Far off the target

Lebanon mismanages its most precious natural resource

In the first of a twelve-month series investigating Lebanon’s capacity to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Gaelle Kibranian Zavzavadjian, Stephanie Nakhel and Gebran Azar take a look at Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation.

The Lebanese are blessed with favorable amounts of precipitation, with the highest average rainfall of any country in the Middle East, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The government estimates that there is between 2,000-2,700 million cubic meters of total available water per year in Lebanon, exceeding the country’s projected water demand of 1,802 million  cubic meters in 2035. 

However, water supply shortages are still a major problem in the country. Most of the population faces severe water shortages, leading households to rely on unlicensed private wells, overpriced tanker trucks, and purchasing bottled drinking water to meet daily needs. Among an estimated 80,500 private wells in the country, only 20,529 are officially licensed, accordingly to a 2014 study conducted by the United Nations Developement Programme (UNDP) with the Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW). This is execerbated by widespread pollution and substandard water infrastructure that restricts the government’s ability to meet the demand for water now and in the future. Among the major issues that need to be addressed are poor water storage, deficiency in water quantity, deficiency in the quality of water supply networks, an increase in demand, unsustainable water management practices and an increase in the salinity of groundwater.

To date, Lebanon is capable of storing only 6 percent of its total water resources, making it the country with the least storage capacity in the MENA region. As such, international organizations such as the World Bank expect Lebanon to face chronic water shortages as soon as 2020.

In the wastewater sector Lebanon faces major obstacles, such as insufficient sewerage networks and wastewater treatment plants. Furthermore, constructed plants are still not operational, leading to the unsanitary discharge of wastewater.

The influx of Syrian refugees since 2011 has intensified the problem, leading to additional stress on water resources and wastewater infrastructure. Across the country, particularly in regions playing host to large refugee populations, there has been an increase in demand for water and sanitation provisions.

To better address these challenges, in 2012 the MoEW launched the National Water Sector Strategy (NWSS), a detailed road map for improving water conditions and service delivery in the country. The strategy addressed infrastructural concerns relating to distribution and wastewater treatment, as well as management issues related to institutional, financial, legal and environmental concerns. It also presented a projection of how planned resource augmentation will meet future demand and identified $7.7 billion worth of capital investment opportunities for reshaping the water sector.

The NWSS provides a framework for Lebanon to achieve the sixth UN Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. The national targets included maximizing the potential and improving the quality of surface water resources, improving the management and protection of groundwater resources, ensuring proper and continuous access to a high quality water supply, and increasing coverage of wastewater collection networks and treatment capacities.

The MoEW, in partnership with UN agencies, international donors and others, is working on several initiatives in line with the NWSS objectives and responding to water issues that were exacerbated by the Syrian crisis. 

However, to fully achieve the goal of providing clean and safe water to all, the Lebanese government needs to reform or repeal legislation that still impedes the full implementation of the water strategy, increase public awareness of the 2030 target for the SDGs, and seek funding from internal and external sources to implement the projects  in the water and wastewater sectors.

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