Preserving Lebanon’s water resources requires multisectoral collaboration

Raindrops are falling

In winter, Lebanon seems to have an abundance of rainfall. When the rainy season is over, however, the country’s traffic woes are often compounded by large tankers blocking roads as they supply buildings with water.

Lebanon is rich in water resources, but these are replenished seasonally,  through rain and snow that generally falls between October and April. With improved management, there is the potential to significantly enhance water storage, preserving the water supply for use during dry summer seasons and occasional droughts. Improving water collection and storage is not a difficult task, and one made easier with multisectoral collaboration.

Water gained, water lost

A 2001-2002 State of the Environment report by the Ministry of the Environment (MoE) presented the worst case scenario for Lebanon’s water supply: On average, yearly precipitation in Lebanon results in 8,600 million cubic meters (Mm3) of water, feeding 40 major streams and rivers, including 17 perennial rivers, and more than 2,000 springs. Of that, approximately 50 percent gets lost through evapotranspiration—the process by which soil loses moisture via a combination of evaporation and plant transpiration. Additional losses stem from surface water flows to neighboring countries, estimated by the Litani River Authority to represent almost 8 percent, and groundwater seepage estimated at 12 percent. This leaves Lebanon with 2,600 Mm3 of surface and groundwater, of which 2,000 Mm3 is deemed exploitable and available for supply. This is not far off 2014 estimates from the United Nations Development Program where Lebanon’s water balance in a dry year was estimated at 2,140 Mm3.

With the Ministry of Electricity and Water (MoEW) expecting the country’s total annual demand for water to increase to 1,802 Mm3 by 2035, Lebanon, in theory, has more than enough water available to supply anticipated demands for at least the next 15 years. However, local natural water availability is seasonal, and currently there are not enough water storage tools in place to avoid water shortages during summer droughts. This needs to change.

One prime example of a multisectoral water stewardship initiative to secure future water supply was set up following recommendations from a study on groundwater management in the Shouf Biosphere Reserve—The 2017 Groundwater Assessment of the Shouf Biosphere Reserve (SBR)-Lebanon. The report, prepared by global environmental consulting group Antea, in collaboration with Nestlé Waters, found that the area’s overall groundwater balance was positive, by around 12 Mm3 per year, but noted important seasonal water fluctuations as well as high impacts from climate change and human activities.

A multisectoral partnership involving water authorities, farmers, the private sector, the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, the MoEW, the MoE, municipalities, and others, was established to tackle the issue and is already beginning to help the reserve successfully enhance the recharge of natural groundwater reservoirs in the area during the rainy season. Through the use of retaining walls (micro dams in the valleys) and terraces that increase water infiltration, among other tools, the partnership aims to reduce the impact of summer droughts. Such recharge techniques enhance water infiltration into underground natural water reservoirs and can be good alternatives to dams, especially in karstic/fractured geological contexts, as they help store river and runoff water that otherwise flows naturally toward the sea and is lost during the rainy season.

A model to replicate

A full action plan recommended by the study’s authors has been underway since October 2018, aiming to improve the quantity and quality of water supply in the area. Its key recommendation—to improve water storage—needs to be rolled out across the country using varying methods dependent on a given area’s geological, environmental, and social needs. For example, if an area’s surface rocks are fractured and include faults and cracks, underground storage is preferred over surface water storage, whereas if surface rocks are impermeable and can store water easily, surface water dams are worth considering.

Other recommendations from the study include: to continue monitoring water resources in the watershed and improving the existing database; to improve protection around municipal springs and water wells, as well as their hygienic design to guarantee better water quality; to further reduce leakages from municipal networks and piping; to engage with farmers to introduce best irrigation practices; to promote the building of small reservoirs for irrigation on the catchments of Damour, Bisri/Awali, and Beirut rivers; and to form a steering committee of major stakeholders.

In a nutshell, water storage in winter is vital to mitigate summer droughts even during a wet year such as this one, where the registered rainfall amounts until end March were almost double the usual yearly average.

Actions being implemented at the Shouf Biosphere Reserve in collaboration with other water management stakeholders can serve as a model to be replicated in other water basins around the country in order to improve local water resource management. This is especially pertinent, given the collaboration is in line with the water code that was ratified in June 2018, which supports multisectoral collaboration.

The reality is that collaboration between multiple sectors is needed and can be easily established to ensure that water is stored during rainy periods, either on the surface by building well-planned eco-friendly dams, or underground by enhancing water infiltration to replenish groundwater reservoirs and springs.

More initiatives can and should be launched across Lebanon, each tailored to suit the geological, environmental, and social needs of different areas of the country: All they need is multisectoral collaboration.

Assaad Saadeh is the regional water resources and environmental sustainability manager at Nestlé Waters.