Lebanon is an oasis. In a region synonymous with desert, the only significant stretches of sand in the tiny, water-rich country are along its 220-kilometer Mediterranean coast. It is the only place in the Middle East with a natural ski season, yet it still does not take on-the-ground snowfall measurements—assessments have been done by studying satellite photography and extrapolating estimates. For all its natural blessings, however, the outlook is bleak for Lebanon’s water sector.
Data is admittedly scarce—one cannot manage what is not measured and monitored—but available indicators suggest that key sector management issues, like overexploitation of groundwater resources and gross mismanagement of wastewater, were not adequately addressed in 2017, nor will they be anytime soon.
Lebanon’s current national water and wastewater strategy was written in 2010 and received cabinet approval in 2012, but it remains largely unimplemented. The Ministry of Energy and Water’s 2017 annual report—compulsory under the access to information law approved in February 2017—has not been published at time of writing, and the ministry did not respond to an interview request for this article.
Problems in the water sector are well-studied, if still largely unaddressed. Five decentralized, regional “water establishments”—administrative offices still not fully endowed with their legally mandated decision-making and financial independence—are supposed to supply their regions with safe drinking water, continuous access to “utility water” for showering and cleaning, and wastewater-collection and treatment services. Three of the five water establishments are underfunded, and all of them are understaffed. The country’s drinking and utility water infrastructure is ageing: An estimated 20 percent of its households are not connected to the water network, and Lebanon’s wastewater infrastructure is barely complete, treating only 8 percent of the country’s wastewater, according to estimates from 2010.
The agriculture sector generally relies on inefficient flood irrigation, moving water from source to field through aged canals, compounding water loss. The country suffers annual water shortages, typically during the end of summer. Illegal wells are widespread, estimated to number nearly 60,000 in a country of only 10,000 square kilometers. Two studies on groundwater in Lebanon—one from UNDP in 2015 and another conducted by the American University of Beirut from 2013 to 2014—show seawater intrusion in coastal aquifers. The UNDP study suggested that all of the country’s most heavily relied-on groundwater sources were stressed.
Quality is also a concern. A 2016 study from UNICEF found that only 47 percent of the drinking water provided by Lebanon’s water establishments is free from E. coli bacteria. The study has not yet been published, but some of its findings are available in the 2017 Lebanon Relief Plan report, a document compiled by multiple government agencies with input from various aid organizations.
Each of these studies, however, provides only a snapshot most relevant to the time data was collected. Continuous measurement and monitoring are the only ways Lebanon will be able to evaluate its water resources in order to properly manage them. For this to happen, the water sector must become a priority.
Wastewater is the best example of an easy-to-neglect sub-sector that proves how far down the list of policy priorities the water industry appears.
Lebanon has treatment plants, but resource-starved water establishments do not have the money or workforce to operate and maintain them. Worse, several of the country’s treatment plants are not connected to wastewater-collection networks because these networks can cost thousands of dollars per meter to build, and neither donors nor the government have ponied up the cash to do it.
As the country perhaps enters a new era as an oil and gas producer, it cannot continue to neglect this far more precious natural resource that causes such traffic problems the first time it returns each year.