When dams meet privatization: Lebanon under water transactions

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A man walks along the base of the Chabrouh Dam, which is said to be leaking large amounts of water. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Roland Riachi

Published Tuesday, May 13, 2014

There is an astonishing slogan deeply ingrained within Lebanese common discourse: “Our country has abundant water but it all goes to the sea, we need dams to stop this waste.” This phrase reflects the universal water service shortage in the country and the solution to address it. However, this statement is based on a poor factual understanding of the nature of the water supply in Lebanon, and distracts from the real issues that have contributed to the severity of our current problem, which is chronic national mismanagement of the nation's most valuable natural resource.

The origins of this slogan goes back to the French mandate. The “château d'eau du Levant”, or the Levant's water tower, was judged too archaically managed by the locals and needed to be modernized by a good-willed colonizing power. Nowadays, the same dams-narrative has been adapted to contemporary challenges, and surface retentions have to respond to the circumstances of scarcity led by climate change and demographic growth. The 1999 ten-year plan of the Ministry of Energy and Water compiled all studies made about possible retention sites and brought back to life the same rhetoric. The plan was renewed in 2009 and adopted later by the National Water Sector Strategy in 2012.

In terms of rental profits, the constellation of dams is fruitful for all politicians elected by administrative cazas (districts). In spite of the gerrymandering in elections, cazas are typically water-shaped territories. Each and every single party in March 8 and March 14 has at least one or more dam on the agenda for their constituencies. However, there is a severe physical overestimation of the feasibility of dams in Lebanon. This fact is obstructed by an iron triangle formed by politicians, high-ranking bureaucrats and engineers, entailing a discourse uniquely from a supply perspective, applauded by donors and investors.

Part of this surface reservoirs constellation, the Chabrouh Dam, is actually leaking more than 200 litres per second because of the highly permeable karst (a type of calcareous rock formation) that characterizes the site, which is an extremely high rate of loss for its size. Studies showed that due to geological karstification, the expected Janna dam on Nahr Ibrahim will lead to high infiltration. The groundwater drainage will be reaching Jeita spring, situated at the bottom of the neighboring basin of Nahr al-Kalb. In addition, this will be disturbing the whole ecosystem of the natural reserve of the historical Adonis valley. Also fearing flow disruption of Nabh al-Chaghour, a residents' campaign has recently stopped the construction of the Hammana Dam. This type of calcareous and porous rock characterizes two thirds of Lebanese geological formations, something not considered by the original studies done between 1930s and 1950s. At that time, hydrogeological science was still at its developing stage. Dams studies were never reviewed since then. In addition, no social or environmental impact assessments were ever made.

More recently, the same projects were dusted off and rejuvenated under the banner of the Blue Gold plan initiated by the Civic Influence Hub (CIH), where dams are their number one initiative. A large media campaign accompanied the launching of the project, and was endorsed by prominent politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists and businessmen crudely calling for water privatization to fund the same combination of large-scale water projects. The CIH proposes refinements on the national strategy of 2012. Whether technical or financial, the essence of both is the same. The slight source of mismatching between the two plans comes first from the personal contention between the resigning general director of hydraulic and electrical resources, acting with Blue Gold, and the former minister of energy and water.

One of Blue Gold's dangerous assumptions; the public water bill has to be increased from the actual average of $150 per year to $500! With no understanding of the social impact this may cause, they simply took the calculation made by a household survey conducted by the Consultation and Research Institute for the World Bank in 2009. This study found that a dwelling in Lebanon pays an average of 700$ per year on water. This combines the public bill and the off-network average expenditure on water, including, wells pumping costs and cisterns, gallons and bottles. According to Blue Gold, the plan will "Decrease the average water bill per household from 700 USD currently to 380 USD per year for domestic consumption, and 500 USD per year adding water treatment fees." (p. 84, Blue Gold 5-Year Plan, CIH, 2013). But residents are meant to receive potable water and have their wastewater treated with the $ 150! Aware of the vested interests promoting water privatization, a citizens' counter campaign was recently launched to remind that water is not gold and has not to be sold.

Beyond the intentions for the privatization and commodification of water, hidden under the Public-Private Partnership paradigm, Lebanon has witnessed the driest winter on record. Cumulated rainfall by May 2014 barely reached 400 millimeters. Since rainfall was first recorded by the middle of the 19th century, this year accounted for less than half the precipitation of an average year. Under such geological features and climatic change conditions, with a cost ranging between 5 and 7.7 billion USD depending on plans, will dams be ever filled?

Roland Riachi holds a Ph.D. in Economics and is specialized in Development and Environmental Economics

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