Dealing with Lebanon’s chronic water shortages

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Men deliver fresh drinking water to apartments in Beirut. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Azza el-Masri, Raed Khalil

Published Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lebanon’s water issues are not new, but the recent drought has helped display the government’s inability to properly manage and distribute the country’s water resources. Consequently, Lebanon’s water supplies have shrunk to unprecedented levels, forcing residents to individually deal with the issue every summer.

As the country witnesses one of the harshest droughts in 50 years, stories abound of Lebanese having to go to the hairdresser to wash their hair, or rinse themselves with bottled water after taking a shower with salty water due to scarce water supplies.

A Hamra resident and student at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Rawan Hariri, complained to Al-Akhbar that the water in her apartment sometimes smelled very bad, insinuating that sewage might have seeped into the water well of her building. “It destroyed my hair, and I started using drinking water to shower.”

“I live alone, and I’m only one person in the apartment, and I would occasionally run out of water,” stressing that she carefully monitored her use of water. “It costs a lot if you add it up. I used to go through so many bottles every day.”

According to Lebanon’s meteorological service, the country’s precipitation level was at a new low at 431 mm since September, less than half of last year’s 905.8 mm, and far lower than the average 812 mm. This is the first major drought the country has witnessed in 50 years, but it is harsher since the population has significantly increased in the last three years.

Mismanagement and incompetence

In early March, a crisis committee, headed by Future Movement MP Mohammed Qabani, was assigned to tackle the tough shortages. The Civic Influence Hub (CIH), a group of experts, businessmen, and civil servants, that has kickstarted the controversial BlueGold project, is part of the counseling board in the committee. Then, Qabbani promised to find short-term solutions concerning the water-related issues in the country.

“We get 800 cubic meters of water per year, but up to 65 percent of it is lost each year,” Claude Tabbal said, an expert on the water resources of Lebanon. Tabbal is the general director of the consulting firm Conseil et Developpement S.A.L., and has worked on a number of projects on precious resources in partnership with the United Nations (UN). One such project was INECO, which gathered information on the state of Lebanese water supplies in 2007.

Tabbal believes the incompetence of governmental institutions is one of the major reason for this waste.

“It’s all a matter of management. We have the resources, we are not managing them properly,” said Tabbal. “We have known about the water issues for the past 40 years. We have been waiting since.”

“I think it is pathetic that we are now well and truly into summer and no guidance has been issued to people and farmers” said Nadim Farajallah, professor of hydrology at AUB.

Farajallah believes one of the first steps towards a solution is to allow the implementation of “water emergencies” laws that diminish water waste. Possible directives under such emergencies are to prohibit any non-vital use of water such as the washing of cars, sidewalks, and the irrigation of public and private landscape areas.

Living with frequent water cuts

Omar Nassar lives in an apartment complex in Qoreitem with a roommate. He says, “Our water is filled with chlorine.” Chlorine is a cheap alternative to filters for purifying the water, but too high of a concentration can be harmful.

“We can’t use it to cook; instead, we have to use bottled water. We have two cats and we don’t let them drink tap water, they also get bottled water.”

Across the Corniche, further south of Beirut, Ramlet al-Baida is a residential area located on the only public beach in Beirut. Its proximity to the sea leaves it vulnerable to seawater infiltration. Moussa is the superintendent of one of its apartment complexes.

“We don’t rely on the government to get our water, if our well is empty or we are getting sewage seepage we always hire a private company to bring a truck and fill our reservoirs. We even have a system to collect rain water on the roof,” he added.

Razane Zein, a student at the Beirut Arab University (BAU), lived beside the Cola area.

“During the winter, we didn’t have water for two whole months even when it used to rain. Outside, there was a lot of rain, yet inside we would be totally without water,” she said. “They told us that the government announced that water supplies were scarce,” and was promised that the matter would be resolved as soon as it rained.

“We eventually had water, but it was a disaster for these two months,” she added.

Some buildings around the Serail are also suffering heavily from water shortages. Arpy Keshishian resides in the Zkak al-Blat neighborhood with her family. Their water is supplied from reservoirs set up on their building’s roof.

“Last week there was not single drop left, so we bought [water],” she said. Keshishian also said that her family is used to going to a relative’s apartment - in the same building - to shower.

“We’re hurrying to settle in our rented house in the mountains to avoid this problem,” she added.

South of the capital, many residents’ wells are drying up, and they are being forced to resort to private water companies since they do not receive enough water from the government.

One case is Hussein Tabaja, who lives in Choueifat, southeast of Beirut. His building, like many others, has a well.

“We can’t get [water] from the government because they don’t supply us with any. In any case, they are too unreliable, we would only get water a few hours every couple of days.”

Their well taps directly into a source saturated with limestone. “We don’t use it for drinking, but we have to shower and clean our clothes with it.”

“Whenever there is a drought we have to buy water from a local private company," Tabaja added.

Along the Beirut-Saida highway lies the village of Damour, where there are a total of 64 wells, according to the INECO study. Of these, only 14 belong to the Beirut Water Authority, and two are municipal wells. The rest are private wells used for domestic water demand and irrigation.

About 7.2 million cubic meters of water is extracted per year from the 14 public wells. The high consumption rate puts pressure on the aquifer which allows the intrusion of seawater. “Too many people have wells. People tap so much from their sources that it helps salt water infiltrate faster,” said Tabbal.

In the coastal city of Saida, residents complain of sporadic day-long cuts.

“The water is scarce during the day, and sometimes days go by and our wells are dry. At night, though, the water pressure is strong,” said an Abra resident who preferred to remain anonymous. The resident said they've endured many water cuts since the summer of last year.

“Today, I turned on the faucet and only a thin line of water trickled. We always call the company, but they tell us that they’re facing problems,” the resident added.

The municipality of Qab Elias, in the eastern district of Zahleh, started implementing a number of decrees to save water without harming farmers’ crops. Non-orchard farmers (vegetables, onions, parsley, etc.) must water their crops once per season, down from twice or thrice. Since non-orchard crops yield annual productivity, it is deemed more important to provide water to farmers that grow trees since these crops can take up to four years before being productive.

“A lack of water would have more severe consequences on [tree-growing] farmers than on vegetable farmers whose crops are annual,” said Farajallah.

Recycling initiative

In contrast to government agencies’ inability to execute preemptive plans, AUB’s Physical Plant is in the process of setting up plants that would recycle brackish water - a mix of freshwater and seawater.

Called reverse osmosis plants, they function as high pressure pumps that “separate the solids from the pure water,” according to Jean Abdelnour, the Physical Plant’s director.

This water purification technology sorts around 85 percent of dissolved solids from the water coming from different sources.

“The result will be pure water coming from the outlet while the hard solids are retained on the pressurized side,” Abdelnour said.

“[The university] has reduced by 50 percent the water flow and pressure, in all buildings housing offices and classrooms,” said Abdelnour.

AUB has also reached out to its community in an effort to minimize water consumption. Students, faculty, and staff received an email from Hassan Diab, AUB’s interim chief operating officer, urging them to cut back on unnecessary usage and report suspected leaks.

As for governmental operations, CIH, which counsels the committee at the parliament, has proposed a set of solutions for the water scarcity.

These solutions include groundwater exploitation and drilling seven new wells along the Beirut-Mount Lebanon areas, introducing drip irrigation techniques to farmers, and reducing industrial consumption of water by promoting water saving methods.It also plans on using the water in the Assi river which maintains a constant flow rate throughout the year.

“The problem lies in financing and realizing these projects, which are in the hands of the Ministry of Water and Energy,” said Ziad al-Sayegh, who acts as the civil group’s CEO.

BlueGold, a project helmed by the CIH, sparked controversy addressed by Al-Akhbar that it is a mere ploy to privatize the water resources of the country.

Al-Sayegh dismissed this, saying: “We [want] public-private-citizen partnership. How, then, can we speak about privatization?”

Skeptics of the BlueGold project remain concerned, like Tabbal, who says it could have disastrous effects “especially if we do not have proper regulations.”

But until sustainable plans are set in motion, people like Joseph Chalfoun, a Hamra resident, will continue to deal with drying wells and rely on water supplies from private companies.

“I really don’t have much of a choice. I shower in salty water, and I use it normally,” he said.

“Every time trucks come and fill the water wells in the building, the water is salty. It’s always going to stay that way, so why fuss over it?”

The reality of an arid and dry summer, in combination with insufficient water supplies, looms over the Lebanese population as they struggle to find their own solutions to a common issue, since they seemingly no longer trust the government can meet their needs.

Comments

The problem is due to the absence of proper water governance, in a country lacking political will on all levels. For an adequate management, policy, regulation/enforcement, and delivery of water resources should be separated, a process that cannot be achieved unless transparency is created and maintained.

The BlueGold project seems to be suspicious due to the abscence of an independent regulatory, monitoring, and enforcement entity.

We should start by promoting public participation and possibly create community-based management schemes [by village/city/caza, etc.] for the better management of water resources.

Promoting research and building bridges between academics and government is crucial for the provision of integrated solutions.

We need a new thinking approach.

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