ZAWTAR GHARBIEH, Lebanon: Hasan Ezzeddine, the mayor of the southern Lebanese village of Zawtar Gharbieh, warned local people not to swim in the polluted Litani River and stop using it even to water their crops. Most ignored him. According to tests conducted by the South Lebanon Water Authority, 37 percent of the river’s water is polluted. Yet despite the transformation from a clear blue to a brownish muck, visitors still enjoy swimming.
“Where else can we go?” 12-year-old Hasan Obeid told The Daily Star. “We cannot afford the private beaches. ... This is Lebanon and you have to adapt to it.”
However, desire for a dip was far from universal. In some areas whole families frolicked in the water while in others, parents swiftly carried their children away as they approached the banks.
The water is polluted with a mixture of wastewater, human excrement, industrial runoff and residual sand from quarries.
Quarry owners in Marjayoun have taken to using the river’s waters to wash the sand after it is excavated.
“We tried to establish a public park on the banks of the Litani,” Ezzeddine told The Daily Star. “The park was opened for all people so that it would be a touristic project par excellence. ... Then the river became polluted.”
Ezzeddine said as early as 2014 he had requested the authorities help prevent the pollution of the river. “But it all fell on deaf ears,” he said. “Even me as a mayor I would not dare let my children go down to the river.”
As a result of the industrial washing, the pollution rate in the river two months ago stood at 61 percent, according to the SLWA. “We worked really hard to close the quarries ... and were successful after Environmental Public Prosecutor Nadim Nashif closed them down,” Ezzeddine said.
However, this is unlikely to fix the problem as other pollutants come from the Western Bekaa, where sewage is pumped from the Qaraoun area into the Litani. “We had a tour with experts and engineers from the Amal Movement municipalities,” Ezzeddine said. “Based on that, I say that there is a massacre being committed as a lake of sewage is pouring into the Litani,” he added as he began listing the large number of villages affected by the crisis. “I call on the judiciary to mobilize and prevent the flow of [pollution] ... into the river.”
Following tests, the Litani’s murky waters were found to contain traces of bacteria that cause a host of maladies including typhoid and salmonella. Even the land surrounding the river was not spared as 37 percent of it has been infected with salmonella, according to the SLWA. The accepted “safe” level is 2 percent.
Ezzeddine called on Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk to stop issuing permits to quarries that do not meet the environmental standards. “I also hope that Health Minister Wael Abu Faour will form a committee to examine the Litani River and confirm how polluted it is.”
“It is more dangerous than [unhealthy] yogurt, meat or cheese,” he said, referencing Abu Faour’s public health and safety campaign.
Ezzeddine said that the area’s villages, local farmers’ associations and environmental groups have come together with a singular purpose in mind: to clean the Litani. “If that doesn’t work then we will be heading towards escalatory steps and will demonstrate in front of the serails in Sidon and Nabatieh,” Ezzeddine said. “We will continue to do so until the massacre ... is stopped.”
Despite the obvious signs, Obeid did not mind the risks as he swam with his cousins. “I know it is polluted, but everything in Lebanon is polluted,” he said.
However, Ahmad Darwich mourned the river’s fate. “We used to drink from these waters and now it is polluted,” he said. “We especially depend on it in summer and now we can’t. ... This is a true crime against humanity and the environment.”
Mahmoud Terkiyah is surprised how negligent the authorities are when it comes to people’s lives. “How can they just not care?” he asked. “How can the state not prevent this and take adequate precautions? ... Are we humans or what?”