Lebanon News

Water crisis looms, officials search for solution

The waterfall of the southern village of Jezzine, Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

BEIRUT: Lebanon is running out of water. The country was unable to retain almost any of the rain that fell during one of the rainiest winters in years, and personal water consumption remains extremely high.

At the beginning of the month Energy and Water Ministry officials took one of the first unified steps to address systemic issues of water resource mismanagement, publishing a national water strategy on conserving the resource, which calls for, among other things, installing over 1 million water meters in the country and charging for the resource on an individual basis.

But it’s unclear if it will be enough to stave off looming water shortages that are projected by 2020.

“There’s several problems that we’ve had that have been combined together,” says Ziad Khayat, a project manager from the Lebanese Center for Water Conservation and Management. “We’ve had mismanagement.”

The problems facing the nation are numerous: Illegal wells are introducing sea water into an aquifer and reducing the water table, while industrial waste is polluting the Litani River and turned the Beirut River blood red last month. The nation has few dams and reservoirs to retain the heavy rainfall in the winter months and water officials say consumption is almost entirely unregulated.

The World Water Forum held in France last week called the resource “blue gold,” whose fair distribution is a challenge for the world this century. Thursday is also the United Nations’ annual day to draw attention to how water shortages impact the globe.

The national water strategy, published at the beginning of the month by the Energy and Water Ministry, is intended to map out the national response to the problem, laying down a blueprint for regulating water resources.

Some have lauded the new policy as a major accomplishment in uniting the country around a severe crisis, but other environmental activists have derided it as mostly more of the same: a dysfunctional government unable to adapt to the times.

The water report has not yet been made public, but officials tell The Daily Star that there are two major reforms, involving building dams, and rationalizing demand by charging for water on a scaled basis, rather than the current flat rate.

Adding dams would boost the amount of fresh water available to use and reduce the electricity costs associated with the well system to extract water from underground.

There are only a few hundred wells for hundreds of thousands of customers, and the wells must draw an incredible amount of water from deep underground to meet demand. Water management experts say pumping costs account for over 40 percent of the national budget for water operations.

But Khayat – whose program is partly funded by the U.N. Development Program – says adding infrastructure such as dam reservoirs can only alleviate part of the problem if demand continues to grow.

“Even if you build these dams and capture all the rain we want to capture, we’re still facing a balance we have to meet,” Khayat says.

“It’s not only about adding more dams and adding more sources,” he says. “We are looking at a more integrated way to manage these sources.”

Integrated management involves control of the network. Currently, consumers are charged the same rate to tap into the water system. The flat rate leaves room for abuse, and there’s no incentive to use less water.

The Energy and Water Ministry hopes to alleviate the problem by installing water meters around the country to monitor individual use. High usage will be met with a high water bill, hopefully discouraging wasteful use.

It’s an ambitious project that could take five years to implement and enforcement could be daunting. But if it comes to pass, it could help reduce the per capita usage rate – around 135 liters a day, higher than many European states.

Manfred Scheu from GIZ, the German government’s international development organization, says the success of individual pricing depends on implementation and encouraging good water use, as well as deterring bad practices.

Scheu is helping implement a pilot project for water meters in a suburb of Sidon. His organization has monitored individual water consumption there for over a year and will track water use after individual pricing is implemented.

“You can’t simply introduce a new tariff,” says Scheu. “It’s not meant to increase [expenses for the public], it’s meant to be fair to customers – charge people who consume higher amounts [more than] people who consume smaller amounts.”

Government officials and NGO workers both agree things won’t change unless the average person realizes there is a problem, so education is the key.

Rania Choueifati works for Project Wet, a nonprofit organization funded by the food company Nestle to educate young people about water pollution and water conservation.

She teaches games in classrooms around the country to help children gain a grasp of how finite the resource is.

“Through these games they learn how rare water is as a resource and how we have to protect it,” Choueifati says.

Once the kids learn the value of water, she hopes that they will teach others. “They will understand they just have one drop of water to use for everybody and everything,” Choueifati adds.

“[A child] will be able to explain his mom: Don’t keep the water on when you’re doing the dish washing.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 22, 2012, on page 4.

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