, stretching from Aita Shaab in the south to Kawshara in the north.
But documents from the ministry and meetings with officials confirm that nearly every one of these dam projects is several years behind schedule. While five of the projects may begin construction soon, the ministry lacks the funds or the organizational capacities to arrange the infrastructure the country desperately needs.
The dams would be used to harness the 1 billion cubic meters of water that rush through Lebanese waterways every year for hydroelectric power as well as pump the resource into the country’s water system, providing urgently needed help for both the water and electricity sectors.
Currently there is a 300 million cubic meter water shortage in the country every year, with the largest shortage in the arid Bekaa Valley region, where an extra 150 million cubic meters of water is needed.
By 2035, the overall water shortage is expected to reach around 700 million cubic meters, according to ministry estimates.
Lebanon’s yearly rains and snowmelt fill the country’s waterways with millions of cubic meters of water as well, plenty for the country to drink.
With airport meteorologists estimating 818 millimeters of precipitation this year compared to last year’s 618 millimeters, this year’s particularly rainy winter would have added lots of water to dam reservoirs – if they were functioning.
The national strategy to reduce the water shortfall involves installing meters, charging based on usage, network repairs and waste treatment. Most importantly, the plan allocates nearly $2 billion over the next eight years to build dams, the biggest contribution in avoiding the shortage.
“This country cannot do without dams, this is clear,” said Younes Hassib, a water expert from GIZ, a German development organization.
Currently the largest dam in the country is in Qaraoun in the Western Bekaa, which adds over 220 million cubic meters of water into the network every year. Shabrouh generates 8 million cubic meters, while Ballout Lake in Metn adds a half million cubic meters.
Many more dams are needed to make a sizable impact on the nation’s water shortage, but the country is unlikely to complete them any time soon.
Four dams projects are two years behind schedule, eight have been delayed and will not start construction this year, and two have been stopped altogether due to resistance from local communities.
There are five dams that could begin construction this year, in Buqaata in Kesrouan, Mseilha and Balaa in Batroun, Ratiba in Jbeil, and a rehabilitation project at Kawshara Lake in Akkar. They will add around 15 million cubic meters a year of water capacity, a small amount on a national scale.
The problem, ministry and water experts say, is two-fold. First the process of planning a dam is intense and inclined to experience delays.
Geologists and engineers must be brought in for site location and dam design. Environmental experts must be consulted to determine the ecological impact of stopping the flow of millions of cubic meters of water, and residents often need to be relocated from the dam area.
It’s a lengthy process that can take several years.
Another problem is money and planning. The ministry’s budget has been exceptionally tight recently due to tough economic conditions and much of the money spent on water sector reform has been allocated into urban wastewater treatment projects that have dragged on for years with limited returns.
A national water sector strategy published by the Energy and Water Ministry last year offers a clearer way forward for water projects but also reveals a ministry that is mired in bureaucratic problems and is calling for help in fixing deep-rooted organizational problems.
Many provisions of a recently enacted ministry reform law have not been implemented. Sixty-four staff members are working in departments that should have been eliminated while overall the ministry is 33 percent understaffed, according to the report.
This understaffed body struggling with its organization is tasked with fixing an ailing water supply system that leaks hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of water a year.
The ministry is working through antiquated laws that include a 1913 Ottoman irrigation act.
“It’s a multi-level approach, if you like, and all these things need to be tackled in parallel,” Hassib said.
Beyond the difficulty in planning and building dams and their benefits in terms of water storage and low cost energy, dams are also a controversial issue among environment activists.
The Beirut-based environmental policy group IndyAct said the dams could prove to be disastrous. Storing millions of cubic meters of water stops it from nurturing ecosystems downstream. Open reservoirs are also at risk of water pollution problems, and the actual dam itself can destroy animal habitats.
“IndyAct is completely against a water strategy that is based on dams. It will completely alter the ecosystem of the few natural areas that we have,” the group said in a policy statement provided to The Daily Star.
IndyAct suggests that conservation and recycling projects of water are much more environmentally friendly methods of reducing the country’s water shortage.
“In terms of water supply, we need to rely on more progressive methods,” the statement said.