As Lebanon edged closer to war in the early 1970s, an ambitious project to provide irrigation and drinking water to South Lebanon was launched. At the time what came to be known as the ‘Litani River Project’ (also known to water experts as the Canal 800), was to be the most expansive undertaking to tap Lebanon’s largest — and one of its few — major water storage facilities, the Qaraoun artificial lake. The project aimed to bring potable water to more than 300,000 residents and irrigate 15,000 hectares of farm land in Marjaoun, Bint Jbeil and Yaarin. It never happened.
When war broke out plans were abandoned, only to resurface again a decade ago, and just last month a decision was finally made: the Litani River Project is a go. But whenever Lebanon’s politicians finally agree not to disagree, most often the people end up paying the bill, even if they didn’t get served the drinks.
At the announcement ceremony chaired by Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri were swathes of politicians from both sides of the aisle, lending their support to the ‘development of the south’. Amongst them was former PM Fouad Siniora, Future Movement Member of Parliament and Chairman of the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) Nabil al-Jisr, as well as their arch nemesis Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil. Rarely, if ever, has their been such consensus in Lebanon; could it be our fractious politicians merely had a change of heart?
Not likely. As much as the country needs to employ, not to mention develop, its scant water storage infrastructure, going ahead with it now, and in this way, puts politics over policy and does little but allow grandstanders to tout promises, soon to be followed by the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars to their favorite contractors. In the end they will likely leave us all thirsty, more indebted and sick to our stomachs.
While the Litani project may have been feasible in the 1970s, since then other projects that use the Qaraoun’s water have been completed and others newly approved. Due to a lack of environmental standards and enforcement, what has also happened is that the lake, and the Litani River that feeds it, have become among Lebanon’s largest sewage dumps. Any water used from it will probably have to be treated for heavy metals that have started to surface, with the cost of such treatment likely making the Litani project financially unfeasible.
Given the lack of alternative sources, the World Bank-funded Awali Project to bring water to Beirut will also draw from the Qaraoun — thanks to a recent cabinet decision. It may also need a treatment that is unaccounted for. Documents and research conducted by Executive all point to the probability that after hundreds of millions of dollars of public money is spent, the people of Beirut and the South will still have limited access to water because, simply, there will not be enough to go around. That is unless more infrastructure for water collection and storage is built, for which funding and feasibility is questionable at best. It is also important to note that Lebanon’s most productive agriculture region, the Bekaa, is being passed over and the hydroelectric power plants that use the same water could also fizzle out. The entire plan would seem to make no sense, until you remember it is not about people; it’s about politics.
Speaker Berri and his cohorts have been pushing for the Litani project for years to keep their support base in the south happy, Michel Aoun needs to show that his son in law is doing something by bringing water to Beirut and Mount Lebanon, Saad Hariri and Siniora need to use the CDR to contract out projects to their friends, and Mikati, well he’s just the middle-man of Lebanese politics anyway.