BEIRUT: “Water is such a vital entity that when it’s threatened, people feel the pinch immediately,” Nadim Farajalla, an expert in environmental hydrology said. “It is a major, if not the major, sector that suffers from [shoddy foreign infrastructure projects].”
Farajalla is an American University of Beirut professor and program director of AUB’s Climate Change and Environment in the Arab World Program at the Issam Fares Institute. Water, as Farajalla points out, is an essential resource, but also a cause on which money is often spent with disappointing results.
In light of the Syrian crisis, Lebanon has become a hot spot for foreign funding. According to the Financial Tracking Service, a project run by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, foreign funding increased from $162 million to $1 billion between 2012 and 2013. It peaked at $1.3 billion in 2015 before decreasing slightly to $1.2 billion in 2016 as the influx of refugees plateaued.
Although humanitarian concerns have shifted over recent years, coming to focus heavily on refugee relief, water has remained one of the higher priorities in terms of funding.
Currently, the European Union finances approximately $86 million-worth of infrastructure projects directly related to the water sector –particularly in the Bekaa Valley and north Lebanon.
Exactly a year ago, the United States Agency for International Development launched the 5-year-long “Lebanon Water Project” worth $65 million.
Despite the potent financial injections intended to improve Lebanon’s water sector, many have questioned where such large sums of money have gone, given that access to water and sanitation remain a life-threatening problem in Lebanon.
In the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp on a recent afternoon, 58-year-old community leader Fatima Abdul al-Hadi pointed to a large structure looming in front of her. “This was a project from the Swiss that was supposed to give us drinking water,” Abdul al-Hadi told The Daily Star. “It hasn’t worked for three years or so. They may not have given us water, but they left us with this.” The defunct structure was funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.
In 2014, the SDC completed the first out of seven water treatment plants intended for seven separate camps. The plants were designed to desalinate sea water, transforming it into drinking water. The Swiss agency had intended to aid over 70,000 refugees with its project, but Abdul al-Hadi said that gaining access to clean water continued to be a daily challenge for the refugee community in Burj al-Barajneh.
The SDC could not be reached, but Anne Colquhoun, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, told The Daily Star that the U.N. agency was fully aware of the issue.
“The water treatment center in the Mar Elias refugee camp is operational, but the ones in Shatila and Burj al-Barajneh are still in progress,” she told The Daily Star. “UNRWA has delivered on its committed role in oversight, and we’re working with the popular committees to provide support so they can fulfill their [roles].”
For the time being, the treatment center in Burj al-Barajneh has become yet another hulking mass of concrete, metal and plastic taking up space that Lebanon can ill afford to spare. The small country is becoming littered with idle infrastructure projects.
Although Colquhoun could not comment on behalf of the SDC, she said that the Swiss organization has remained engaged with UNRWA in supporting implementation of the treatment plants.
The water facilities in Burj al-Barajneh and Shatila are merely two instances in which improper design and oversight have led to wasted space in the already densely packed country. From proper sanitation systems to access to potable water, refugees and nationals alike have suffered from poor domestic management of the dwindling water resources, as well as failed undertakings by foreign organizations.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” Farajalla said, laughing. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful to donors. They have helped a lot, but there are also big issues that needs to be addressed, and that we Lebanese need to address.”
The expert explained that several issues plagued foreign-led local infrastructure projects. First, he cited a lack of proper foresight regarding maintenance, which has left local water establishments and municipalities ill-equipped to ensure that foreign infrastructure projects continue to function as intended.
“For example, a water establishment is given a Cadillac but they might not have the driver. Or they might have the driver, but they don’t have the fuel to run it. So it just stays there and looks nice,” Farajalla told The Daily Star.
Although organizations may come equipped with the best intentions, their expertise may be irrelevant in Lebanon. Foreign planners’ inability to comprehend both Lebanon’s technological limitations and geographical particularities cripple their ability to complete high-quality projects, Farajalla said.
He added that susceptibility to corruption within the practices of donors themselves has also proved to be a paralyzing obstacle.
“I was hired to do a water project with a foreign consultant. We were looking at two areas, one in north Lebanon and one in the Jbeil area,” Farajalla recalled. “Our research showed that the site in north Lebanon best suited the technical and social requirements needed to successfully achieve the project. Yet the project manager told us we had to do the project in Jbeil, because that’s where the donor wanted it.”
He added: “It’s not just about Lebanese being corrupt. There are some for sure, but there is a lot of corruption on the end of the donors and managers.”
Farajalla noted that although many foreign organizers insist on working with local municipalities, such ambitions create further obstacles as the municipalities are “ill-equipped” due to lack of appropriate personnel and finances as well as general corruption.
Such problems pervade many spheres of Lebanese life, Farajalla said, but water’s indispensability made it an area of particular concern. “While all sectors face this issue, you cannot go a day without water.”