Heads in the sand

No one knows just how bad the shortage really is

More sand, less water

The frustration and humiliation are just too much. Daily trips to the roof to check water levels, often followed by a round of phone calls begging private water delivery drivers to spare 1,000 liters, have been the norm for months now for many Lebanese. That we must pay twice for a basic service the state by now should have been able to provide without interruption is the clearest indication that those in power simply do not care about the citizenry. This year’s water shortage is far worse than normal, but likely a harbinger for the future. While the Ministry of Energy and Water’s strategy is drill now and pray for rain this winter, we humbly propose a more scientific solution: monitor and manage this resource.

Any successful resource planning is based on well researched, reliable data. This is not the case for Lebanon’s water sector plan. There are data deficiencies at every point of the water cycle, and in order for the country to properly manage this vital resource, more information is urgently needed. 

Most shockingly, the nation of proud skiers and posh resorts doesn’t even record the amount of snowfall it receives each year. Nor are there enough rainfall monitoring stations to give a full, nationwide picture of yearly rain. Rain and snow feed rivers and springs as well as refill groundwater aquifers. Understanding how much precipitation falls is a crucial first step for having any accurate idea of what Lebanon’s water resources really are. And basing a national strategy on incomplete data is folly. As a first step, the government must urgently invest in the equipment needed to accurately measure snow and rain fall — or resort to begging donor nations, as is its wont.

But the data problem does not end there. With around 20,000 licensed wells and an estimated 60,000 unlicensed wells, it is appalling that only 29 are dedicated to monitoring groundwater. Experts believe at least twice that number are needed to properly understand and keep track of the country’s groundwater. Knowing how much groundwater the country has is essential to devising a plan to properly manage it. And management will be crucial for the future. Every year there are water shortages in Lebanon, this year being particularly bad. If a real management plan is to be put into place, an accurate understanding of how much there is to manage is key.

Equally important is understanding how much water is being used each year. The country’s four water establishments — responsible for distributing water to consumers — do not keep records of how much water they pump out. Nor are there usage meters for individual customers. Again, this is unacceptable. One cannot be expected to conserve water if one does not know how much is being used. Flow meters and piezometers (which measure the level of water in a well) should be installed on all public wells and usage meters should be installed for each water customer.

Finally, private sector water distribution must be regulated. It’s bad enough that the country’s four water establishments have no clue how much water they’re giving consumers. Compounding the stress on groundwater supplies is the completely unregulated and unsupervised private water delivery business. We currently have no idea what impact all this private pumping is having on the quantity of Lebanon’s freshwater supplies.

What we do know, however, is that as stress gets put on the quantity of groundwater, its quality begins to deteriorate. This is already an indisputable fact in many coastal areas of Beirut — just ask residents of Raouche or Ramlet al-Baida who shower in salt water because the wells their buildings use are inundated with seawater. The more private operators are allowed to pump as much water as they like from places like Antelias, Jal al-Dib and Hazmieh, the more we risk further seawater infiltration. This magazine is a champion of private enterprise, but not when that enterprise threatens the health and livelihoods of entire communities.

But instead of regulating, the ministry’s response is to exacerbate this situation by drilling more wells and pumping more water. This extraction will be done without any planning to set up data collection systems in the future. Instead, the ministry wants to forge blindly ahead without any idea how much groundwater Lebanon currently has, its quality, how quickly it is being used or how quickly it is being replenished. While this may be an inescapable tactic to alleviate the immediate crisis, it does not qualify as even the start of the needed response when the country may be facing more frequent droughts and higher usage rates in the future. Don’t expect your morning routine of hunting for water to change.

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