Home Economics & Policy Can civil society save Lebanon’s water?

Can civil society save Lebanon’s water?

‘Blue Gold’ project aims to reduce water losses and political manipulation

by Joe Dyke
Blue Gold aims to improve Lebanon's water system

A completely new future for Lebanon’s water network; taking the sector out of the control of feuding politicians and into the realm of citizen control. Well at least that’s how it was billed.

The launch of the Blue Gold initiative, the first project from the newly-formed Civic Influence Hub (CIH), in early December was supported by an impressive line-up — the president, the prime minister designate and the caretaker minister of economy were all in attendance.

Yet while the CIH states a convincing and elaborately documented case that radical reform of Lebanon’s water sector is needed, there are doubts about the project — especially whether or not it has the necessary political support to be a success. In a country where civil society is often willfully ignored by the political classes, the project will need much more than the benefit of scientific accuracy to succeed.

The necessity of change

Blue Gold, developed by more than 30 experts over the course of a year, aims to completely rework Lebanon’s water network over a five-year period from 2015 to 2020. The need for change is clear. Lebanon has the highest amount of rainfall per capita in the Middle East, with an average of 8 billion cubic meters  a year, yet suffers from acute water shortages, with just 17 percent of that rainfall being used. In summer, residents of Beirut can go weeks without water — indeed even as the storms hit the capital in early December many houses in the city were dry. The primary reasons are well-known: a failing and politicized infrastructure network, lack of proper regulation and an extremely high level of leakage. Last year 48 percent of the country’s water was lost through holes and cracks in the network, 11 percent more than the Middle East and North Africa average.

In a report released in November 2012, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) highlighted the dire state of water management across the Arab world. While the region suffers from a lack of rainfall, the primary cause of water shortages is mismanagement, the UNDP said, calling on states to “reorient policy, reform institutions, promote education and awareness, increase stakeholder participation, establish international agreements and link policy to research and development.”

The Blue Gold project aims to achieve all these things for Lebanon. The broad-reaching proposal suggests 15 ways in which the country can revitalize its water network, ranging from huge technical changes such as rethinking Lebanon’s network of dams to smaller projects such as harvesting rainwater from rooftops. The aim is to reverse Lebanon’s water shortage from a deficit of 73 million cubic meters of water (mm3) in 2011 to a surplus of 500 mm3 by 2020.

Mey Jurdi, head of hydrology at the American University of Beirut and one of the CIH’s expert advisers, believes that there has been nothing as comprehensive or broad ranging as Blue Gold before. Previous reform plans have not, she says, been “an integrated strategy of water resources — they have been lists of activities and this is the difference. When we say integrated water management we mean moving ahead with all areas together.”
CIH aims to be non-political and non-sectarian. Ziad al-Sayegh, CEO of the body, believes that the proposals could prove an all-important moment for public policymaking in the country. “Through water we can unify Lebanese people, from the north to the south. We are talking about a partnership for national wealth; this is new in Lebanon,” he says.

Waves of doubt

Lofty ideals, no doubt, but the mountains Blue Gold will have to move to make the project a reality are perhaps even higher.

The first concern is money. Implementing Blue Gold requires $5 billion, planned to be raised primarily from the private sector without them gaining ownership of the water. Asked about the specifics of the funding mechanism, Sayegh is a little vague. He stresses that it will not be privatization and that the “private sector will be an operator and a service provider but the infrastructure will be protected and owned by the state and by the people.” He continues by saying that some of the money could come from bonds bought by Lebanese citizens — “instead of going only to put your money in the banks, come and put your money in the sector.” He declines to provide further details on how the financing mechanism would work and what return rates they might offer.

Though the plan intends for the bulk of money to come from the private sector and donors, the appetite for international bodies to engage is limited. Public-private partnerships (PPP), the preferred method for infrastructure investments of this type, have yet to become a reality in Lebanon and international donors and multilateral development banks have grown weary of false promises from various Lebanese governments. Indeed in January 2012 the World Bank lent the Lebanese government $200 million for the development of the Greater Beirut Water Supply Project, which is currently behind schedule.

As such, the responsibility for funding will fall on the private sector. Ziad Hayek, secretary-general of the Higher Council of Privatization (HCP) and another expert adviser to the CIH, believes that if conditions were right the capital could be raised. “If the private sector sees there is an environment where it can make money, it will be interested. Every public-private partnership-type tender that has been offered to the private sector [in Lebanon] has had a large number of companies interested,” he said.

A perennial problem

Even if Hayek is right to believe that the money could be found if conditions were right, they are currently far from so. Lebanon not only lacks a PPP law but the various privatization attempts in other sectors, most notably telecommunications, have all ended in failure.

The most fundamental hurdle to Blue Gold’s success is the necessary legal framework. The water sector is currently run by the Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW) and four water establishments. Blue Gold aims to replace these with a national water council, a water regulatory authority, a national monitoring center, a water users’ association and an independent watchdog.

The water regulatory authority would be the most powerful of these and would include representatives of the government, political parties and civil society. Sayegh is confident that there will be no significant legal hiccups in pushing this body through. “We are working to prepare new laws and out of them we want to implement the public-private partnership. [It will need] a law dedicated to the establishment of a national water council so there is a legal framework,” he says.

Talk of independent regulatory authorities in Lebanon is to be treated with suspicion. There is a long history of politicians committing to them in principle but not in practice, with the Telecoms Regulatory Authority and the Petroleum Administration providing two key examples of bodies that are in theory independent but in practice remain under ministerial control or influence.

Furthermore, there is little reason to believe that the MoEW would embrace the idea of handing over a key sector to the control of an independent authority. Off the record sources stressed that caretaker Minister of Energy Gebran Bassil has opposed Blue Gold.

In fact the ministry has its own proposal for developing the water sector: the 2012 water policy. Sayegh believes that Blue Gold develops this proposal rather than supersedes it, but there is no indication that the ministry sees it that way.

A new goverment

The implementation of the CIH’s bold water sector proposals will first require the formation of a new government in which the energy ministry will play a decisive role in the project’s chances of success. But even if a new government were committed to Blue Gold, the required legislation, the creation of an independent council and the money and technical expertise sourced from private sector partners all mean implementation could still face communal roadblocks.

A history of Lebanon’s water reforms


Younes Hassib, technical adviser with the Lebanese branch of the German development agency GIZ, points out that policies that make sense nationally are often deeply controversial on a local level. “On the ground it might be difficult as water resources are within a given community, and this community says ‘this is our water and we don’t accept water meters’ — these are things that we have seen,” Hassib says.

Partly for this reason, policies are often shelved in parliament for years, waiting for some seal of approval or another. Another factor is the structure of the legislative process, a well-known time consumer. Sayegh admits that even if the government were to adopt the policy, “it should afterwards be passed to the parliament [and] discussed in the committee dedicated to this — the Energy and Water committee.” However, he is enthusiastic that the committee will back the proposal swiftly. “We are already in contact with them,” he says.

Mohammed Qabbani, the head of that committee, tells Executive that he is as yet “not very familiar with the project” but would be interested in learning more. He has been a major critic of Bassil’s 2012 plan, which he says is corrupt, and would prefer to move forward along the basis of an earlier plan, drawn up in 2000. “I think we have a chance of reviewing the [2000] plan; I don’t believe that the plan is something sacred and I think there are mistakes in it. This might be a chance for us.”

With several obstacles standing in the way of the CIH, perhaps the most important thing for the organization is internal unity in making the case for their plan. The CIH professes to have a strong sense of purpose and a shared goal within the organization, but already the movement seems to be fraying at the edges.

Fathi Chatila, hydro-geologist and editor-in-chief of Arab Water World magazine, is listed as a participating expert in Blue Gold’s official five-year plan but says he has had little contact with the group. He accuses Fadi Comair, one of the members of the CIH’s steering committee and a long-time ministry official, of seeking to use a façade of civil society to gain access to new funds, alleging that the MoEW will seek to control the project. “Blue Gold is the best way to revive and re-nourish corruption… at the end of the day the ministry will still appoint the tenders,” he says. “[Politicians] have wasted public money so now they are [hoping to] make the private sector pay.”

Claims of corruption in public bodies are easier to make than to prove but it certainly suggests a lack of unity if such suspicions are raised by an expert listed in Blue Gold’s own literature.

Rising to the challenge?

Blue Gold is a technically solid proposal, according to both the people who worked on it and the parties that examined it, but the incredibly high barriers to implementation are perhaps an indication of why civil society is so reluctant to suggest policy in Lebanon. The predominant fear is that an ultimately innovative series of proposals will become stuck in Lebanon’s political quagmire.

“Everyone involved in this project is well-meaning but by advertising it so much I hope we don’t let people down,” HCP’s Hayek says. “People are going to expect results and unfortunately the CIH or civil society by themselves are not able to deliver the results. It needs government and it needs the cabinet to approve some legislation and send it to parliament and parliament to enact it into law. I worry this may take a long time.”

Yet, as Truman Capote once wrote, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” So while Blue Gold may be unlikely to succeed in its entirety, some of its protagonists focus on it not because of its macroeconomic project value, which is as high as it is theoretical, but as an attempt to push policy, rather than politics, back into the Lebanese debate. And if and when there are achievements, they will taste all the sweeter. “I am very realistic and I know not all the projects will be implemented,” says AUB’s Jurdi. “But sometimes if you want to get a 90 you should aim at 100. If you aim at 30 you will end up at zero.”

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Joe Dyke

Joe Dyke worked at Executive from 2012 until 2014, mostly as economics and politics editor. He later worked for The New Humanitarian, Agence France Presse (AFP) and is now head of investigations at the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars.

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