Home Economics & Policy Turn off the tap

Turn off the tap

The government offers its solution to the water crisis

by Matt Nash

While some believe Lebanon houses the city where Jesus turned water into wine, most of the country’s residents today no doubt wish the government could miraculously do the opposite. Precipitation during the 2013–2014 rainy season was half the average, prompting widespread water shortages this summer. The government, however, has announced a plan: use less water and dig new wells — the latter of which may not help anytime soon.

In response to this year’s water crisis, the Ministry of Energy and Water is encouraging people to turn off their taps and conserve. How much water the Lebanese use each year and how much the ministry is hoping to save with its awareness campaign, however, remain a mystery.

“We don’t have accurate data,” says Randa Nemer, an advisor to Energy and Water Minister Arthur Nazarian. “But we know we’re using more than other countries per person because we pay a flat rate.”

Lebanon’s National Water Sector Strategy, approved by the government in 2012, notes that “around 10 percent” of water connections in Lebanon are metered and “volumetric tariffs based on real consumption are still not applied.” This means people are paying the same price for water no matter how much they use, so there is no financial incentive for conservation. For irrigation — which the strategy says “is the largest water consumer” — there is “very limited metering, preventing volumetric charges.”

While the strategy notes the need to “introduce and implement new tariff strategies,” it offers no further details and, even if it did, executive and legislative paralysis means that authorities are unlikely to address this issue before winter rainfalls (hopefully) replenish water supplies.

[pullquote]“If we drain our aquifers and if we have another year similar to this year, we will be draining our aquifers to 2 to 5 percent”[/pullquote]

Public mismanagement

Much like the electricity sector, Lebanon’s water sector is poorly managed. Since at least 2007, successive governments have been studying a new water code to improve management of the resource, but a draft of the code is still languishing with the Council of Ministers. Mahmoud Baroud, director of oversight at the Ministry of Energy, tells Executive that the draft must first be rewritten to reflect comments from the various ministries that have reviewed it before being formally approved by the cabinet and then sent to parliament for further discussion and, potentially, approval.

Speaking at the launch of the water conservation awareness campaign, Alexis Loeber, head of the cooperation section of the European Union’s delegation to Lebanon, said the EU was hoping to help Lebanon save water, not increase supply. The EU is footing the campaign’s €180,000 ($243,000) bill via a grant. The “shocking awareness campaign,” as a slide from the launch event described it, includes TV commercials, radio spots, billboards and educational pamphlets with water saving tips. Nemer described the campaign as the beginning of a “long term” plan to educate the public on water conservation.

In the short term, however, water scarcity will persist. Precipitation during the rainy months of 2013–2014 was 50 percent below the average of the 800 millimeters Lebanon normally receives. In a good year, water shortages begin in August as the water deficit is around 100 to 300 million cubic meters. Nemer wouldn’t say what the expected water deficit is this year.

Aside from the awareness campaign, Nemer tells Executive that the ministry is taking some steps to regulate private water suppliers. She says the Ministry of Energy sent a letter to the Ministry of Interior in the second week of July asking for a list of all the private water suppliers as well as the location of the wells they’re pumping water from. While she says the Ministry of Interior has not yet replied, if and when it does, the Ministry of Energy may “see if we can take over the wells” to either connect them to the national water grid or pump water and sell it to consumers.

Nemer notes that “preliminary information suggests that the majority of the wells are illegal.” Asked how many illegal wells have been drilled in the country, she says that the Ministry of Energy conducted a survey sometime between 2011 and 2013 — she could not confirm the exact date — and found there are at least 65,000, though she cautions that this is a “tentative figure.” She says there are 20,000 legal wells in Lebanon.

[pullquote]the Ministry of Energy conducted a survey sometime between 2011 and 2013 … and found there are at least 65,000 [wells][/pullquote]

Drilling more wells

Along with potentially commandeering some illegal wells, the ministry announced a plan in late July to dig more state-owned wells. Speaking to the press the day of the announcement, Minister Nazarian said the new wells are expected to produce 40,000 to 50,000 cubic meters of water per day. Nemer tells Executive the ministry has already “identified a couple of potential areas” in which to drill, and she says work will begin in the second to last week of July. Executive went to print before being able to verify whether or not work had actually started.

Both plans, however, may not bring water to residents before the rains are due to start again.

“At this point, in two months, to connect the wells is not an easy task,” says Nizar Aawar, a water expert with the Civic Influence Hub, the self-described lobby group behind the controversial Blue Gold plan. Proponents of the plan tout it as a way to give civil society and the private sector a more robust role in Lebanon’s water management, but critics deride it as an attempt to privatize the country’s water. On top of the connection problem, Aawar notes that more drilling will only put further strain on the country’s aquifers. “If we drain our aquifers and if we have another year similar to this year, we will be draining our aquifers [down] to 2 to 5 percent,” he says. Though we don’t have data or what level we are at today, the shortage of precipitation is putting a strain on the aquifers. Aawar explains that in a normal year, with average precipitation of 800 millimeters, the state estimates 650 million cubic meters (MCM) of water fill the aquifers. Since the 2013–2014 rainy season saw 50 percent less precipitation than average, there is only around 325 MCM for use in the aquifers this year. Draining inland aquifers increases the likelihood that contaminated wastewater — only 8 percent of which is captured and treated in Lebanon, according to the Ministry of Energy — will pour in, and draining coastal aquifers increases the chances of sea water seepage.

While people in Lebanon may be angry at suffering through the rest of summer and fall until rain and snow return, Nemer says that the shortages will, hopefully, only drive home the campaign’s point that households have to start using less water.

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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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