Slipping Through Our Fingers

Lebanon continues to grossly mismanage and pollute its much-coveted water resources

This year marks the beginning of the International Water for Life Decade, from 2005 to 2015. The United Nations, through the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Health Organization, have designated the next ten years, beginning last March 22, 2005, to focusing global attention on what should be obvious: water for life, and aims, not just to highlight the magnitude of the world’s water problem, but also to bring all ‘stakeholders’ together to apply workable solutions.

Clean water is described by the UNICEF’s executive director, Carol Bellamy as “an inviolable right, not a privilege.” It is the basis of all life and is recognized as a humanitarian issue and a human right, the misallocation of which becomes a breach of legal norms.

According to UNICEF, two buckets – 20 liters – of safe water a day is the bare minimum a child needs to live. This is enough for drinking and eating, washing and basic sanitation. But around 4,000 children die every day due to lack of access to an adequate supply of clean water.

If that were not enough, each year more than 1 billion of the world’s people have little choice but to resort to using potentially harmful sources of water. About four out of every 10 people in the world do not have access to even a simple pit latrine and nearly two in 10 have no source of safe drinking water, thwarting progress towards achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) discussed in last month’s issue. Within these MDGs there is a specific target: to cut in half by 2015, the number of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. However, the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation, recently added that integrated development and management of water resources are crucial to the success or failure of all the MDGs, as water is central to the livelihood systems, particularly those of the world’s poor.

Looking to Lebanon

Lebanon was the first Arab country to host celebrations marking the United Nations’ World Environment Day on June 5, 2003. The theme selected was the aptly titled ‘Water – Two Billion People are Dying for It!’ The agenda of the day, as specified on the UNEP’s website was, “to give a human face to environmental issues, empower people to become active agents of sustainable and equitable development, promote the understanding that communities are pivotal to changing attitudes toward environmental issues, and advocate partnership among nations to allow people to enjoy a safer and more prosperous future.” But the promotion of sustainable development entails more than just the engagement of communities. These cannot be ‘active agents’ so long as better awareness of the problems is not coupled by effective means to tackle them, i.e. a healthy interplay between grass-roots action, accountable policy, and effective infrastructure. To what extent are these three present in Lebanon? Let’s put it another way: the story of water in Lebanon is that of a culture of mismanagement that has led to shortages and contamination.

Mismanaging resources

Ironically, Lebanon has a wealth of water resources in its numerous rivers, its underground aquifers, and has generous winter rains. But the country faces a perennial water shortage. It could theoretically meet all its own needs as well as export hundreds of millions of cubic meters to its more arid neighbors. Most households suffer regular water cuts however, and irregular access to fresh drinking water.

About half of the 2,600 million cubic meters of accessible surface and groundwater is wasted every year as it is left to flow into the Mediterranean. Estimates of Lebanon’s annual water demand vary from 1.1 billion, in a study by Parsons, to 1.4 billion cubic meters, in one by ESCWA. A USAID funded study by Development Alternatives in 2001 estimated that Lebanon uses 75% of its annual water supply for irrigation. Domestic use accounts for 165 million cubic meters (mcm) and industrial use 130 mcm, according to Parsons. However, the Parsons study concluded that real domestic demand for water is over 300 mcm. For many Beirutis, water is rationed – or is not available at all – during summer. Many Lebanese have to fill water bottles at public fountains or buy water from trucks. Demand for water is expected to rise to 2.5 billion cubic meters by 2015, and perhaps as much as 4.0 billion cubic meters by 2025, according to ESCWA.

Donors have spent over $600 million since the end of the civil war on renovating the antiquated water supply networks, but a USAID-funded study estimates that more than half of the distribution systems still need to be overhauled. Irrigation systems are in equally bad shape. They use mostly inefficient flood methods and reach less than half of the potential agricultural areas. USAID has funded almost $6 million in potable water and irrigation projects in the past decade, while Japanese, French and other governments have also funded different water projects whilst calling for the privatization of the water sector, the renovation of potable water networks and better water pricing schemes.

Geo-political issues

To make matters worse, there have been disputes with Israel over the Lebanese government’s access to the Wazzani tributary from the Hasbani River. However, talk of building dams is still underway and Arab donors have pledged over $150 million to fund the first phase of the Litani River Project in South Lebanon. Long overdue plans for water projects are hoped to provide drinking water, irrigation and electricity.

But all that shines is not fresh water. Estimates of pollution in Lebanon’s waters vary and statistics are minimal, out of date, or faulty. One study estimated Lebanon’s deposits of raw sewage to equal 38,095 cubic meters per day. Another study stated the figure was as high as 500,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage. Sadly, both studies agree on two facts: sewage is untreated and deposited into Lebanon’s waters. Out of Beirut alone, there are 15 discharge points of raw sewage and a further 23 points along the Lebanese coast we bathe in. And raw sewage is only part of what is being deposited in our waters. Research carried out by Greenpeace in October 1997 showed the presence of “a high rate of heavy metal and organic bacteria in Lebanese waters.”

A study published last September in the Daily Star newspaper and another published last July in the Environment and Development magazine – showed that the Litani River has a high average discharge rate of 770 mcm. Domestic wastewater is the largest pollutant in the upper basin of the Litani. And although about 50 percent of the population is connected to a sewer system, there are no wastewater treatment plants there yet. The Litani’s Qaraoun Dam, completed in 1956, holds some 220 mcm and approximately 70% of the damn is polluted water. The levels of pollution vary from season to season but there are no ongoing tests being conducted on the dam. The tests that have taken place indicate high pollution in certain areas and some conclude that the upstream Litani River is microbiologically unsuitable for domestic use or bathing. Several of the Litani’s tributaries are highly polluted due to contaminated discharge, not excluding solid waste. Most industrial facilities within the Litani area do not treat their wastewater before directly discharging it into the Litani or its tributaries. Also, the overuse and misuse of agrochemicals by farmers and farm run-off is another source of contamination.

The World Health Organization measures the level of fecal coliform bacteria found in water to determine the level of its pollution. It is not recommended to swim in an area containing more than one hundred colonies of fecal coliform bacteria per one hundred millimeters of water. Prolonged contact with contaminated seawater can lead to several health problems, most notably various forms of skin disease, as well as diarrhea and vomiting. Studies carried out by Environment and Development magazine on September 14 showed that the level of fecal coliform bacteria found at one of Beirut’s most luxurious resorts and private beaches was drastically above international standards at 620 colonies per 100 millimeters of water. This is no surprise considering that waste from slaughterhouses is freely tossed or flooded into nearby rivers.

Promoting sanitation

Incidentally, November 19 is World Toilet Day, an event that has been celebrated annually since 2001 on the same day. The goal of World Toilet Day is to educate people on sanitation issues and promote better toilets around the world. The president of the World Toilet Organization, Jack Sim, was quoted by Reuters as stating that 2.6 billion people, or 40% of the human population, do not have access to proper sanitation. Ironically, to celebrate this day, countries such as Japan and others in the EU entered into a competition to design the most luxurious and exquisite toilet, while our part of the world continues to search for ways to dispose of waste without putting human lives at risk.
What we must understand here is that we are all stakeholders in this as we eat and drink, swim and bathe, and allow our children to play on formerly flooded riversides that emit odors indicative of the bacteria they hold. In addition to health and hygiene, the nation’s economic development is at stake. Tourism is at risk as beaches and running water are declared unsuitable for human use, and Lebanese employees are naturally less productive if they end up often taking leave due to some mysterious ‘stomach virus.’

During the war much of the information about Lebanon’s sewage system was misplaced, lost or destroyed. Water losses exceed 50% in many areas. Much of the country’s irrigation system dates from before the civil war, and cracks in canals, evaporation, and the illegal use of canal water accounts for irrigation efficiency of only 30% to 40%. It is also estimated that about 40% of the population uses cesspools, which consist of porous pits that receive wastewater from the toilets, showers, wash basins or other sanitary fixtures, with no proper service for sludge removal, so they are subject to overflow or contamination of groundwater. Naturally, contamination finds its way to our potable water system through leaks from damaged networks, clogged wells, or flooding rivers. Due to lack of regulation, the Beirut River for example, has become a dump for garbage and sewage and according to Greenpeace Lebanon, if nothing significant is done before the rainy season starts, the river and underground reservoirs will be entirely polluted.

Numerous governmental decrees have established standards for the proper disposal of pollutants. There are guidelines and “environmental limit values” set by various ministries. And there are decrees for the management of healthcare and hospital waste. The problem, however, lies in two facts: there is no system of accountability for those who breach the law, and there is no centralized, regular and uninterrupted monitoring of pollution in Lebanon to date.

The people of Lebanon know the country suffers shortages and contamination of its waters; the funds have come to Lebanon, particularly to help solve the water problem, and our policy makers are well aware of the situation. Where does the problem then lie? The problem lies in the management of those three ingredients: the people, the funds and policy. The people need to change their environmentally harmful behavior. New and healthy infrastructure must be created to support the widening water network in the country. And an effective policy must be implemented whereby misconduct is monitored and reduced.