In the midst of the incessant torrent of winter rains this year, it is hard to imagine that the country’s water resources are a serious cause for concern; but they are. A history of decaying infrastructure, poor management, rising demand and fetid politics has taken its toll. Lebanon is now blighted by seasonal rationing on domestic supply, farmers irrigating with raw sewage and roughly half of all the water entering the water network being lost in transmission and distribution. What is more, the cost of inaction in the water sector is estimated at $433 million every year.
In an average year demand outstrips supply by around 100 million cubic meters (MCM) and that rises to around 300MCM in a dry year; approximately enough water to fill New York’s Empire State Building three times over. These are big quantities that demand big solutions. As the aquifers, rivers, lakes and reservoirs are replenishing during the winter, building a stock to feed the coming dry months, the government is pressing ahead with a number of strategies and projects that aim, in the long term, to plug the gap and keep the nation’s households, farms and industries watered. Huge quantities of money are involved and the implications, most notably for public health, cannot be understated.
Two costly solutions, one source
Since the beginning of the year two major water infrastructure projects have been officially unveiled that will fundamentally shift the state of play in the sector. The Canal 800 and the Greater Beirut Water Supply Project (GBWSP), also known as the Awali project, will feed expansive water networks to South Lebanon and Beirut, respectively. In reality the designs for both projects date back to the pre-civil war era but the plans inked on paper are now set to become a reality. However, as the politicians tout the vote-winning promise of an abundance of water for the faucets and farmsteads of Beirut and the South, concerns abound regarding the safety of the water we are being promised. May Jurdi, chairperson of the American University of Beirut environmental health department, warns, “You are building a problem. The issue is the quality. You don’t build on a problem, you need to solve the problem first.”
What’s more, once hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent and the concrete and pipes are set in place, there are doubts that there will actually be enough water to fulfill the lofty promises now being made. In the words of a senior consultant working with the government on water management, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the press, “As usual, politicians are over-evaluating volumes of water and over-allocating it.”
The Canal 800 is slated to draw 110 MCM every year, from the Qaraoun reservoir in the Southern Bekaa, to the south of the country. The lions share of this water, 90MCM/yr, is intended for the irrigation of around 14,700 hectares of farmland, including the areas in and around Marjaoun, Bint Jbeil and Yaarin and the remaining 20MCM is destined for the household taps of some 100 southern villages. The first phase of this project alone carries a price tag of $330 million; $162 million in loans from the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development and the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Growth, $38 million from Lebanon’s Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), the government body in charge of implementing infrastructure projects and $130 million dollars is yet to be secured.
As for the GBWSP, it will be drawing water in the opposite direction, from the Qaraoun Reservoir and Awali River south of the capital to the homes of 1.2 million people in Baabda, Aley, parts of the Metn and Southern Beirut, areas of Greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon region. Shifting such large quantities of water across such expansive tracts of the country is no cheap feat and the total financing requirements are estimated at $370 million. The bulk of the cash will once again come from foreigners, this time in the form of a $200 million loan from the World Bank signed last month. The government will stump up $30 million for land acquisition and the Beirut and Mount Lebanon Water Authority will cover the remaining $140 million. Whilst the two schemes are funded, planned and ultimately implemented independently of one another, they are also intrinsically linked at their source: the Qaraoun Reservoir, from which the Canal 800 is totally supplied and the GBWSP partially.
The (not so) great lake
Built in 1959, the man-made Qaraoun Reservoir sits at the foot of the eastern slopes of the Mount Lebanon range in the southern Bekaa, collecting water from the Litani River before it snakes east on its ineluctable descent to the Mediterranean Sea. It is, in the words of Veronique Kaspard, professor of environmental and isotopic geochemistry at the Lebanese University, the “dustbin” of the Litani, Lebanon’s longest and most polluted river. For this reason there a number of specialists in the field who are deeply concerned about the prudence of taking 150MCM/yr of its water to the homes and fields of southern Lebanon and Beirut.
Ismael Makki, agriculture and environment manager at the CDR, challenges these doubts, arguing that conventional treatment plants will suffice in cleansing the water from Qaraoun. “The water contains some contamination but it remains within the treatable limits, by conventional treatment,” he says.
However, the government water consultant, a high-ranking source at the Litani River Authority (the body responsible for the management of the Litani River Basin), and Kaspard, were adamant in their rebuttal. Among the many pollutants found in the river and the reservoir are the recent findings of trace metals that are of greatest concern. As the LRA source explains, “There is a different kind of contamination and the concern is with trace metals. They are approaching the permissible levels but they only appeared in the past few years.”
Makki acknowledges that the trace metals have given cause for concern and points out that the World Bank sent a team of its specialists to conduct an independent examination. “This has been reviewed several times, and not just by the CDR, but by the World Bank itself, which appointed a committee to review the water quality and quantity for the greater Beirut project. This issue has been addressed from a highly technical point of view,” he argues. Whilst the World Bank report did conclude that the levels of trace metals were within the permissible limits, its findings are not enough to assuage the worries of everyone.
Professor Kaspard explains that the mushroom in industrial and agricultural activity in the Litani River basin is creating a “pollution history” from which the outcomes cannot yet be known. “If you are at the appropriate time you can measure high trace metals, if you are not you will measure low. It is not steady. This is why we are now doing proper scientific work on the whole system,” she says. An environmental and social impact assessment for the Awali-Beirut Water Conveyor Project presented to the CDR in August 2010 suggests Kaspard is within reason to fear that the current situation will deteriorate before it improves, stating, “The possibility of a lower water quality both for the Awali and lake Qaraoun sources should not be ruled out.”
A 2010 USAID report on the management of the Litani River Basin further warns that the recent detections of trace metals, “renders water unsuitable for drinking and requires advanced treatment processes to deal with these types of contaminants.”
What we’ll be drinking
The same report outlines many of the adverse health affects that can result from prolonged exposure to these trace metals, and it doesn’t make for comfortable reading. The three metals whose ascendancy is most pronounced in the basin are cadmium, manganese and barium, which are associated with a plethora of ailments including bone and cardiovascular disease, toxicity of the nervous system, swelling of the brain and liver and kidney damage. The USAID study report levels of cadmium more than double the national standard level and that manganese levels were increasing, with a mean level of 0.04 milligrams per liter (mg/l) encroaching upon the maximum standard limit of 0.05mg/l; moreover, 30 percent of the sample sites exceeded this limit level.
AUB’s Jurdi warns, “Trace metals have a cumulative affect in the body so the signs may not appear for some time. It may take 10 or 15 years, but it is a risk. Especially depending on the treatment process we are implementing.”
The main cause for the deterioration in the quality of the Litani River’s water is the dumping of untreated industrial effluent and excessive use of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, including smuggled and unlicensed varieties. With unknown quantities of unknown pollutants — including recent findings of complex chemicals from pharmaceutical industries — contaminating the river and its tributaries, Kaspard argues there is little hope of being able to successfully treat the tainted concoction once it has been drawn from the Qaraoun, as is currently planned.
“There are different qualities of pollution from the different industries and they can all converge with unknown outcomes,” he says. “They cannot be treated from the same plants because they require different treatments.”
As the Litani River is being sullied there is a general consensus on the need to better manage and regulate the basin before the toxins enter the system. The CDR’s Makki says, “If you have pollution and you have a project of this size and with the potential benefit for so many people, you have to stop the pollution and not cancel the project.” However, that requires financing, institutional organization and coherent policies that are currently lacking, not to mention enforcement by the Internal Security Forces. “There are regulations to control discharge but very, very few have the monitoring capacity or capability,” says Nadim Farjallah, senior expert in land, water and environment at engineering firm SETS explains. “They barely have enough personnel to collect fees. The monitoring of quality… there is nobody to control it. That is a major problem.”
Soggy laws, vaporous implementation
The ubiquitous disparities in Lebanon between laws on paper and laws in practice are a major cause of this problem. Law 221, May 2000, was meant to restructure the water sector in Lebanon, but as Abdo Tayar, advisor to the minister of energy and water, Gebran Bassil, concedes, its incomplete implementation means wastewater management remains a major problem; “Now no one is really responsible for wastewater,” he says. “It is fragmented between the CDR who is doing projects, the municipalities who are running some and the ministry is doing some others, so there is a big grey zone.”
If the scientists’ fears — that toxic contaminants such as trace metals could continue to rise — manifest, then the conventional treatment options currently slated will not suffice in protecting hundreds of thousands of Lebanon’s inhabitants from a noxious nectar coming through their taps. The LRA source warns that the economic feasibility of the projects will be severely impacted if expensive treatment methods have to be employed such as selective ion removal or reverse osmosis. “It will end up being more expensive than bottled water,” he says. A recent study from the University of Texas at Arlington found that the construction specifications for an advanced treatment technique often used to remove trace metals, called reverse osmosis, would cost an additional $2,240,000, and that is before maintenance and monitoring. The plant in question is smaller than the proposed Ourdanyne plant for the GBWSP, and treatment costs do decrease with size, but it gives an indication of the hidden stings that may arise if and when it is determined that the advanced treatment techniques are required.
No water anyway
In any case, farmers and residents may not need to fear the contents of their water tanks for the simple reason that they may be empty. In meeting minutes obtained by Executive from a session of the council of ministers on October 2011, the Ministry of Energy and Water warned that “executing the Canal 800 will affect the amount of water intended for delivery into Beirut [via the GBWSP]… During certain years it may be impossible to deliver any amount of water into Beirut. “This portent echoes the concerns of the water consultant and the source within the LRA, with the former saying, “Add one plus one plus one… sometimes you’re going to run out.”
The CDR’s Maki is adamant that the numbers have been checked and all the projects will receive the water they have been allocated. “There is no problem in that regard,” he reassures.
Following a complaint by 51 residents of greater Beirut in November 2010, led by Fathi Chatila, a hydrologist and long time detractor of the GBWSP, the World Bank commissioned a study by the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina (UNCWI) to assess the quantitative, qualitative and financial feasibility of the scheme.
In conclusion, the report found the conveyor would receive enough water so long as, “The Canal 800 irrigation project will not begin to withdraw water until 2021 and will not reach maximum value until about a decade later.” An assertion supported by Makki. However, in the cabinet minutes leaked to Executive the CDR stated that the Canal 800 will go into service in 2017 and not 2021, hence undermining the UNCWI assessment.
Another lynchpin in this matrix is the planned construction of the Bisri Dam between the Chouf and Sidon. Makki explains that for the coming 10 or 12 years the GBWSP can draw from existing sources, but as it enters the second phase and the water flows increase from 250,000 CM/day to 700,000 CM/day, “Then we will need the Bisri Dam. This will constitute the main source of this project.”
This assessment is supported by the Minister Bassil, who stated in a press conference that the Bisri Dam was an “inseparable and integrated” part of the project and that building the conveyor infrastructure without building the dam would result in “an investment that is useless, resulting in paying a lot of money for a little bit of water.”
However, this runs in contradiction to the assessment of the World Bank, the very body the ministry is pinning its hopes on to finance the majority of the Bisri dam. It stated in its response to Chatila’s complaint that, “the Bisri Dam is not a component of the GBSWP nor is it relevant to, or necessary for, the achievement of the objectives of the GBWSP.”
In the minutes from the October 11 council of ministers meeting, the Ministry Of Energy and Water claimed the World Bank had committed to a $125 million loan to break the back of the estimated $260 million price tag on the dam. However, the most concrete commitment that Executive could elicit from the bank’s sector manager for water Ato Brown was that the bank would not commit to financing “until an evidence based approach is finalized.”
The divergence in opinion between Lebanese government officials and the check writers at the World Bank over the interconnectivity between the GBWSP and the Bisri Dam suggests it is perhaps a bit early to take it as a given that the bankers will sign on the dotted line.
Another dry debate
In conclusion the LRA source stated that the concurrent development of the Canal 800 and GBWSP — in addition to the existing Canal 900 that irrigates some 2000 hectares in the southern Bekaa — will push the reserves of the Qaraoun and the Litani river to the limit and in many years will simply fall short: “The problem will be in the scarce years. [The annual reserves of the Qaraoun] will not reach the 300MCM which is a maximum, but this is only every three to four years. In the good years we should be able to cover all of the projects.”
The government consultant agrees with this analysis and expands: “These projects will not reach their objectives. They won’t reach their internal rates of return. They won’t reach the number of hectares they are meant to serve, and they won’t provide the benefits they are meant to provide.”
The same advisor complained that the decisions to implement these major developments have been driven more by political calculations than any technical and holistic reasoning of how best to manage the nation’s water resources. He argues that the Canal 800 project has been given the green light in a deal cut between speaker of the parliament Nabbi Berri and prime minister Najib Mikati, securing a vote-winning development in the heartlands of Berri’s constituencies in the south.
He continues that the logic of drawing such large quantities of water from the Litani to the south, primarily for agriculture, does not make sense as the real agricultural backbone of the country is the Bekaa, which also happens to be the region that suffers from the greatest water deficit. “They are taking the water out of the Bekaa to other river basins around. So what happens to the people of the Bekaa?” he asks.
The CDR’s Makki denies out of hand that there has been any political interference, assuring that there is a long history behind the projects and they are part of a much larger development strategy in the water sector.
However, Abdo Tayar, one of the key advisors on this strategy at the Ministry of Energy and Water, says: “I am distancing the ministry from this [the Canal 800]. We do not have visibility on this.” That one of the biggest developments in the water sector for decades is not being pursued under the direction of the Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW) is perhaps indicative of how politics are overriding policy.
Lebanon can ill afford to idle over the development of its water resources. By the same token the direction and implementation of this evolution must not be misjudged. Avoiding tough questions and waxing over painful truths may enable the grand gestures of politicians in the short term. But, the possibility of swathes of the country being exposed to pernicious toxins and hundreds of millions of dollars being squandered on unsustainable projects is reason enough to drag the debate out of the meeting rooms of technocrats, bankers and contractors, and into the living room of every household in the country.