While Rome burns

The government’s plan for alleviating the water crisis is no solution

A good way to judge the efficacy of a proposed solution is to ask how, if implemented, it would alter the outcome of a situation. By this metric, the Ministry of Energy and Water’s (MoEW) proposed solution to Lebanon’s water shortage fails miserably. The plan roughly amounts to the following: households should use less water (see “Turn off the tap“). This, of course, is precisely what is already happening — because many homes are already running out of water.

Coupled with the lack of any real plan, the ministry’s call for citizens to conserve water is an insult. True, we all could and should be more responsible users of this resource, but the state seems to forget that its negligence is the reason people throughout the country are either being extorted by most likely unlicensed private water delivery services or suffering without life’s most basic necessity because they’re too poor to pay. Yes, last winter was much drier than average, but if water had been properly managed over the last 20 years, there would be no shortages now.

What makes water scarcity in Lebanon today so infuriating is that it could have been avoided. Anyone who has been to Lebanon in the winter can immediately identify the biggest problem: rainwater simply flows out to sea — sometimes after floods destroy property and lives — instead of being stored, treated and used. In the late 1990s, the MoEW penned a 10 year plan that included building 17 dams. One was built. According to a press release issued by then-caretaker minister Gebran Bassil in February, last year the ministry “started the construction of [seven] dams,” in line with a new water sector strategy approved by the government in 2012. While very long overdue, moving forward with building more dams is a welcome step. Much more action, however, is desperately needed.

Current and future ministers of energy must also focus on distribution networks. The current water sector strategy says that over half of the pipes used for transmitting and distributing water are more than 20 years old. This results in a 48 percent loss of water, according to the strategy. It will be expensive, disruptive and time consuming, but Lebanon’s aging infrastructure must be replaced and updated. In addition to new pipes, the government must also install meters for households, industry and agriculture, the largest water consumer in the country. Meters will allow authorities to monitor water usage, making it possible to bill consumers based on how much they actually use instead of charging a flat fee — as is currently the case — that provides no incentive to conserve.

But needed infrastructure work does not end there. The MoEW estimates that the country produces 310 million cubic meters of wastewater per year. Currently only 8 percent of it is treated. The rest is dumped into rivers, the sea or onto land. Not only is this polluting rivers and the sea, but in some instances this wastewater is seeping into aquifers and polluting groundwater as well. Lebanon has spent over one billion dollars building wastewater treatment plants and, based on the most recent strategy written in 2010, wants a total of 54. Of the 11 that had been completed in 2010, only four were operating. Seven were completed but unused because they were not connected to the sewerage system. Such colossal waste and mismanagement would be comic if it weren’t so tragic.

These, of course, are long term plans that will do nothing to help meet demand this summer. To address immediate needs, the ministry wants to drill more wells, which will alleviate the shortage — provided the water extracted can easily be linked in with the transmission and distribution system, a tall order for which the ministry has not articulated a plan. Moreover, digging more wells will only put more stress on aquifers already under pressure, hardly a wise long term strategy.

The state should focus more attention on inefficiencies and waste in agriculture, which uses some 61 percent of the country’s water — twice the amount households use. For instance, today over 70 percent of farmers rely on inefficient canals. A paltry 6.2 percent are using drip irrigation, which is far more efficient. These numbers must flip.

While the ministry is correct that individuals need to conserve water, this is hardly a plan. The exclusive focus on today’s households — while ignoring the real water guzzlers and the future — evidences a stunning dearth of competence. And water policy isn’t something you pass off to the B team.

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