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Quality concerns

Much like quantity, Lebanon lacks sufficient data on water quality

by Matt Nash

There’s something missing from the debate about Lebanon’s water woes, several experts on the topic argue.

“Engineers, the government, they care about quantity,” says Samira Korfali, an associate professor of chemistry at the Lebanese American University whose water research focuses on metal content in water. “I care about quality.”

Indeed, the government’s response to this year’s more severe than average water shortage has been to drill more wells and encourage people to conserve their usage. The National Water Sector Strategy, approved by the government in 2012, stresses the need to monitor and maintain the quality of groundwater, and the National Center for Scientific Research (NCRS) is working on a monitoring program, but whether it is laying the groundwork for a long term monitoring and action plan or will become yet another study conducted and then ignored remains an open question.

[pullquote]“The pace of improvement is not enough for ensuring [a] safe, sustainable water supply” [/pullquote]

May Jurdi, a professor of environmental health at the American University of Beirut who has been studying water quality since the 1990s, is part of the current monitoring program. While she is hopeful the new program will be sustainable, she notes that previous programs have come and gone with no long term impact. “You have cycles of repetition of the same story since 1990,” she says of various water quality programs run either by the government or donors. “And when you look at the actual problems you find, if I go back and say, ‘What were the problems in 1990s and what are the problems now?’ Most of the problems have not been [addressed].” Jurdi adds that there has been some improvement, but cautions “the pace of improvement is not enough for ensuring [a] safe, sustainable water supply.” 

“It has been cycles of moving, improving and then not sustaining,” she says.

Saline invasion 

Because of over pumping of groundwater along the coast, salt water has made its way into some of Lebanon’s aquifers. Ziad Khayat, who in 2012/13 helped conduct the first nationwide groundwater assessment Lebanon has carried out since 1970, tells Executive that, for the most part, quality wasn’t on the agenda. The study did, however, identify increased salinity in groundwater up to “several kilometers inland,” Khayat says. He adds that the year long groundwater study found six of Lebanon’s 44 groundwater basins showed an increase in seawater intrusion compared to 1970. Mark Saadeh, a hydrogeologist who wrote his PhD dissertation on seawater intrusion into the coastal aquifer beneath Beirut and its suburbs, says that continued extraction of groundwater near and along the coast is only exacerbating the problem. 

Saadeh explains that coastal groundwater aquifers are not completely walled off from the sea, meaning there is a point at which the freshwater stored in an aquifer and seawater meet. As the level of groundwater lowers, seawater can push its way in. Both Saadeh and Khayat argue that once seawater enters an aquifer, it is difficult, time consuming and expensive to push back out again. In a 2006 paper, Spanish researchers detailed how they were able to reverse seawater intrusion, but one of the most important components of their methodology was strict monitoring and management of pumping — something no one is currently paying any attention to in Lebanon. As anyone who has read the “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” knows, seawater is undrinkable. Saadeh adds that it corrodes pipes and does not lather when one tries to wash with it. As for using salty water to do laundry, he notes, “Your clothes will never be clean.”

Shitting where we drink

Subsoil seawater surge is not the only threat to Lebanon’s groundwater. Far less well documented is wastewater contamination of the country’s subterranean aquifers. Khayat says that the groundwater monitoring program he worked on did not focus on this type of pollution and notes there is little documented evidence of the problem. However, Lebanon’s aquifers are mostly composed of limestone, which are highly porous and easily refilled, something he describes as a blessing and a curse. Because of their physical characteristics, Lebanon’s aquifers collect rainwater — and more importantly melting snow — as it absorbs into the soil and trickles down. They do not, however, discriminate in terms of collection, meaning wastewater dumped onto the ground, poured into dry wells and septic pits, or released into rivers can also wind up in the groundwater. 

Jurdi, the AUB professor, says the results of the NCRS study are not yet complete. That said, she and others argue that Lebanon’s wastewater situation is a mess. Assem Fedawi, the sector manager for water and wastewater planning and programming with the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), tells Executive that currently Lebanon has eight working wastewater treatment plants connected to sewage networks, up from four in 2010. Of the eight, three are along the coast and five are inland. He says of the inland plants, however, that “not all of them are handling a full flow,” meaning they are not being used to full capacity nor collecting all of the wastewater being created around them, partly because they are not connected to the sewage network.

[pullquote]Intermittent water supply — a yearly occurrence in Lebanon — is also a potential source of water contamination[/pullquote]

The connection issue is a serious problem in Lebanon. In 2010, there were seven completed wastewater treatment plants sitting idle because they were not connected to the sewage network. Fedawi says four have since been connected. Asked how a plant could be built but not connected to the network that feeds it the wastewater it is supposed to treat, Fedawi says that following the Civil War, Lebanon received a large influx of foreign donations to rebuild the country’s largely decimated infrastructure. CDR built the plants, he says, and municipalities near where they are located were supposed to construct the required sewage networks to make the plants usable. In many instances, that never happened. Since 2010, however, the CDR’s strategy changed and it now will also build sewage networks for any treatment plants it builds. As for how much wastewater gets treated in Lebanon today (in 2010 it was an estimated 8 percent), he says his personal estimate is “closer to 20 percent,” but he admits, “we don’t have any data.” He says $1 billion has already been spent on the country’s wastewater system and estimates a further $1.5 billion is needed to finish the job. 

Randa Nemr, an advisor to the Minister of Energy and Water, tells Executive that, despite the fact that groundwater supplies may be contaminated by wastewater, the water supplied by the country’s four water establishments (i.e., water from the government’s network) is safe to drink as all of it gets treated before distribution. Jurdi, the researcher, concurs, explaining to Executive that government supplied water is perhaps the most reliably safe water in the country.

Fill ‘er up

The lack of data on groundwater quality raises health concerns for people buying tanks full of water from unregulated delivery trucks. Nohad Al-Homsi, a project officer with the World Health Organization in Lebanon, tells Executive that even when using water for personal hygiene, laundry or washing dishes, the water should be safe to drink. She dismisses the notion of ‘service water’. Like others interviewed for this article, she has no solid information on how safe water delivered by trucks is, but as Executive reported last month, neither the Ministry of Health nor the Ministry of Energy and Water are monitoring this privately delivered water. Jurdi explains that the health costs of unsafe water use in Lebanon are also unknown. Exposure to contaminated water, she says, can cause diarrhea, headaches and fever, but adds that people don’t realize the risks associated with dirty water and therefore often do not link water to health problems when speaking with their doctors. 

Both Al-Homsi and Jurdi note that the seasonal intermittence in water supply — a yearly occurrence in Lebanon — is also a potential source of water contamination. Al-Homsi explains that when a household’s water storage tank runs empty and is then refilled, the refilling causes sediments at the bottom of the tank to mix with the water and come out through the faucets. She says people should let the taps run for a few minutes before using water after a tank has been refilled. Jurdi says that empty water pipes can also absorb any wastewater that may be wetting the ground around them, bringing that contaminated water into a home when the pipes fill up again. 

Crop concerns

Perhaps the most alarming public health concern in the water sector relates to agriculture. Some farmers in the Bekaa, according to Fedawi, are using wastewater to irrigate their crops — particularly this year when “there is no water.” Again, the extent of the problem is far from clear. Korfali, the LAU professor, tells Executive that metal contamination of plants is not a problem. Yet Jurdi says that contamination from organic materials such as fecal matter very well could be. She did not have much data, but says she recently participated in an as yet unpublished, small scale pilot study of plant contamination and found “alarming” levels of fecal contamination with “isolates” such as bacteria and viruses in the plants, which are “resistant to the antibiotics that were given.” She cautioned, however, that the study was not large enough to make conclusions about the safety of vegetables in Lebanon. “But this is expected. All studies say that if you use wastewater [for irrigation], this is what will happen.” 

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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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