BEIRUT: Snaking its way through the fertile Bekaa Valley, the 140-kilometer-long Litani River rises west of Baalbeck and empties into the Mediterranean Sea.
The Hussaini family, like many others, has inhabited the riverbanks for generations, relying on this vital water artery for basic needs.
Today, their life in Tal al-Amarah looks very different from what it used to be.
“When I was little, I drank from the river,” Taleb Kabbalah al-Hussaini told The Daily Star. “Seven years ago they opened a slaughterhouse and a leather factory and the water became this color.”
A few meters from the plastic chair on which he sat at the entrance to his one-story home, a trickle of inky water stood mostly still. On both sides, goats trotted in search of vegetation among pieces of plastic and litter.
“Sitting here has become difficult. If the wind comes this way, we can’t breathe,” Hussaini said.
The 50-year-old father of three does not use the murky water to irrigate his field like some landowners do. Instead, he pumps water from the closest illegal underground well.
Husseini’s situation is one example of Lebanon’s vicious cycle of water pollution and scarcity.
Watercourses are increasingly polluted by wastewater, only 8 percent of which receives chemical treatment before being discharged into the environment. As a consequence, the Energy and Water Ministry estimates that between 55,000 and 60,000 unlicensed wells have been dug up across Lebanon.
Three intertwined factors – political impasse, a malfunctioning legal framework and the unintended effects of humanitarian aid in response to the refugee crisis – are driving the land of the Cedars, once water-abundant, to the brink of a new crisis.
Michel Afram, the feisty director of the governmental Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, has spent the past 15 years attempting to sound the alarm on water pollution and depletion.
An “urgent plan for water scarcity and water quality” is now more urgent than ever, he said.
“If we don’t do it, nothing will change. And the situation is going to get worse and worse.”
His position is motivated by alarming levels of contamination his institute found in tested samples of water, paired with dropping precipitation levels. His voice is one that political figures, and private companies alike, do not want to hear.
“You know how many problems I face when I when I do a test and the results are not good? They wanted me to change the results, but I didn’t do it,” Afram said.
LARI’s tests on water samples collected in 10 locations across Lebanon resulted in an average 90.7 percent non-conformity level for microbiological contamination, indicating high rates of bacteria and viruses. Of seven locations tested for heavy metals such as lead and mercury, none tested completely clean.
On average, non-conformity levels reached 58.2 percent.
Traces of hazardous heavy metals were also found in mint and parsley samples cultivated around the Litani River and distributed around Lebanon. Last year, the Bekaa Governorate prohibited the cultivation of all crops except potatoes and wheat, which are not consumed raw. The ban, however, is largely disregarded and farmers whose revenues depend on the market demand are often reticent to shift their production, LARI experts in the institute’s Bekaa station in Fanar said.
In Barr Elias alone, over 600 cases of cancer have been registered. While there is no scientific proof of the link between the river and the disease, residents have expressed concern that the water has contributed.
“We staged a protest together with 1,500 students,” said Ihsan Araji, the principal of one of the schools in the area and a member of the “Litani is killing us” activist group. “[But] ministers have not done anything; everything is still on paper.”
Three wastewater treatment stations were built in the Bekaa in the past decade, but LARI found none of them to be functioning.
In a study on private modes of water capture in Lebanon, AUB professor Roland Riachi argued international donors are complicit in a “failed management process that has provided one among many venues for corruption and profiteering by the political elite.”
“Donors are happy to stress the impact of Syrian refugees so that they can fund [big projects]. It’s capitalism, it’s neoliberalism and confessionalism,” Riachi told The Daily Star.
According to publicly available information, the World Bank – one of the main donors for water-related infrastructure – sponsored 12 projects across the country since 1955, three of which were dropped and four are ongoing. Among the five remaining completed projects – whose expenditures surpass $456 million – one was ranked by the World Bank as satisfactory, two were not assessed and two were ranked as unsatisfactory.
A flawed system
In parallel to water pollution, Lebanon’s legal framework on public water provision also inadvertently cultivates groundwater depletion and other negative coping mechanisms.
The only real sectoral plan, the National Water Sector Strategy, has been constrained by weak accountability and continuous delays in the implementation of Law 221.
The law sets the governance structure for handling wastewater between the Energy and Water Ministry and the regional water establishments, which were intended to improve the governance and efficiency of the water sector.
In reality, RWEs often lock horns with the municipalities over the implementation of water-related projects. RWEs are also said to be highly understaffed and underfunded, mainly due to a dysfunctional tariff collection system.
The Beirut and Bekaa water establishments did not respond to requests for comment.
According to a study conducted by Oxfam, the Bekaa Water Establishment – where water consumption is among the highest – is only able to collect payment from 62 percent of subscribed households.
“RWEs are understaffed, they don’t have the financial means, and when people don’t receive the [desired] service, municipalities have to step in to cover the gap,” Lama Abdul Samad, a water and sanitation coordinator at Oxfam, told The Daily Star.
Studies have shown that many subscribers would be willing to pay the full fee for a functioning service but that the failure of the RWEs to deliver leads some to evade payment.
Under the current controlled flow method, subscribers pay an annual fee of LL23,700 ($15.80 per year) as a flat-rate water tariff. Due to irregular supply, subscribers receive on average 1 cubic meter per day less than their demand. While this constitutes only 14.4 percent of consumption, it costs households a staggering 69.9 percent of total water costs.
Eighteen percent of households in the Bekaa therefore shy away from public water consumption to find alternative – and cheaper – means of provision. This includes digging boreholes that deplete precious groundwater resources at a faster rate than their renewal.
The management of the Syrian refugee crisis has further exacerbated this problem. The approximately 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon are estimated to have raised the demand for water by 8 to 12 percent as of 2014 – an increase major NGOs working in the field evaluate as a rather modest impact.
However, “the humanitarian response has inadvertently supported a parallel market in the absence of public water supply,” Abdul Samad said.
The Lebanese government opposed linking informal tented settlements to the public water network for fear of diverting these resources from the Lebanese population. The Oxfam study also found that those who refuse to extend the public water to Syrian ITS households fear that public water provision may encourage Syrian refugees to permanently settle in Lebanon.
Trucking water has therefore been the only viable solution. “Water truckers extract water from boreholes, they pay the borehole owner and they truck the water to Lebanese houses or refugee informal tented settlements. They have been instrumental in water provision. In the absence of this parallel market what would we have done?” Abdul Samad said.
Of course it comes at a cost, and a considerable one. Oxfam presently pays around $6.5 per cubic meter on average to supply water to ITSs.
If that water were supplied through the public network, agencies could pay up to 15 times less.
UNICEF, the U.N. agency leading the water and sanitation intervention, has been paying an average $9 million per year to truck water to 80 percent of the ITSs deemed to be in need.
But funds are drying up due to prolonged donor fatigue and the agency has said it does not have enough funds to provide basic assistance beyond September.
“This is the worst possible scenario because it is exactly at the peak of the dry season,” Olivier Thonet, head of water, sanitation and hygiene at UNICEF, told The Daily Star. “The situation is tense.”
On one hand, reducing the provision of clean water will push refugees to rely on unsafe resources, potentially leading to the spread of water-borne diseases.
This, Thonet said, could fuel tensions between the host community and the refugee population.
On the other hand, water provision is only one aspect of humanitarian intervention. Dislodging wastewater in an environmentally sound manner is also part of the humanitarian intervention and one that will be greatly affected should funds not materialize.
“As a consequence, neighboring Lebanese and local authorities [might] evict people because they pollute the environment,” Thonet concluded. Further pollution of water courses would also exacerbate the pressure on groundwater and other sources of clean water.
At present, UNICEF has received $14 million of a requested yearly budget of $53 million.
Thonet said the U.N. agency entered discussions with local authorities to find more sustainable ways of providing water.
One option on the table is the construction of an internationally funded well that could increase water availability for both the Lebanese and the refugee communities.
The estimated cost of $200,000 for the project, however, may be a hard sell to fatigued donors.
“After seven years, it is the time to move to alternative solutions,” Thonet said.
“It’s not impossible, but it requires investments and a change in the law. It is just incredible to be in a high-middle-income country with a lot of water, and not have water.”