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Roland Riachi, Postdoctoral fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs and lecturer at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences at the American University of Beirut.

October 2014
Beyond Rehashed Policies: Lebanon Must Tackle its Water Crisis Head-On

Lebanon is no longer the water tower of the Levant. The 2013-2014 winter season was one of the driest in over a century. Between September of last year and May 2014, Lebanon received about 400 millimeters of rainfall, less than half the seasonal average. Lebanon's water crisis, however, is not merely the result of a dry winter. The lack of rainfall has exposed fundamental shortfalls in the country’s water management policies and infrastructure.

In response to the water crisis, the Public Works Parliamentary Committee called for a state of emergency on 9 July  2014. Government officials have proposed a number of strategies to address the current water shortages. These include importing water, guidelines for reducing consumption, and a surge in dam building. These suggestions are expensive, shortsighted, and harmful to the environment. For one, importing water with flexible barges from Turkey is not only costly, but removes incentives for a sustainable solution to the problem. The proposal also suggests imposing general water usage regulations. These include reducing irrigation, taking public control of illegal wells, organizing the distribution of water trucks, and fining those who are overusing water (such as through car washing or cleaning sidewalks.) These initiatives have so far not been implemented, are far too little too late, and do not address the real issue, that of severe mismanagement of what is meant to be an abundant resource.

Effective exploitation of groundwater offers the most cost-effective solution to Lebanon's water woes, as aquifers are natural free-of-charge reservoirs. Groundwater in Lebanon, however, is currently incredibly overexploited. This has resulted in a severe depletion of the water table, salt water intrusion in coastal areas, and higher concentrations of pollutants. According to official documents, there are now fifty-thousand private boreholes, averaging five sipping wells per square kilometer. This is up from an estimated three thousand wells in the 1970s. By contrast, there are only six hundred fifty sanctioned public wells designed to supply most of the country's domestic water usage. Historically the exponential increase in the number of wells is primarily the consequence of a desire to seek autonomy from a deficient public network. This is a process which was accelerated during the Civil War, when militias and other parties drilled wells in order to both create and consolidate local dependencies, using water as a socio-communitarian service.

To properly address the current crisis, Lebanon needs to deal head-on with what are essentially water management failures; failures which have been steadily accumulating for many years. To this end, the government must consider the following:

Protect Groundwater Through Increased Regulation and
New Legislation
: In order to address the uncontrolled exploitation of aquifers, the government should immediately start collecting information about wells to monitor groundwater extraction. The legal framework governing the use of aquifers in Lebanon dates back to the Ottoman Empire and the French mandate, and hasn't been updated to take into consideration technological developments and greater demand. An individual is still exempted from a permit if they extract less than 100,000 liters per day and if the depth of their borehole is less than 150 meters, figures far too generous under the current climate. The government must protect the plethora of natural aquifers and wells through legal means and effective regulation to allow for their replenishment and conservation. This should be accompanied by incentive mechanisms linking borehole-dependent users to the public network.

Damming Is Not the Answer: The main pillar of the central-authority's vision on water development has long been the construction of dams. The National Water Sector Strategy recently reiterated this in 2012. As such a constellation of dams have been proposed throughout various regions of Lebanon. This policy is misguided, as building dams is not only expensive for a country that is short on cash and burdened by debt (estimated cost between $5-7 billion), but damaging to fragile local ecosystems and also very dangerous considering Lebanon’s seismic activity. Additionally, the decision to build dams is based on an incomplete understanding of Lebanon's geological makeup. The existence of aquifers in Lebanon stems from the limestone "karst" formation. This type of permeable calcareous and porous rock characterizes two thirds of Lebanese geology, something not considered by the original dam studies conducted between the 1930s and 1950s, studies that haven't been reviewed since.
Rather than build dams, other surface water policies could effectively complement better groundwater management. One solution could involve the construction of small- and medium-sized urban collective storage ponds, filled by both monitored springs and groundwater. This would be a much cheaper and more environmentally friendly solution than has ever been proposed in any of the national water plans.

Reform Government Agencies Responsible for the Water Sector and Repair Dilapidated Infrastructure: Water loss in the domestic water network through leakage and other forms of wastage is estimated to be 50% on average, and as high as 80% in some areas. Under structural adjustment programs that were implemented during the reconstruction period, retired personnel from Lebanon's water authority were never replaced, leaving 80% of the positions unoccupied. Previous attempts to contract out repairs to private companies have failed. Repairing the network is crucial, and necessitates the re-hiring of merited technical personnel.
In addition to the lack of personnel, the responsibilities of water-concerned public authorities in Lebanon are currently fragmented and overlapping. Potentially exacerbating the situation is the government's intention to create a new institutional body, the National Water Council. This proposal will add a new organizational burden to a sector already characterized by duplication of responsibilities and mismanagement.

Reform Water Tariff System to Account for Domestic Consumption: Water shortages have led to households paying large sums for private water services. Recent surveys show three-quarters of a Lebanese household's water budget is directed to private suppliers. This is in addition to the flat fee of LL296,000 (which increased by 22% this year) individuals pay for an amount of water that is intended to cover all their needs, but which many have not been receiving in recent months. Instead of a flat rate, the government should consider water metering accompanied by a scaled tariff concept. This could be complemented by a low tariff applied to a subsistence volume. If instituted, this would be an important incentive for better water conservation.

Reconsider Allocation of Agricultural Subsidies in Light of Current Water Scarcity: The exploitation of aquifers has shaped the historical transformation of agro-waterscapes in Lebanon significantly over the past fifty years, with irrigation surface tripling in that time period. Lebanon actually produces double the necessary quantity of major cultivated fruits and vegetables, with a subsidization scheme in place to export the rest to Gulf countries. This outward flow of water production has accounted for 25% to 30% of the country's annual freshwater use in recent years. When taking a closer look, one finds that only a few dozen regional landowners and wholesalers benefit from these subsidies. These subsidies must be reevaluated to benefit more Lebanese farmers, and to better justify the huge consumption of Lebanon's water resources. This can be coupled by an incentive mechanism to promote the adoption of more efficient water-saving irrigation techniques.

Reduce Pollution of Water Resources Through Better Wastewater Management: Many of Lebanon's best sources of water have been rendered unusable due to high levels of pollution. With barely one-third of buildings connected to a sewage network in Lebanon and with the existence of wastewater treatment plants that have never been operational, aquifers and rivers have become dumping sites. According to the latest official reports, only 8% of wastewater in Lebanon is treated. If an efficient water system is to be set up in Lebanon, the government must ensure that wastewater treatment plants are functional and operational in tandem with the rest of the recommendations listed in this paper, in addition to allocating aid to rural areas faced with a near total lack of sewage and treatment infrastructure. 

Despite over $3 billion being disbursed in the water sector in Lebanon since 1992, mainly financed through international development loans, no substantial change is evident in the performance of our water networks. Not surprisingly, inefficient projects simply have been targeted at partisan constituencies, greasing the gears of the Lebanese confessional system. Current policies are exacerbating this trend, with a focus on expensive surface water retention projects and greater privatization, while ignoring the real issue: The mismanagement of Lebanon's available water sources, especially groundwater.

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