Springing a leak

The poluted water of the Litani river was on its way to Beiruts taps until recently (Photo: Sam Tarling)

The rectangular glass walls of Fathi Chatila’s office in Hamra make visitors feel much like they are in an aquarium without water; perhaps that is appropriate for a hydro-geologist concerned with Lebanon’s water woes. Chatila, also the editor-in-chief of Arab Water World magazine, has been leading a campaign aimed at changing the heavily-indebted Lebanese government’s expensive water ways since 1996. His efforts thus far have been somewhat in vain; since the 1970s, the focus in upgrading Lebanon’s decrepit water infrastructure has been on large-scale projects that require more long-term funding, not less.

For a fiscally stable country this is a viable option, but Lebanon is anything but; it currently maintains a public debt around one-and-a-half times its annual economic output. The country loses 1.8 percent of its gross domestic product — or around $433 million — per year from the cost of inaction on water infrastructure, according to the World Bank. That figure doesn’t include the estimated $87 million spent annually by the Lebanese on private water due to the lack of a clean and reliable supply at the tap. Despite these financial burdens, the most recent plan to improve Lebanon’s water distribution capabilities, which appears close to adoption, is by no means an exception to the rule of expensive tastes.

In December of last year the World Bank gave its first nod of approval to Lebanon’s water sector regarding what those at the bank call the Greater Beirut Water Supply Project (GBWSP), also known as the Awali Project.

Ultimately, the project plans to provide constant water supply to Baabda, Aley, parts of Metn and the Mount Lebanon region, as well as to an estimated 350,000 low-income residents of Southern Beirut’s suburbs. The total cost of the project would come to approximately $370 million, of which the World Bank would put up $200 million in loans, the Beirut and Mount Lebanon Water Establishment (BMLWE) some $140 million and the Lebanese government the rest.

In a country where the areas outside the capital city are often neglected by public services — such as proper roads and electricity — water infrastructure is the rural revenge on city folk. On average, residents of the city suffer the most during the summer season, when average water supply reaches just three hours per day, if that. The water deficit in 2008 was measured at between 40 to 50 million cubic meters (MCM) per year by the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), a financially autonomous public institution, accountable only to the cabinet, which plans and implements development projects. Furthermore, the BMLWE estimates that by 2025 the deficit will rise to 100 MCM.

In the short term, the GBWSP seeks to provide 24-hour supply to the areas that have suffered most. The project plans to take 50 MCM of water from the Qaraoun reservoir in the Western Bekaa — one of only two surface water storage structures built in the country since the 1960s — fed by the Litani River. The water will then be rerouted to the Awali river, treated and then conveyed to Greater Beirut, where, according the Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW), a new network is currently being built that will distribute it to consumers whose homes are to be fitted with new meters.

In total, 200,000 new meters will be installed as part of a pilot project to reshape Lebanon’s water tariff structure. Currently, households are charged a flat fee depending on location (from $156.5 in Beirut and Mount Lebanon to $117.4 in the Bekaa). This will give way to a volumetric tariff in these areas, initially at a rate of $0.39 per cubic meter of water, before increasing to a level that allows water establishments to break even in their operational and maintenance costs, according to the MoEW’s draft National Water Sector Strategy. It should be noted that none of this will be possible without a cabinet decision to change tariffs and, as of Executive going to press, no cabinet had been formed.

Hitch in the road

The GBWSP seemed to be going smoothly until last month when the World Bank announced that it would “expand a study already in process on water quality issues to cover water availability and costs,” after a report was submitted to the bank’s board of executive directors by the Inspection Panel, a “bottom-up” accountability and recourse mechanism of the World Bank that allows residents to file complaints to the board. It was hydro-geologist Chatila who authored the initial 21-page complaint signed by around 50 residents of Greater Beirut and submitted to the panel last November under the title, “Presenting a Much Better Project: Damour Dam.”

“If they accept the panel’s report or not, there is a crime that is going to happen against the residents of Beirut and the country,” says Chatila, in reference to the GBWSP. “It makes no sense that the water of the Damour River, [which] is just a short distance from Beirut and is clean and cheaper, is not brought to the city.”

Chatila has been lobbying the government to implement the proposed Damour river dam since 1996, he says, when he conducted his own study on the feasibility of placing a dam some two kilometers east of the juncture where the Damour meets the Al Hammam River, which he then submitted to the relevant water authorities.

The idea of using the water in the Damour River to supply Greater Beirut was first rejected in 1970 when the Lebanese cabinet decided instead on the plan that has since  become the GBWSP, which would operate from April to October: the dry season. The decision came as a result of studies carried out by the Ministry of Energy and Water and the Litani River Authority, which stated that only 5 MCM (as opposed to Qaraoun’s 50 MCM) could be stored by a dam on the Damour River and called for the idea to be scrapped.

Again in 1998 the Ministry of Energy and Water reaffirmed this position in a letter sent to Chatila stating that after consulting with international experts, including those from Électricité de France and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It stated that “the geological formations are highly fissured and the solutions are very expensive and complicated, and even impossible, hence we decided to neglect it.”

After following up on the matter with FAO hydro-geologist Alain Guerre, Chatila claims he was told that the studies were only done at a location in the Beiteddine village of Al Samkaniyeh, not at the location much further downstream where he had performed his own research. Despite this, Chatila says he managed to lobby the cabinet, which eventually issued a decree on September 1, 1999, to compile the conditions for carrying out a feasibility study at the Damour river and to launch a tender a month later.

On September 8 the cabinet asked the CDR to commission Guerre and Chatila to work on the project. Chatila then claims that on September 25 Guerre received a phone call from Lebanon informing him that his life would be in danger if he came to Beirut. Guerre then sent an email to Chatila saying he would not be able to come to Lebanon for personal reasons. Guerre did not respond to a request to comment for this story.

Later that same September, CDR commissioned Peter Rae of Harza Engineering, now Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH), to carry out a preliminary report, which was submitted in November 1999 and stated that a dam on the Damour river could store 63 MCM at a cost of $90 million, or 90 MCM at a cost $140 million, but two years would be needed for complete feasibility to be covered. According to Chatila, the CDR called in another firm by the name of Water Engineering, which considered the geological formations in the Damour River and the hydro-geological conditions prevailing in the area “ideal” for the formation of a reservoir.

Tripoli's waste water treatment facility is still not operational (Photo: Sam Tarling)

Another CDR-commissioned study was then performed by Harza Engineering, which found that a 60 MCM dam was technically feasible.  In 2005, a war of words erupted in the press between Chatila and then president of the CDR Al Fadel Shalak, after which Chatila claimed he was physically forced out of the CDR offices.

In 2007 the CDR again asked Liban Consult to carry out feasibility studies on building a dam at the Damour River. Liban Consult announced in 2009 that it was possible to store 42 MCM for a cost of $90 million. “I will not question the results of the studies reached by Liban Consult for the Damour Dam, although I know that such results were pre-determined by CDR even before the feasibility studies took place,” reads the complaint letter authored by Chatila. “I will nevertheless accept all that has been mentioned by Liban Consult… although this study does not reflect the real storage conditions at the Damour river… The dam site I have located… will store over 90 MCM at a very low rate.” The CDR, the World Bank and Montgomery Watson Harza did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“Damour is a viable option to look at and I don’t think it has been given a chance,” says Nadim Farajallah, professor of hydrology and water resources at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

What now?

Despite the fact that a cabinet decision to conduct a full feasibility study has been overlooked for years, the Damour dam project has not been written off entirely, as it was in the 1970s. The dam was included in the government’s 10-year water storage project, which expired last year, and the MoEW’s current draft National Water Sector Strategy, at a cost of $150 million to store 39 MCM. As for the GBWSP, the MoEW, which is tasked with executing the project, does not seem fazed by the latest concerns raised by the World Bank’s top decision-makers.

“There are no implications on the project; as far as we are concerned we are moving and there is a board decision to grant this money,” says Randa Nimer, advisor to the Minister of Energy and Water. “If they decide to stop the funding, then fine, we will find another donor. At the end of the day let’s agree on one thing, this is not charity; we are paying interest.”

According to Nimer, the reason the ministry is pressing ahead is that, despite what potential other options such as Damour might hold, the GBWSP is the only project for Beirut that is ready to go; the potential  alternatives don’t have a final design or funding lined up. “For Damour, the World Bank wanted a sophisticated environmental assessment, and it was not ready and would take at least a year.”

Initially, the ministry was looking at integrating the Damour project with the GBWSP but found that there would be no place to treat the Damour water before it converged with water from Lake Qaraoun, which would already be treated at Ouardaniyeh, explains Nimer. “With Damour you need to have your conveyor with raw water, treat it somewhere near Hazmieh and then distribute,” she says. As a result the projects will have to be done separately.

Nimer says she “refuses” to accept the premise that Damour should be compared to the GBWSP because, at the end of the day, Beirut will need the GBWSP, the Damour dam, as well as dams at Bisri and Janah, so whether the cost per cubic meter for one is greater than the other should not be a major concern [see table].

Moreover, she explains that the conveyor being built for the GBWSP will have a capacity of 150 MCM to take water from the planned Bisri dam, and adds that Damour is planning to be integrated with the Janah dam, which will bring somewhere from 30 to 40 MCM on its own. “If I need water for Beirut, from Awali, Damour and Bisri, you cannot tell me Damour is $2 [per cubic meter (CM)] and Awali is $3 [per CM], so don’t do Awali,” she says hypothetically. All of them are projects that the MoEW is “going to implement in the next five to 10 years so [let’s] not compare prices between these. This is what is available and what I can do to bring water to Beirut.”

Not just cost

But the objections of Chatila and the Greater Beirut residents do not stop at merely cost and timing. Many of the opponents of the GBWSP cite the historically bad water quality of Qaraoun reservoir and the upper Litani River as the main reason they do not want the water. Residents around the Qaraoun in the West Bekaa have refused to use its water, opting instead to spend some $50 million under the auspices of the Council for the South, another public, financially autonomous body, to bring water from the low-lying Zarqa spring to their areas.

Arif Dia, professor of hydrobiology at the Lebanese University and a specialist in water contamination, has conducted studies on the Qaraoun, Litani, Awali and Damour rivers. He confirms that the waters of the Qaraoun are problematic. “I did a biological study and really life cannot exist in the Qaraoun. It’s scary how dirty it is,” he says. “The Damour’s water is safer for sure. Between all of the rivers it’s the best.”

Chatila claims that the water from the Qaraoun contains trace elements and heavy metal remnants of carcinogenic minerals such as zinc and lead bromide, which cannot be treated. However, both Dia and AUB’s Farajallah deny this. “You can remove anything from water; they drink from the Thames, don’t they?” said Farajallah. “But the more you treat the more you pay. If you have the money you have the solution.”

Dia adds: “You need advanced technology, and I doubt that this exists in Lebanon… You know, these issues need a lot of care and are delicate and I am doubtful we have the capability.”

According to Nimer, beginning in April of last year the ministry began conducting weekly tests on the water at several locations of the project, including the Qaraoun reservoir for 11 months, and cross-checked these results with those from the Litani River Authority once a month. “The result is that the water is good and does not contain carcinogenic materials,” she said. “When the panel came and started raising the issue of water quality because [of] Chatila… the World Bank requested that we conduct further analysis… We had a team who went there, collected samples and sent them to the environment laboratory of AUB,” she added, saying that the samples would be ready by the end of March and others would be taken a month later to cross check. “That will be it because with the heavy metals you don’t do tests regularly, because either you have them or you don’t. I am not paying any more money on that issue.”

Whether or not the water is suitable for consumption or cost-effective treatment is one thing, but what’s certain is that the organs of the Lebanese government have not been able to identify the most cost-effective methods of managing the country’s water, in this case or in any other.

As a result the people have suffered, while millions of dollars have been paid to consultants for projects that were never started. Whether the GBWSP will suffer the same fate is a question of both time and money, but it alone will by no means solve the country’s chronic water problems.

For that to happen, Lebanon will need a cabinet to make a decision to pass a national water sector strategy, and it will have to stay in office long enough to implement it with its associated laws. Given the track record of ineffective cabinets and parliaments, the ambitions of the Lebanese water sector could very well end up washed out to sea, just like the valuable water in its rivers.

First published in Executive Magazine’s April 2011 issue

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