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A dangerous source

Popular neighborhood water distributors are unregulated and unlicensed

by Matt Nash

In the dead of a crisp November night, the elite unit of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces prepared to pounce. Their target? An unlicensed neighborhood water distributor at the southern edge of Beirut’s Hamra district. Acting on a tip from public health minister Wael Abou Faour, the police stormed the distributor’s ad hoc basement factory, shutting off pipes, rounding up suspects and smashing open water cooler jugs as though they were barrels of booze in Prohibition era USA. Over the next few days, this scene was repeated hundreds of times in the capital’s various neighborhoods, as well as in villages and cities across the country. The battle for safe, regularly tested drinking water had begun.

[pullquote]A significant number of Lebanese regularly drink water that has been filtered though never tested for safety[/pullquote]

Don’t remember reading about this crackdown in the news? That’s because it didn’t happen. While Abou Faour did threaten to move against what he estimates are 800 unlicensed drinking water providers throughout the country, the reality is he didn’t. Nor does he know exactly how many of them there are. In truth, no one is sure how many there are, but there are indications that a significant number of Lebanese regularly drink water that has been filtered though never tested for safety.

Water, water, everywhere

There are 38 companies licensed by the Ministry of Public Health to distribute drinking water. These companies are listed on the ministry’s website and include well known national brands such as Tannourine, Sannine and Sohat. According to the Central Administration of Statistics (CAS), 10 percent of the Lebanese relied on bottled water as their main source of drinking water in 2009, the most recently available statistics on the subject. Ihsan Atwi, head of the sanitary engineering department at the Ministry of Public Health, tells Executive that the 1983 law governing bottled water stipulates that it cannot be treated or otherwise tampered with. It’s taken straight from the ground (whether from a well or a spring) and sold to consumers. He says bottled water is tested by the Ministry of Public Health’s central office to make sure it is safe to drink when the company applies for a license. After obtaining a license, the ministry’s “decentralized services” carry out tests according to their own schedule and only report back to headquarters in Beirut “if there is a problem.” His tone and demeanor while explaining this suggest he is not sure whether testing is regular or rigorous, but he notes that some Lebanese water is exported. “Because there aren’t any complaints about our [bottled] water outside, this is an indirect indicator that our water is safe,” he offers. 

[pullquote]Because there aren’t any complaints about our [bottled] water outside, this is an indirect indicator that our water is safe[/pullquote]

What we know nothing about, Atwi says, is the quality of water sold by small scale neighborhood or village distributors in larger quantities than bottled water for a fraction of the price. These are the ‘off brands’ you might see in the corner grocery story in 10 liter plastic bottles. Small scale distributors also allow customers to refill 18.9 liter water cooler jugs for $1, according to Atwi and Executive’s own experience with such a distributor. “These are the danger,” Atwi says, in reference to the distributors, whom Abou Faour says number 800. Atwi explains that the ministry tried to count them in 2012 but the survey was “not accurate” because of difficulties in reaching all parts of the country. “In general, there are hundreds,” he says. No doubt hyperbolically, he adds that a new small scale distributor opens “every day,” as the investment cost is low but the return can be high. Executive was unable to convince a distributor to talk financials, but Atwi notes that “evidence that [this business] is worth it [from a revenue standpoint] is that it is widely spread. If it wasn’t worth it, no one would work in this field.” Expenses such as a license and bottling lines are not necessary for small scale distributors, he says. 

Atwi and Lena Dergham — director general of the Lebanese Standards Institution (LIBNOR), which sets local standards for water quality, among other things — say these small scale distributors do filter or otherwise purify the water before distribution, for example with small amounts of chlorine. The problem is that no one monitors or tests this water, so diarrhea outbreaks in a concentrated area is one of the only ways to know if there is a problem with it.

These small scale distributors provided the main source of drinking water for a plurality of the Lebanese — 36 percent — in 2009, according to the CAS survey. As for where the water comes from, Atwi says, “The well of the building [they operate in], the public networks — they steal it, for example — or they buy it [from a large truck or well owner]. They filter it and they sell it.”

[pullquote]The law is still not being enforced because it does not stipulate which ministry is responsible for actually implementing it[/pullquote]

Waiting for Godot

The existence of these unlicensed and unregulated distributors is no secret. Executive was not able to ascertain exactly when they came into existence. However, in 2012 — following media reports on unsanitary conditions in some distribution facilities — Parliament passed law 210 to regulate the quality of the water — based on standards set by LIBNOR — the methods of filtration and the conditions of the distribution facility. The law is still not being enforced because it does not stipulate which ministry is responsible for actually implementing it. Dergham explains that the government needs to pass a new decree assigning enforcement authority to a specific ministry before the law will be enforced.

Even if that happens tomorrow, however, the World Health Organization argues that Lebanon — or LIBNOR, to be more specific — must also update its drinking water quality standards, which have not been revised since 1999. In a process that has taken “a lot of time,” the WHO has been pushing Lebanon to update its standards, according to Nohal Al-Homsi, a project officer working on environmental health, food safety and community health with the WHO. Homsi would not be more specific about how long the WHO has been arguing for an update, but Dergham, from LIBNOR, says the process has taken over a year. Dergham and Homsi say new drinking water standards are being discussed by a technical committee including members of Parliament, the WHO, LIBNOR, academics, members of relevant ministries and representatives of Lebanon’s four regional water authorities, which handle treatment and distribution of state supplied drinking water. Dergham notes that while LIBNOR writes the standard, it cannot be applied — or considered mandatory — without a decree from the government codifying it into law.

The WHO last revised its own drinking water quality standards in 2011, however the UN agency notes that its standards merely serve as guidelines and do not necessarily need to be adopted as a whole. “The nature and form of drinking water standards may vary among countries and regions,” according to the WHO’s 2011 report on its update. “There is no single approach that is universally applicable.”

[pullquote]There is no single approach that is universally applicable[/pullquote]

Neither Dergham nor Homsi would be specific about what updates Lebanon’s standards need — though both argued that the standards need to be revised. Homsi offered only that Lebanon’s standard is “outdated for chemicals.” However, the WHO’s 2011 standards update notes, particularly of chemicals, it “provide[s] guideline values for many more chemical contaminants than will actually affect any particular water supply, so judicious choices for monitoring and surveillance should be made prior to” setting national standards. Dergham notes, “the new update mentions stricter limits” but, as the WHO document says, Lebanon cannot adopt all of them blindly without first studying what is most relevant for the country. “There are some specific national issues that need to be addressed, it doesn’t mean we will allow something that will have [a negative] impact on human health.”

Homsi and Dergham refused to say that regulated and licensed drinking water in Lebanon is unsafe. Homsi also refused to explain why revising the standard has taken so long, though she does indicate there is opposition to an update that she would not elaborate on. Dergham says the regional water establishments don’t have the proper lab equipment to test for new possible water contaminants even if the standards were updated, yet another roadblock to a quick revision. Dergham notes that LIBNOR has no legal authority to test water, and highlights the need for a national policy on strict testing that is actually implemented. “We will push more in order to quicken the process, but this discussion has to happen because if we have a standard that is not implemented and is not able to be implemented, this will be a problem. We need to be sure the requirements are there based on scientific data and these requirements are able to be implemented.”

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Matt Nash

Matt was Executive's Economics & Policy Editor and Real Estate Editor from May 2014 to November 2017. He began reporting in Lebanon in April 2007, and his coverage focused on oil and gas, public policy and human rights.

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