MAR ELIAS/SHATILA, Lebanon: Despite major infrastructure investments in water by international donors and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency aimed at improving quality and access, many Palestinians remain skeptical of projects requiring them to make financial contributions for UNRWA services. In 2013, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation constructed reverse osmosis water treatment centers in the Palestinian camps of Mar Elias, Shatila and Burj al-Barajneh. Elevated saline levels found in aquifer water in all three areas make it unsuitable for drinking.
While the Mar Elias treatment center is now fully operational and financially self-sustaining from community subscriptions, the Shatila center remains a work in progress.
Here the project needs more subscribers to fully fund operations. The Burj al-Barajneh center is completed but isn’t operational, pending the success of the Shatila center.
The water treatment centers were designed to transform salt water into potable water, providing reliable drinking water to residents for a small fee. UNRWA says this fee, managed by locally organized water committees, is necessary in order to wean the projects off the agency’s already stretched financial support.
In Mar Elias, each household pays a monthly fixed LL20,000 ($13) subscription fee in exchange for 200 liters of potable water a day.
Fees in Shatila have yet to be determined, as a campaign to encourage subscription in the camp is still in progress.
Mohammad Abdel-Al, who heads the Field Infrastructure and Camp Improvement Program at UNRWA, noted that Mar Elias’ subscription fee was cheaper “than any potable water in the country,” adding that water treated in the reverse osmosis center will meet World Health Organization standards. “Before, many relied upon independent vendors in the camps who sell water, the quality of which cannot be verified,” Abdel-Al told The Daily Star.
Despite the low fees, which one subscriber in Mar Elias said saved her family about $50 per month compared with buying water, persuading residents to subscribe remains a challenge.
“The technical issues in construction are easier to address, [but] rolling the project out to the community was a big challenge, given that it needed to be community-led,” Anne Colquhoun, UNRWA’s communications manager in Lebanon, told The Daily Star.
During a recent visit to the water treatment centers in Mar Elias and Shatila, one resident was vocal in expressing his dissatisfaction to an UNRWA employee, saying he would rather continue buying water from local vendors than subscribe to UNRWA’s system. He acknowledged the water quality may be compromised, but insisted it was better to pay a vendor than for UNRWA-supported services. Considering the ongoing plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, he said, services supported by the U.N. should be free.
This opinion was not uncommon among Lebanon’s impoverished Palestinian refugees when The Daily Star spoke to residents.
Trust between the agency and the community remains a barrier as many see the introduction of costs as evidence UNRWA is drawing down service provision.
The agency refutes this claim, insisting it is here to stay.
However, fears are compounded by the tough economic situation for many refugees. A U.N. refugee situation update in 2015 estimated unemployment rates for Palestinians above 50 percent. This is coupled with the community being barred from legally acquiring, transferring or inheriting property in Lebanon, as well as bans on working in over 25 high-skilled economic sectors.
UNRWA is the only remaining U.N. body to directly address the needs of Palestinians, and many see it as their only lifeline. The introduction of contributions to secondary health care in 2016 caused widespread anger and protests.
The conflict in Syria has displaced many of the country’s Palestinians, increasing the size of the community in Lebanon by between 30,000 and 40,000. Insufficient funding, among other factors, prevents UNRWA from providing basic services to Palestinian refugees free of charge.
To address budgetary constraints, the agency has sought to forge community-led initiatives to encourage objectors to consider paying toward services such as water. “In Mar Elias, private water vendors were engaged in the project and joined the water committees. This is also planned for Shatila,” Abdel-Al said.
For many water vendors, the treatment centers represent an economic threat. But the community-run water committees, which are responsible for managing subscriptions and running the maintenance of the treatment center, giving an income to committee members in exchange, have convinced some vendors to join the initiatives.
In addition, UNRWA has also temporarily installed public water fountains throughout Shatila, allowing skeptics to test the water for free. Abdel-Al said the cost of treated water was still remarkably low. “Simple calculations of the cost of water in Mar Elias shows that the cost of 1 liter of treated water ... is only LL3.34 which is [practically] free of charge,” he said. “This would be my response to those [who ask for free services].”
Abu Emad, project manager of the Mar Elias water committee, told The Daily Star that “when the project was started in 2013, it felt like a dream. It was too good to be true. To see the success of the project was a big test of trust.”
The mere concept of access to reliable drinking water initially put many like Abu Emad on the defensive – wary that overzealous foreign interventions could lead to disappointment. But now, with the success of the project, he and the rest of Mar Elias’ water committee are keen to spread trust within the community and encourage residents to subscribe. “For me, the most successful part of the project is seeing that the community has taken the lead,” Abdel-Al said, referring to the individuals involved in the Mar Elias and Shatila water committees, who have joined the project to ensure its success.