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Less blue, more gold

Unlicensed water distributors are profiteering from a gap of unknown size

by Matt Nash
A tanker truck overflows with water

Toufic Abillamaa has been making money off of the state’s inability to provide certain services for nearly 40 years. His company, Abillamaa Petroleum, delivers fuel for generators — a necessity for many in a country without 24 hours of electricity. At the beginning of this year, however, he decided to expand into water delivery.

Abillamaa is capitalizing on a booming business. Looking at the traffic clogged streets of Beirut, it is clear that Lebanon’s unregulated private water distributors are thriving. Water trucks are everywhere, and the sound of their pumps is nearly as ubiquitous as car and motorbike horns. But despite this flourishing business and the ominous water shortages it evidences, putting an exact figure on the size of the industry is just as difficult as trying to ascertain the impact extra pumping has on groundwater resources. Reliable data for both metrics is nearly impossible to get.

Driving margins

[pullquote]“Before, you had too much water and fewer clients; this year there’s not enough water and too many clients”[/pullquote]

Water delivery “is an additional service” for Abillamaa. Most of his fuel clients include “schools, hospitals [and] big new buildings in Ashrafieh,” he explains in his office one block away from Beirut’s ABC Mall. He decided in January to begin delivering water as well. Abillamaa says he spent about $210,000 to buy two delivery trucks (one has a 15,000 liter capacity and the other 20,000). The investment also paid for a red license plate that public transportation and delivery trucks are required to have in Lebanon. Not included was a license to distribute the water.

“You don’t need one,” he says. 

Abillamaa says he pays between LL 20,000 ($13.33) and $20 to fill up a truck, with the price depending on where he buys the water, not the size of the truck (i.e., he would pay $13.33 for each truck at one well but $20 for each truck at another, even though the trucks have a different capacity). He cautions that this is the price range “until now.”

“If, after 20 days, the water is low, the price will go up,” he explains.

As for how much he makes off the new line of business, Abillamaa says his margin is between “$70 and $100” per delivery, not accounting for operating expenses. He says each truck is delivering five loads per day and he plans to buy two new trucks. That said, he insists, “I’m happy if it’s raining.”

Hicham Jabre owns three wells behind a Coral gas station near the main square of Antelias, a suburb just north of Beirut. He says his family has been distributing water and filling up tanker trucks for other distributors for 30 years. “Before, you had too much water and fewer clients; this year there’s not enough water and too many clients.”

Jabre says his wells only service trucks with capacities ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 liters. He used to charge LL 5,000 ($3.33) per truck but is charging $10 this year because of growing electricity costs.

“It used to take 10 to 15 minutes to fill a truck,” he says. “Now it takes an hour.” 

Both Abillamaa and Jabre are familiar with servicing clients who buy entire tanker trucks full of water. Households, however, often rely on filling an apartment’s individual water storage tank, paying per 1,000 liters. Smaller trucks complete these fill-ups, and on August 16, Executive saw one of these smaller trucks filling up at a well next to the Saadeh Abou Jaoudeh Gas Station in Jal el Dib, another northern suburb of Beirut. Two employees at the station, queried independently, told Executive that the truck has a capacity of 5,000 to 6,000 liters and will therefore pay between LL 5,000 and 6,000 ($3.33–$4). The driver refused to speak; however, in Executive’s experience, similar delivery trucks are charging consumers between LL 20,000 and 30,000 ($13.33–$20) per 1,000 liters in Beirut.

Licensing limbo

[pullquote][T]he ministry plays no part in ensuring the water is up to any quality standard. Indeed, no one is holding this water to any standard.[/pullquote]

Most reports on private water delivery in Lebanon say that some delivery trucks are licensed and some are not. This is arguably misleading. Ihsan Atwi, head of the sanitary engineering department at the Ministry of Public Health, tells Executive that the ministry does “not deal with trucks.” The only licensed distributors of water in Lebanon are the 38 companies listed on the ministry’s website which are authorized to sell water that has been tested and confirmed to be safe for drinking. None of the 10 private water delivery trucks with names on them that Executive has seen on the street were on the ministry’s list. Atwi would not go so far as saying no trucks are licensed, but kept noting that only companies with water safe for drinking are licensed to distribute.

Like everyone else Executive spoke to for this article, Atwi has no idea how many trucks are delivering water. He notes that the ministry plays no part in ensuring the water is up to any quality standard. Indeed, no one is holding this water to any standard. Jabre, the well owner, says neither he nor the Ministry of Public Health test the water from his wells. Both Jabre and Abillamaa say that some wells are known to have salty water — the result of seawater intrusion into coastal aquifers — and many trucks are distributing it anyway. Executive has met a Beirut resident whose apartment receives refills of salty water, arranged by the building’s concierge, whenever state supplied water runs out.

Atwi says that Law 210 of 2012 was written to bring order to a different world of chaos in the water sector, namely neighborhood distributors of filtered drinking water. The ministry, he explains, knows that in just about every neighborhood in Beirut and in villages across the country, there are ‘companies’ — often unregistered — distributing drinking water for much less ($1 for 20 liters) than one would pay when buying from a licensed water bottling company like Tannourine, Sannine, Reem or Nestlé. The law was meant as a way to license these currently unlicensed and illegal distributors, but is awaiting yet-to-be-approved implementing decrees to put meat on the bones of the licensing process. Even if these decrees are passed soon — which seems highly unlikely in the current political climate — they would only regulate filtered water, and, based on observations and interviews for this article, the water being pumped from the ground and rushed to homes, schools and hospitals around the country is not typically filtered.

Unmonitored disaster

[pullquote]When asked how much water is being delivered to customers on a per liter daily basis, Ahmad Nizam of the South Lebanon Water Establishment says, “We cannot count that. No one can count that.”[/pullquote]

Jabre says that compared to previous years, demand for privately delivered water has gone up “100 percent, over 100 percent.” This number is impossible to verify, as is just how short Lebanon’s fresh water supply is this year. Asked how much water is being delivered by the state to consumers, Randa Nemer, an advisor to the Minister of Energy and Water, tells Executive, “We have no idea.” It is the country’s four water establishments — covering the North, South, Bekaa, and Beirut and Mount Lebanon — who keep that data, she says. 

Executive was only able to reach two of the four, but the results correspond to what Executive reported last month on the water crisis — monitoring is minimal. When asked how much water is being delivered to customers on a per liter daily basis, Ahmad Nizam of the South Lebanon Water Establishment says, “We cannot count that. No one can count that.”

Both Nizam and Roy Yazbek of the Bekaa Water Establishment say a lack of metering is the problem. That said, Nizam explains that the Tasseh spring in South Lebanon is metered. “On August 30, 2013, the yield was 1,860 cubic meters per hour. On July 2, 2014, it was 653 cubic meters per hour,” for the spring, which he describes as a major source for the South.

Yazbek says that many of the springs in the Bekaa that typically provide year long water supplies have dried up. He was outside his office when contacted and did not have exact figures.

Almost any report one reads on water in Lebanon includes an estimate that the country receives an average of 800 millimeters of precipitation per year, leading to a groundwater recharge of 500 million cubic meters. Indeed, these are the numbers used in the 2012 National Water Sector Strategy.

Mark Saadeh, a hydrogeologist who wrote a 2008 PhD dissertation on seawater intrusion into coastal aquifers in greater Beirut, scoffs when Executive rattles these numbers off. “It’s a black box,” he says of Lebanon. “Where are your monitoring wells?”

Ziad Khayat, former project manager with the Lebanese Center for Water Management and Conservation (LCWMC), a unit within the Ministry of Enery and Water, tells Executive that there are currently 29 wells in the country specifically drilled to monitor the quantity of Lebanon’s ground water. He says a minimum of 61 are needed to get a full picture. On top of that, there are only 87 stations nationwide collecting data on annual rainfall. Snowfall — which both Khayat and Saadeh say plays a larger role than rain in refilling the country’s aquifers — is not monitored at all. 

The LCWMC is financed by the Italian government and was initiated by the Ministry of Energy and Water as well as the UN Development Programme. Its aim is to conduct a full-scale assessment of groundwater in Lebanon. Khayat says the study, the first of its kind since 1970, was carried out between March 2012 and March 2013 using 100 monitoring wells. Twenty of the monitoring wells are still operating and sending LCWMC daily reports. In addition to the 2012–2013 monitoring, LCWMC used data from the 20 remaining monitoring wells to study the period from April 2013 to April 2014. He shared some of the results of the latter survey, which he said will be made public most likely in September, with Executive. Highlighting some of the most drastic findings, Khayat said that in the second one-year monitoring period, which coincided with the particularly dry winter of 2013–2014, the groundwater level fell 12 meters in Zahleh, seven meters in the North Bekaa, five meters in Nabatiyeh and 20 meters in both Bahsas, near Tripoli, and Miniyeh, also in the north.

Khayat notes that without much-needed data from previous years, it is difficult to make long term sense out of the numbers collected during the most recent monitoring. He and Saadeh say no one can accurately explain what impact both regulated and unregulated groundwater extraction will have on the water table without proper data collection.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Saadeh says. 

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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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