Pierre may be covered in grease, but he is a happy man. Since he joined the family business five years ago, this has been his best year to date. “Actually, it’s been one of the best years ever,” he says. Pierre and his family are in the water transport business, and through the summer and into the autumn he has been busier than ever, shuttling from one side of the capital to the other cashing in where successive governments’ lack of policy formulation has left the state unable to adequately provide a basic human necessity.
This year has been particularly dry due to the low amount of snowfall last winter. The season for private water supply typically starts around July and, in theory, ends in October when the first rains start to fall. As Executive went to print at the end of October, Pierre’s business was still booming. Last year, he bought a new water truck and says he has easily covered his investment. That’s because over the course of the peak summer season when water is sparse, prices have risen from a minimum of $6.60 per cubic meter (CM) (depending on whether the water tank is on the ground or on the roof) to reach at least $13.30 per CM and up to $20 per CM at the end of last month, says Pierre with a smirk.
Pierre’s continuing success is not surprising given that the World Bank (WB) estimates that 75 percent of total household water expenditure in Lebanon is spent on water provided by the private water market. The sector as a whole is estimated to rake in some $87 million per year.
In theory, all households should receive an average of 1 CM per day, but in reality the amount of water that comes depends on two factors: the number of hours water is provided by the local water authority, if any, and whether the household decides it wants to follow the law. Because of the government’s previous apparent disinterest in organizing the sector, instead of meters and a pay-as-you-go system, households in Lebanon pay one annual lump sum that is disconnected from actual consumption. The cost ranges from $156.5 in Beirut and Mount Lebanon to $117.4 in the Bekaa. Businesses have a different tariff structure depending on the type of establishment.
The only mechanism in place to regulate supply is a “gauge,” basically a plastic hole fitted to the pipe that brings water to households. “Those who remove the gauge get more and those who keep it get less than 1 CM per day,” says Abdo Tayar, advisor to the minister of energy and water and the person spearheading the country’s water strategy formulation.
Depending on the season and the location, water is supplied daily from three to 22 hours per day, according to data from the Ministry of Energy and Water’s (MoEW) draft water strategy acquired by Executive. Speak to Beirut residents in the summer, however, and it is not uncommon to hear them complain of days on end without water. That’s because, unlike electricity, people outside the capital have considerably better supply than those inside it. Officially, residents of Beirut receive three hours of supply per day in the low season and 13 hours in the high season, while the residents of north Lebanon receive 22 hours of supply year-round. Perhaps due to the fact that a private contractor manages water distribution in Tripoli, the city receives running potable water 24 hours a day.
No good reason
The lack of water at the tap would perhaps be understandable if Lebanon was as arid as Jordan or Saudi Arabia. But Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East that does not contain a desert and comes second only to Iraq in terms of renewable water sources, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The three main river basins cover about 45 percent of the country and Lebanon is littered with springs and small tributaries.
But even with these resources, if water is mismanaged, the Lebanese might as well be living in the middle of the Sahara. According to the World Bank, “if no actions are taken to improve efficiency and increase storage capacity, it is estimated that the seasonal imbalance of water resources will lead to chronic water shortages by 2020.”
According to a report by the global water consultancy Global Water Intelligence, Lebanon is already a water-scarce nation, with renewable water resources estimated at 926 CM per capita per year in 2009: just below the 1,000 CM per capita per year threshold that defines ‘water poverty’. That too is expected to fall to 839 CM per capita per year by 2015 because of population growth, and that’s before climate change is taken into account.
“We are going into a phase where we are going to have less and less snow and more and more rain,” says Nadim Farajallah, professor of hydrology and water resources at the American University of Beirut (AUB). “Snow is what recharges our ground water; rain just runs off into the sea.”
Even with all these signs pointing to impending disaster, the real problem may in fact be far worse, since no one really knows the exact amount of Lebanon’s water resources. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) mapped Lebanon’s underground geological structures, including its aquifers. Until today the country has not performed an assessment of how much water these aquifers actually contain or how they can be exploited, and the UNDP’s maps do not cover all of the country, according to Tayar at the energy and water ministry.
Farajallah adds that, “Money has to be spent on this. We need to look at each aquifer, characterize it, understand how much it yields and what is a safe yield. You have to extract as much as you recharge if you want to sustain your source.”