Lebanon’s leaky ways

There seems to be no end in sight for Lebanon's water woes (Photo: al-Akhbar - Marwan Tahtah)

Recent Government approval to go ahead with the Awali project to supply Beirut with drinking water ignores repeated warnings about a high bill, environmental damage, and mounting risks to already dwindling water sources

When the skies above Beirut turn dark, the people of the city breathe a sigh of long awaited relief. With the clouds come the rains that feed the underground reservoirs from which the Canaanite name for the capital is derived. But since the 1960s Beirut has failed to live up to its given name which today, represents little more than an epithet.

By 2008 the city’s water deprivation was said to be between 40 to 50 million cubic meters (MCM) a year according to the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), Lebanon’s financially autonomous public institution under the cabinet that plans and implements development projects. Most estimates predict that by 2025 the capital’s water deficit will rise to 100 MCM a year.

In an effort to finally address the matter, on October 11 the cabinet approved a US$200 million loan from the World Bank for a US$370 million infrastructure project called the Greater Beirut Water Supply Project, also known as the Awali project.

Decisions of quantity

The cabinet decision came after 51 residents of Greater Beirut made a formal request of the Inspection Panel – the World Bank’s so-called self check mechanism – in November 2010 to have the project halted. The petition’s protagonist, Fathi Chatila, hydrogeologist and editor-in-chief of Arab Water World magazine, called the project “a conspiracy” and “a crime against the rights of the people of Beirut.” Chatila claimed cheaper alternatives existed and that the water was too polluted to bring to Beirut even after planned treatment, among other things.

The Bank deemed the request by Chatila as ineligible because it did not meet the criteria set by the bank for complaints to be processed.

Nevertheless, it commissioned a study by the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina (UNCWI) to look into the cost, quantity and quality of the project.

Resulting leaks

When the results of the study came back, the conclusion was that the Awali project was the best possible solution for Beirut’s water woes and the quality, quantity and cost were all acceptable. Indeed on the surface the matter seemed closed, but in fact it is far from it.

Bringing water from the Qaraoun to Beirut will not happen without consequences. Water flowing into the lake is already the major source of irrigation and livelihood for those living above the Qaraoun, while the water drawn from the dam at the foot of the lake has several existing uses. That water powers the Markabi, Joun and Awali hydroelectric power plants, which provide around 8 percent of Lebanon’s electricity, and irrigates the Kasmieh and Leeba regions. But the Qaraoun itself is also shrinking.

While the farmers of the upper Litani need the river’s water for irrigation and drinking, withdrawing the water causes summer flows to decrease dramatically and the groundwater table – the ‘surface’ of the underground water level – to fall, due to the rampant expansion of unchecked wells sucking up the groundwater.

Then there is the infamous lack of reliable data. According the ministry’s information, today the Qaraoun contains between 220 to 300 MCM, whereas in years past many assumed the lake held close to 400 MCM. “There is not much data and whatever data there is, its being cooked,” says an international consultant working with the government on water issues, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The consultant adds that the Qaraoun’s total capacity is only some 200 MCM, of which only 160 MCM are usable as the rest is a combination of “bottom water,” which is too low to be piped, and water used for electricity production. Ismail Makki, department manager of the projects division of CDR’s agricultural and development section says that the dam can supply as much as 190 MCM only.

To top it off, the plethora of different government administrations carrying out different projects using the Litani and the Qaraoun’s water lends more weight to the belief that the Awali project will mean that no one will have the water they need after hundreds of millions of dollars of public money is spent.

The CDR has already initiated plans to begin constructing the “Canal 800” project, a decision taken by the cabinet in 2002. Canal 800 is a series of irrigation distribution networks designed to provide water from Qaraoun to an area of about 15,000 hectares south of the Litani River, in the Quelia and Marjeyoun regions. The main canal that will bring water to these areas should, if finished, use up 110 MCM of water per year. According to the document calling for expressions of interest in the Canal 800 from the UNDP, “the Lebanese Government has only received funding and initiated the execution of works for the main Canal.”

As a result, the “key assumption” of water quantity assessment conducted by the World Bank’s consultant, the UNCWI, is already null and void. The UNCWI deduces that the Awali project is feasible from a quantitative perspective only if “the Canal 800 irrigation project will not begin to withdraw water until 2021 and will not reach maximum value until about a decade later…its feasibility can only be determined in the context of a broader analysis of Lebanon’s total water resource availability.”

What’s more, according to the minutes of the October cabinet decision obtained byal-Akhbar, the CDR told the cabinet that Canal 800 will go into service after the execution of the second phase of the Awali project in 2017, not 2021 as assumed by the World Bank’s consultant.

The CDR went on to explain to the cabinet other adverse effects of implementing Canal 800 along with the Awali project and other planned projects from the Qaraoun to the Joun power plant. The CDR’s Makki says that it is possible that the main canal will be completed by 2017 but that doesn’t mean it will, as the execution contracts are not yet signed. “Procurement alone is already taking a lot of time,” he says.

After all the public funding, still down by half

By the CDR’s own admission in the cabinet document, if all the water resources available including the Qaraoun dam, rivers and other springs and tunnels available along the Awali project’s trajectory are exploited – and there is no guarantee that they will be – the minimum amount of water available would be 48 percent less than what is needed in the next 10 years and afterwards, when all other projects are also slated for completion. “If they do all the projects at the same time then yes we could have a problem,” says Makki, adding that it will require around 10 years to build the Canal 800 and the Bisri dam.

The upper limit assumed by the CDR is dependent on the construction of the Bisri Dam between the Chouf and Sidon. But even if it is built, a bad year would result in either one section of the country not getting the water it was promised after all the hundreds of millions of public money has been spent, or, everybody getting less.

The addition of the Bisri dam to the Awali project could still mean that a 10 percent total water deficit if all regions are supplied with the water they have been promised for decades. If that were to happen Lebanon would also risk loosing up to 198 megawatts of electricity powered by the waters of the Qaraoun, which would cost around US$1 million or more per megawatt to reproduce using fossil fuels.

Bisri dam on shaky ground

However, the issue of even building the Bisri dam is not as clear cut as the math suggests. The CDR’s final feasibility study on the Bisri dam states that if the dam does not carry 130 MCM – and there is no assurance that it will because of variability in rainfall – it will not be economically feasible. It is presently the only dam of three needed for Beirut that has a final design and feasibility study, which is likely the reason it is favored by the government.

According to Arab Water World’s Chatila, the Bisri is the “worst” site to store water because it lies over unstable sandstones and clays and less than 2 kilometers east of the still active Roum geological fault. “An earthquake whose magnitude is more than 7.2 degrees on the Richter scale will cause the destruction of the Bisri dam site,” he says. “This will lead to financial and human loss which Lebanon cannot afford to bear.”

But Makki disagrees saying that even though the dam contains both sandy structures and formations that can cause leakage, these are accounted for in the final cost. Moreover he says that the dam’s design can withstand up to 8.6 degrees on the Richter scale while 7.2 degrees is what the CDR considered possible.

Liquidity problems

At a press conference three days after the cabinet decision to approve funding for the Awali project, Minister of Energy and Water Gebran Bassil stated that the Bisri dam was an “inseparable and integrated” part of the project. He added that moving ahead with the Awali without first building the dam would be “an investment that is useless, resulting in paying a lot of money for a little bit of water.” Bassil also stressed that the completion of the Bisri dam, the Canal 800 and the Awali project are essential so that water is not cut off from the South, the Beqaa or Beirut.

While the minister’s assertion is commensurate with the cabinet’s minutes, it runs contrary to the opinion of the very same people that will offer up the bulk of the money for the Awali project. The World Bank’s official response to the March complaint was that “the Bisri dam is not a component of the GBWSP [Awali project] nor is it relevant to, or necessary for, the achievement of the objectives of the GBWSP,” a clear contradiction of the minister’s statement.

That statement also contradicts the UNCWI’s assertion in its review of costs because “the Awali Conveyor and Bisri options are not mutually exclusive, as the Awali Conveyor would be necessary to deliver water that would be impounded by the proposed Bisri dam; however, the expected total cost would exceed currently available resources.”

During the cabinet meeting in October the cabinet decided to seek funding for the Bisri dam based on a statement by the energy and water ministry. The ministry said it had received “a written commitment” by the World Bank to provide a further US$125 million to fund the dam expected to cost a total of US$260 million according to Makki.

But according to the World Bank’s communications office in Beirut “the way they have said it is incorrect” and there is “no way” that the Bank has approved the dam’s funding, although it is currently studying the ministry’s proposal.

The World Bank has stringent policies for funding dams, as these usually involve politically sensitive issues relating to relocating homes and damaging the environment. The Bank declined to comment on other matters related to the Awali project while the energy ministry failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview. “Considering alternatives is a must as per World Bank rules,” says the consultant. “Emergency is no excuse for doing it wrong. [The] Lebanese have been waiting long, they can wait a bit longer to make it right instead of another half-ass solution.”

Questions of quality

The issues of the Awali do not just stop at quantity. It’s no secret to anyone who has been to the upper Litani and the Qaraoun dam that they are both highly polluted. How much and what type of pollution they contain are the factors that affect treatment plant specifications needed to bring the Awali project’s water into people’s homes without causing them potentially life-threatening harm.

The main types of water contamination are biological and chemical. Biological contamination refers to high levels of organic content such as bacteria from excrement or carcasses, which mostly comes from both household and agricultural waste. Chemical contamination of water can come from many sources from shampoo to factories, but it is usually caused by industrial waste.

But with proper treatment any contamination can be removed, the only issue is “the more the treatment the more the cost,” says Antoine Samarani, professor of environmental geosciences at the Lebanese University which specializes in water treatment. The UNCWI however, considers the presence of extremely harmful metals in the water “not a high concern.”

An unpublished study obtained by al-Akhbar titled the “Litani River Basin Management Support Program Water Quality Survey,” funded by the US government and cited as a source by the UNCWI, is an even greater cause for alarm that no one in the government seemed to notice. The results show internationally unacceptable levels of aluminum, barium, chromium, copper, nickel, and zinc – the same metals the UNCWI said were not a concern.

The levels were not found in a similar study in 2005 indicating that the problem is growing. “The time between 2005 and 2010 is not long for the water to accumulate high levels of metals to meet such levels,” said another high-level source at the Litani River Authority (LRA) who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the press. “There is a high level of acceleration and these things can accumulate quickly.”

Despite all this the UNCWI – and by deduction the World Bank and the government – somehow discounted this information, deciding that “conventional” treatment can handle the contaminated water coming soon to faucets throughout the Lebanese capital.

According to Nadim Farajallah, senior expert in land, water and environment at engineering firm SETS, “conventional” water treatment includes screening, primary settling, coagulation, flocculation, secondary settling, filtration and disinfection; all of which are present in the treatment plants environmental feasibility study.

The UNCWI believes that “metals are removed as part of the conventional treatment process, which can be optimized should metals removal become a concern.” The statement was rejected by Farajallah, the high-level LRA source, and May Jurdi, director of the department of environmental health at the American University of Beirut. All three stated that removal of metals will require complex and expensive procedures. Yet none of the measures to remove cancer-causing heavy metals have yet to be considered, ostensibly because such action would increase the costs of the Awali project by levels that some suggest would make the project unviable.

Makki insists that the appropriate studies have been completed and says that even if such treatment is needed it will cost “peanuts.” “People in charge in Lebanon, from whichever side they are on, sometimes start a campaign and base it on pollution because they have a goal,” he said citing an example where pollution in the Qaraoun was made an issue to receive a grant from a Swedish development agency.

However, according to a May 2010 paper from the University of Texas at Arlington, the filtration method of reverse osmosis alone for a plant 330 times smaller than the proposed Ourdanyne plant will add some additional US$2 million to construction costs, not to mention maintenance and monitoring. Water treatment plants do get proportionally cheaper with size, but whatever the scope it is likely that the additional costs are likely to be much higher than the US$21 million set aside in contingencies for the entire Awali project.

That could mean the government would have to go back to square one in planning for the capital’s water needs while the ministry and the CDR would have little to show for a project they have been planning for around 15 years. According to Makki, the US$200 million deal for the Awali has already been signed by both parties and only needs the approval of parliament before it can move forward.

Lebanon already has a black history of treatment plant management, with many of the existing wastewater treatment plants out of operation due to a combination of a lack of planning, staff, money, maintenance and even connection to the sewage line. That water is going into the sea, not people’s homes.

“Maybe this time is a different approach but we people blow on cold yogurt because we have been burnt by hot milk,” said Jurdi citing an old Arabic proverb. Moreover, the main cause of plant failure is “not studying the quality of the water entering the plant,” according to Farajallah.

“Its not just microbiological contamination where someone gets diarrhea and everything is OK,” says Jurdi. “When you are working on such a large scale project, there is no kidding around here. If you have not envisioned the cost of the project before you start the project it means in the end you just stick it together and this is the worry.”

First published in Al Akhbar English on December 12, 2011

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