Despite new efforts to tackle pollution in the Litani River, challenges remain

A litany of waste

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

The Litani River and its health—or lack thereof—directly impacts those Lebanese residents living near the river or buying produce irrigated by the river. The largest river in Lebanon, the Litani River Basin (LRB) is equivalent to 20 percent of Lebanon’s land area and winds through the Bekaa Valley and south Lebanon. In April 2018, the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI) officially asked all farmers—particularly those in central Bekaa from Riyaq down to Qaraoun—to not use the water for irrigation because pollution levels were so high. Michel Afrem, head of LARI, told Executive it will be years until water from the Litani is safe for irrigation again. Since August 2018, there has been an uptick in citations against alleged polluters, says Nassim Abou Hamad, head of the Litani River Authority (LRA)’s water governance department, but a clean river is still almost a decade away when considering the current cleanup roadmap and the amount of time after implementation that is needed for the river to rid itself of pollutants. 

A tale with many actors

Ending pollution in the Litani is not a simple task. Legislation to tackle the governance and protection of the river does exist, including Law 63 (2016) that: established the governance structure for the Litani River Basin, giving the LRA authority; set out a roadmap for improving the wastewater network and building treatment plants, due to be completed by 2023; and earmarked $730 million to clean up the river, though so far only $55 million has been spent, primarily on rehabilitation of wastewater networks. Roland Riachi, visiting assistant professor in political studies and public administration at the American University of Beirut (AUB) said Law 63 gave the LRA more capacity to act than the previous Law 221 (2000) or the more recent Law 77 (2018), which is the water code for the whole sector. According to Law 63’s text, which defines 17 government entities’ roles regarding the river, the LRA’s mandate includes the ability to “prosecute all offenders with regards to the LRB through unlicensed construction, uncontrolled waste dumping, dumping soil, or unlicensed well excavation” regarding industrial pollution, which the law defines as waste coming from industrial enterprises, including farms, gas stations, health sector institutions, and tourist institutions, as well as sand drills, quarries, and crushers. Law 77, on the other hand, was passed hastily the week before CEDRE in April 2018, says Riachi;  it does not have implementation decrees attached to it yet, and is currently under review at Parliament. In an attempt to satisfy international donors, the law was pushed through to demonstrate progress being made in the sector. Neither Abou Hamad nor Riachi knew the specifics of the potential revisions of the law.

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Coupled with these legislative powers, Sami Alawieh’s appointment as head of the Litani River Authority (LRA) in March 2018, has furthered progress on the river, as under his tenure there has been an increase in the number of citations issued and in subsequent legal action surrounding accused polluters. “Since Sami Alawieh has come into power, he’s really taken action,” says Yasmina el-Amine, the author of an AUB policy brief on pollution in the Litani published in March. According to the brief, the LRA has issued over 200 citations to factories and municipalities in the basin with the help of the ministries of environment, energy and water, and industry, as well as the Internal Security Forces. Explaining the process to determine if a company is dumping waste in the river, Abou Hamad says that there is a team of six or seven technicians working on the ground who first try to visually determine if there is pollution. If it cannot be confirmed by sight, the water is collected and sent for testing; if it tests come back positive for pollution levels higher than those allowed under Ministry of Environment (MoE)’s guidelines, a citation is issued and a lawsuit filed. The case then goes to a judge at a civil court; to date no judge has ruled against the LRA in a case, Abou Hamad says. The presiding judge may also request a third party take another sample before the final verdict is issued. Both Abou Hamad and Afrem told Executive of an upcoming memorandum of understanding between the LRA and LARI that will increase cooperation between the two entities, with LARI lending its ability to test water for pollutants.

Facing the consequences

Factories found guilty of polluting are given a grace period of three to four months to build the necessary treatment facility before being shut down, says Abou Hamad. In some extreme cases they will be shut down immediately, like one slaughterhouse that was found to be dumping between half a tonne to 1 tonne a day into the river. Shutting down factories is the mandate of the Ministry of Industry according to Abou Hamad. “The attorney general took the decision to shut down the slaughterhouse until a solution was implemented because of the massive amount of waste,” he says. 

The ultimate authority regarding the river is the Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW), but the MoE also has some authority, setting the environmental standard that the LRA use, Abou Hamad adds. According to Amine, Law 221 (2000) gave the four regional water establishments responsibility for wastewater management, but they lack administrative or financial capacity to play this role, leaving the responsibility to other actors. “For wastewater they either contract a third-party, or [in] some cases the municipalities take on the work, or (in most cases) the job is not done,” Amine wrote in a follow-up email to Executive.

Muddying the waters

There is no single source of pollution flowing into the Litani, but factories, municipalities, and agriculture have all contributed to the problem. Recently, refugees have received blame for dumping their waste directly into the river, and the LRA has sent letters to the UNHCR asking that the settlements be moved from the banks of the Litani, citing the LRA’s authority on the matter granted by Law 63. “Syrian refugees located on the river are dumping their sewage directly into the river and in many cases solid waste as well,” says Abou Hamad. However, while the refugees’ presence does contribute to the overall problem, they are not responsible for the largest amount of—nor the most dangerous—waste, both Afrem and Abou Hamad told Executive separately. Those titles go to municipal and industrial waste, respectively. 

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

LARI’s Afrem explains that while municipal waste contains largely bacterial pollution, industrial waste contains heavy metals that have more long-term health risks. Whereas bacterial infection can be treated with antibiotics relatively easily, heavy metals may accumulate in the body over years, increasing the risk of cancer. Municipal sewage is the biggest polluter, Abou Hamad says. “At least 35-40 million cubic meters (MCM) a year enter from household and municipal waste. The other amount comes from industries, 4 to 5 MCM, but it’s concentrated with heavy metals and it’s very dangerous effluent.”

Another pollutant is agricultural waste, generally caused by an overuse of pesticides and lack of proper runoff and treatment networks. From sources Executive talked to, the problem is four-fold: household waste, waste from industry and agriculture, and, on a much smaller scale, waste from refugees camped alongside the river bank. Making matters more complex is that each type of waste requires its own treatment processes. 

While the LRA and other actors, like the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) work to implement solutions, the level of pollution in the Litani is intensifying. A new report by LARI due to be sent to all ministries in May found that pollution levels were worse in 2018 than in 2017. “We are now reaching 50 million bacteria per millimeter in some places,” Afrem says. The permitted level as established by the Food and Agricultural Organization and the Lebanese Standards Institution is 200 bacteria per millimeter— 250,000 times lower.  

Efforts to rehabilitate wastewater networks and build treatment plants have seen some progress made with $55 million (7.5 percent of the allocated funds) dispersed after Law 63 was passed. When Executive queried why such a small amount of funding had been secured so far, Abou Hamad said that talks were held last month with the CDR, LRA, MoEW, and World Bank in which releasing another $300 million in funding was discussed, but he did not know if or when those funds may be received. These funds would go toward rehabilitating and building wastewater networks and establishing treatment facilities. Thirty years ago, wastewater networks were built in the Bekaa, but no treatment plants were built, effectively expediting the pollution flow to the river, says Abou Hamad. “It would’ve been better to leave every house with its own septic pit instead of connecting everyone to one line,” he says. In other places, he says the wastewater network itself is deficient and leaks are prevalent. 

Those Executive spoke with say that treatment plants, new and rehabilitated wastewater networks, and stronger governance are all needed to effectively clean up the Litani. So how long will this take? According to Abou Hamad, 2023 is the goal, but the question remains if this is achievable. “As the LRA, we issued a letter to CDR in November or December saying you are not upholding Law 63,” says Abou Hamad, referring to the roadmap set out by Law 63 that stipulates all projects related to networks and treatment stations must be finished within seven years of the law’s issuance. CDR, he says, is not on schedule. “They said everything was on track and everything will be finished by 2023.” Executive reached out to CDR for comment, but did not hear back before publication. 

However, assuming every plant, municipality, farmer, and refugee along the river stops dumping waste and proper wastewater networks and treatment plants are installed, a pollution-free river is still four to five years beyond this, Afrem says. This would mean if everything is finished by 2023, Lebanese can expect to see a clean river by 2028, but in a country where little runs on schedule, a country-wide river clean up seems unlikely to arrive on time. 

Lauren Holtmeier holds a masters of International Affairs from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M and has worked on refugee issues at the American University of Beirut.

One Comment;

  1. Ziad Hussami said:

    Eighty percent of the cost of treatment is in the network, and
    not the treatment plant. CDR funding must consider decentralized wastewater solutions which minimize Captial cost in network length, and maximize opportunities for reuse of water for irrigation. Micro nature based solutions can be more quickly deployed, reduce delays due to land appropriation, save in network costs, promote urban resilience. A comprehensive strategy is needed for medium and small towns along the river.

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