Pierre may be covered in grease, but he is a happy man. Since he joined the family business five years ago, this has been his best year to date. “Actually, it’s been one of the best years ever,” he says. Pierre and his family are in the water transport business, and through the summer and into the autumn he has been busier than ever, shuttling from one side of the capital to the other cashing in where successive governments’ lack of policy formulation has left the state unable to adequately provide a basic human necessity.
This year has been particularly dry due to the low amount of snowfall last winter. The season for private water supply typically starts around July and, in theory, ends in October when the first rains start to fall. As Executive went to print at the end of October, Pierre’s business was still booming. Last year, he bought a new water truck and says he has easily covered his investment. That’s because over the course of the peak summer season when water is sparse, prices have risen from a minimum of $6.60 per cubic meter (CM) (depending on whether the water tank is on the ground or on the roof) to reach at least $13.30 per CM and up to $20 per CM at the end of last month, says Pierre with a smirk. His continuing success is not surprising given that the World Bank (WB) estimates that 75 percent of total household water expenditure in Lebanon is spent on water provided by the private water market. The sector as a whole is estimated to rake in some $87 million per year.
In theory, all households should receive an average of 1 CM per day, but in reality the amount of water that comes depends on two factors: the number of hours water is provided by the local water authority, if any, and whether the household decides it wants to follow the law. Because of the government’s previous apparent disinterest in organizing the sector, instead of meters and a pay-as-you-go system, households in Lebanon pay one annual lump sum that is disconnected from actual consumption. The cost ranges from $156.5 in Beirut and Mount Lebanon to $117.4 in the Bekaa. Businesses have a different tariff structure depending on the type of establishment.
The only mechanism in place to regulate supply is a “gauge,” basically a plastic hole fitted to the pipe that brings water to households. “Those who remove the gauge get more and those who keep it get less than 1 CM per day,” says Abdo Tayar, advisor to the minister of energy and water and the person spearheading the country’s water strategy formulation.
Depending on the season and the location, water is supplied daily from three to 22 hours per day, according to data from the Ministry of Energy and Water’s (MoEW) draft water strategy acquired by Executive. Speak to Beirut residents in the summer, however, and it is not uncommon to hear them complain of days on end without water. That’s because, unlike electricity, people outside the capital have considerably better supply than those inside it. Officially, residents of Beirut receive three hours of supply per day in the low season and 13 hours in the high season, while the residents of north Lebanon receive 22 hours of supply year-round. Perhaps due to the fact that a private contractor manages water distribution in Tripoli, the city receives running potable water 24 hours a day.
No good reason
The lack of water at the tap would perhaps be understandable if Lebanon was as arid as Jordan or Saudi Arabia. But Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East that does not contain a desert and comes second only to Iraq in terms of renewable water sources, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The three main river basins cover about 45 percent of the country and Lebanon is littered with springs and small tributaries.
But even with these resources, if water is mismanaged, the Lebanese might as well be living in the middle of the Sahara. According to the World Bank, “if no actions are taken to improve efficiency and increase storage capacity, it is estimated that the seasonal imbalance of water resources will lead to chronic water shortages by 2020.”
According to a report by the global water consultancy Global Water Intelligence, Lebanon is already a water-scarce nation, with renewable water resources estimated at 926 CM per capita per year in 2009: just below the 1,000 CM per capita per year threshold that defines ‘water poverty’. That too is expected to fall to 839 CM per capita per year by 2015 because of population growth, and that’s before climate change is taken into account.
“We are going into a phase where we are going to have less and less snow and more and more rain,” says Nadim Farajallah, professor of hydrology and water resources at the American University of Beirut (AUB). “Snow is what recharges our ground water; rain just runs off into the sea.”
Even with all these signs pointing to impending disaster, the real problem may in fact be far worse, since no one really knows the exact amount of Lebanon’s water resources. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) mapped Lebanon’s underground geological structures, including its aquifers. Until today the country has not performed an assessment of how much water these aquifers actually contain or how they can be exploited, and the UNDP’s maps do not cover all of the country, according to Tayar at the energy and water ministry.
Farajallah adds that, “Money has to be spent on this. We need to look at each aquifer, characterize it, understand how much it yields and what is a safe yield. You have to extract as much as you recharge if you want to sustain your source.”
Lacking this research, Lebanon has to rely solely on geological data and extrapolate using a margin-of-error system to reach ‘guesstimates’ of resource levels. At present a project is being undertaken by the Lebanese Center for Water Management and Conservation, an $1.8 million joint UNDP and MoEW endeavor to turn these geological maps into hydrogeological maps. The Italian Cooperation, Italy’s official development agency, will pick up the tab.
The tables have turned
Meanwhile Lebanon’s water table, the level where groundwater rests in a given area, has been falling drastically across the county. To get an idea of the increasing severity of this problem, one need only consider that the water table at the AUB’s farm in the Bekaa rested at between 5 to 6 meters below ground-level in the 1950s, according to Farajallah; today that level has fallen to between 60 to 70 meters down. “That’s one meter per year or so and that’s a hell of a lot,” he says. The level is falling because the country is extracting more groundwater than can be replenished naturally, especially during a dry year such as this one. Tayar estimates that, on average, groundwater replenishment is around 500 million CM per year. This figure is being exceeded by usage due to drilling of unauthorized wells across the country in addition to lax and corrupt enforcement.
“Now there is a price mechanism! It’s known what the price is for protection from the local law enforcement agent” to tap into the government water source, says Tayar, who laments that the ministry does not have the authority to stop illegal drilling or hookups. Not only do illegal wells deplete the country’s natural resources, over-extraction also irreparably damages geological aquifers, adding to the burden of future generations.
In addition, the lowering of the water table in coastal areas creates a phenomena known as ‘saltwater intrusion,’ whereby water from the sea enters freshwater aquifers because of differences in underground water pressure. The process is very difficult to reverse and, in any case, “the harm has been done,” says Farajallah. “We are in Starbucks right now,” he says during an interview in Hamra. “I suggest you go to the bathroom, wash your hands then taste the water. It’s salty. And this is the case in many coastal areas from Beirut to Choueifat.”
The ministry estimates that the total number of private wells exceeds 42,000, as compared to the 620 officially sanctioned and government-owned wells. Private wells’ total yield is estimated at some 440 million CM per year while the government wells draw only 260 million CM. Due to the illegal nature of these wells, however, Tayar admits that their number could be as much as twice the official estimate.
“At the end of the day we can be as hardheaded as we want but the reason someone drills a well is because the government is not providing them with the right amount of water,” says Tayar. “It all goes back to this vicious cycle. I cannot come today and say, ‘close the wells now and bring the levels to equilibrium,’ because there is no alternative for people.” He adds that the issue will have to be resolved gradually, a process that will take a number of years.
Watch what you eat
Of all the problems illegal drilling causes, the most significant may well be its affect on the quality of groundwater. That quality is getting exponentially worse due to the fact that when many of Beirut’s homes were built, they were not connected to the sewage system. As a result people drilled what are known as dry wells and discarded their sewage into them. “Some people had generous contractors who gifted them a cracked dry well called a shattered well,” says Farajallah sarcastically. “That cracked well connected to subterranean water, groundwater, and this caused most of groundwater to be polluted by sewage.”
Since 52 percent of groundwater in the country is being used for irrigation, this means in some areas water contaminated with sewage is being used to water crops. Hardly an appetizing thought. “The layer above groundwater might be contaminated but soil acts as a filter. But if it’s discharged directly, as is the case with a lot of the dry wells, that’s a major problem,” says Farajallah. “Just look at the number of gastrointestinal flus and problems that we have.”
The logical solution to this problem would be to have a proper wastewater treatment system in the country.
Typically some 80 to 85 percent of household water is returned as wastewater and, of that, anywhere from 60 to 80 percent can be reused and even purified to the point where it is drinkable. To reach that point wastewater requires three levels of treatment — something which does not seem to have been the priority of successive governments. A World Bank report released last year described second level treatment as “inexistent.” Most collected wastewater is discharged untreated into rivers and the sea, costing the country an equivalent of more that 1 percent of GDP (around $340 million) due to environmental degradation, according to the World Bank.
Although the percentage of wastewater network coverage is 6 percent above the Middle East and North Africa average of 48 percent, the portion that actually gets treated is an abysmal 4 percent, according to the MoEW’s estimations. The frequency of bacterial contamination also varies throughout the country, ranging from 0 percent in some rural areas to 90 percent in urban centers, according to official data. According to an international development expert, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of their relationship with the government, the amount of coliform bacteria — commonly used as an indicator of sanitary quality — in Beirut’s tap water is around 80,000 particles per milliliter. The expert added that the global standard for potable water is no more than 100 particles per milliliter.
Surprisingly, the problem is not a lack of funding; “The amount of money spent by donors on wastewater treatment is phenomenal and we have practically nothing to show for it,” says Farajallah. The issue centers on the fact that water laws are not fully applied and there is little coordination between stakeholders, such as international donors, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), the MoEW, regional Water Establishments (WEs) and municipalities.
In the early part of this decade, laws were passed that created five regional water establishments to operate within policy set by the ministry. Wastewater is a perfect example of how this has not happened. Today, most wastewater services are provided and financed by municipalities and small private sector operators.
Law 221, the most recent water reform law from 2000, says that the MoEW should “design, study, and install major water facilities,” but in practice the CDR oversees the building of wastewater treatment plants and then hands them over to the MoEW, says the World Bank. The latter is also in contravention to the law because WEs are supposed to handle “collection, treatment, and disposal of wastewater,” but do not do so because of a lack of resources and capacity. All institutions were meant to be integrated into the WEs two years after the law was passed, but by that time the WEs had only just been set up.
The CDR has also built several wastewater treatment plants which lay idle because “of limited capacity and unfinished water supply network,” according to the World Bank. The Bank financed a plant in Baalbek that was supposed to serve 15,000 people, but has remained nothing more than a concrete ornament since 2000 because of delays in the construction of a wastewater network. Other plants suffer the same fate because they don’t have the electricity, the staff, or the money to run them once the funding for construction runs out.Further evidence of the lack of planning or seriousness on the government’s behalf is the number of vacancies at the MoEW and the WEs. Of the 4,050 staff needed, only 1,334 of the positions are filled at present and the government has put a freeze on new hiring.
“Changing the organizational structures of the WEs will be a long process that will require government approval,” says Manfred Scheu, principal advisor at the German Agency for Technical Cooperation, which is currently aiding the ministry in its draft strategy. “We don’t know which way this will go [politically] and the minister also has his own political agenda.”
But even with all these complications, the draft strategy for the sector notes that within the WEs, routine preventative maintenance of the water network can make up as little as 0.1 percent of total capital costs of civil works. Given that around 48 percent of water in the distribution and collection network is unaccounted for due in part to poor maintenance and antiquated infrastructure, that this investment is so meager speaks volumes about the priority of reform. Furthermore, only network assets in Beirut and Mount Lebanon are fully documented, with the average age of pipes in these areas around 30 years old, while Farajallah claims that there is a section of Beirut’s network in the Corniche El Nahr area that dates back to the Ottoman times.“Saving on distribution is similar to trying to find a new resource,” says Tayar. “The customer doesn’t care if you are treating the pipe or building a dam. In the end they care about more clean water in the tap.”
Ultimately, even if groundwater is managed well, the networks are maintained and upgraded, and the MoEW and WEs are reformed, the country will still need to store and skillfully manage its surface water. At the moment the country has only around 235 million CM of dam storage capacity, which represents some 6 percent of total renewable water resources. The equivalent ratio of dam storage capacity to renewable water resources in neighboring Syria is 117 percent and in Egypt, a country that is mostly desert, that number is 295 percent.
Most of the storage capacity in Lebanon is in an aging dam in the Qaraoun district on the upper Litani River, which has a technical storage capacity of 220 million CM, though the effective storage capacity is 160 million CM. The Qaraoun dam, built in the 1960s, is rarely cleaned, if at all — this causes sediment to build up at a rate of around half a meter per year, decreasing the amount the dam can hold, according to the international development expert.
As Tayar explains, many of the areas that are upstream from the dam also discharge their untreated water into rivers that feed the dam, thus increasing the amount of polluted water that is then siphoned off to citizens for irrigation.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “geological conditions make construction of storage dams difficult.” Lebanon’s newest dam at Chabrouh (with 15 million CM in storage capacity) had to undergo a “surgical operation,” says Tayar, to close off areas of the dam’s basin that contain carbonate rocks that leak water into the ground, significantly increasing the cost.
He estimates that around 60 to 70 percent of Lebanon is covered by such rocks, called karstic formations, which would require reservoir basins to be made watertight to avoid leakage, causing construction costs to skyrocket.
Tayar insists that no dams will be proposed in the upcoming strategy until they are deemed economically and technically feasible. However, the alternative would be to build costly desalination plants on prime real estate next to the sea and pump salt into the ocean, killing sea life and damaging the marine ecosystem, says Farajallah.
At the moment the only completed plan to improve water management comes in the form of a document that covers the period from 2000 to 2010 called the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) plan.
“It wasn’t really a strategy, it was mostly about construction of dams,” says Scheu from the German development agency. The current minister seems to be following this strategy, though he has met much resistance from the finance ministry, who say that these projects are too expensive for the debt-laden state. Currently two dams and their reservoirs are being built at Brissa in North Lebanon and Qaisamani in the Mount Lebanon area with planned completion dates in 2011 and 2013 respectively; their combined storage capacity will be only some 2.5 million CM, according to Tayar.
Dams are costly to build, but they are also costly to maintain. Like wastewater, if a dam is built and there are no staff to run it then the investment effectively becomes money down the drain. “Dams are not necessarily a fix if organizational structures are not addressed,” says Scheu. Moreover, long and expensive conveyance structures will have to be built to transport water from the dams to households and businesses.
Last month the Lebanese press reported that the World Bank had granted Lebanon $200 million to re-route the Awali River, near Saida, to Beirut. When Executive contacted the World Bank for confirmation, it turned out that only the initial proposal specifications had been approved, and the loan application had been sent to the appropriate board of directors for approval.
The CDR has chosen Washington-based consultant MWH to perform a feasibility study for the project, the initial cost of which is estimated at some $350 million and aims bring an extra 260 million liters of water per day to Beirut. This would help close the capital’s water deficit, which in October stood at an estimated 368 million liter per day. That is, of course, if the project receives financing.
Fortunately for Lebanon, it has a host of willing international financiers, many of whom have already pumped millions of dollars into developing the sector. Just last month the energy minister announced that Iran would invest in Lebanon’s energy and water sectors to the tune of around $450 million.
But what Lebanon really needs is technical assistance and organizational reform, which will not always come from donors. “Arab and Iranian donors are different from Western ones and they won’t necessarily insist on organizational reform,” says Scheu.
Other sources of income are being mulled by the MoEW, which is eager to transition away from lump sum payments to metered billing systems. This would naturally bring revenues in line with consumption and create a sense of the economic worth of water among the population. But Tayar insists that this will have to be done gradually and piloted in specific areas that are provided with the 24-hour service first. Currently, only 10 percent of Lebanon’s consumers have meters but they still pay the standard lump-sum fee.
“Starting 2011, if you build a new house, you can no longer apply for a gauge. It will disappear and only meters will be operational,” says Tayar. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that a metered billing system will be in place; it is a highly sensitive political issue and requires a cabinet decision.
Other sources of revenue include a wastewater tariff to cover the costs of managing wastewater, which are now only partially covered by municipal fees. Because irrigation makes up around two-thirds of Lebanon’s total water usage (groundwater plus surface water) and “irrigation practices are much worse than water supply practices,” according to Tayar, improving the efficiency of irrigation tariff collection will go a long way in making Lebanon’s water sector economically viable. Presently, more than half the irrigation schemes in the country do not have “adequate operations and maintenance,” according to the draft strategy, and most small and medium-sized schemes have no formal organization at all.
Whatever action Lebanon takes to bring its water sector up to scratch, it still has little control over how Israel will react to developments on this side of the border. The only understanding that exists is a tacit agreement between the Arab League and Israel drafted in the 1950s called the Johnston Plan, whereby Lebanon would draw only 35 million CM from the Hasbani River, which was proposed but never ratified.
In August of 2002, Lebanon announced that it would draw an additional five million CM from the Hasbani River, which is upstream from Israel and forms the headwaters of Lake Tiberius and the Jordan River. Then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon claimed that the action was a threat to Israel’s security and threatened all out war against Lebanon, prompting a deluge of international mediation to pacify the situation.
“When the Israelis saw that we were taking less than 10 percent of what was allowed, they shut up,” says Farajallah. In the end, Lebanon buckled under the pressure and only partly implemented the project, though Lebanese politicians claimed it a victory over the “Zionist entity.”
“We are not following any plan except for the natural plan. The water is coming up on our land and we have the right to use it according to our needs. No one can tell us how much we can use and there are — to this date —no agreements on how much we can use,” says Tayar defiantly.
The plan of all plans
Many experts have praised the strategy currently being prepared by the ministry as a good first step. So far, a baseline assessment has been completed and supply-demand forecasting is currently being conducted. The ministry aims to complete a comprehensive strategy and investment plan and present it to cabinet for approval by the end of this year. According to Tayar, the plan will include some sort of private sector participation that will likely come in the form of a build-operate-transfer contract. That will also require a draft public-private partnership law to be passed by Lebanon’s sluggish parliament, which has only managed to pass two piecemeal reform laws since it was sworn in well over a year ago.
Even if cabinet approves the plan, it means little by itself, as funding cannot be provided by the state until parliamentary ratification of a national budget, something that has not occurred since 2004. Previous experience shows that this has acted as the main stumbling block to reform; the implementation of the cabinet-approved electricity reform plan is stalled for this very reason. If recent talk of a cabinet reshuffle pans out, any and all cabinet-ratified plans not yet voted on by parliament would promptly be thrown out the window.
Given the abysmal state of the water sector, the answer to why it has not been a priority for successive governments, or the people who voted them into office, may be more entrenched than the problem itself. “Because basically people don’t care,” says Farajallah. “I cannot [think] of another reason.”
First published in Executive Magazine’s November 2010 issue