DEIR AL-AHMAR/IAAT, Lebanon: An oppressive smell hangs over a school in the Bekaa village of Deir al-Ahmar.
From the upper balcony of Ecole Notre-Dame de la Tour, a long channel of stagnant water can be seen snaking through kilometers of farmland, meters behind an enclosed playground where children run around and play basketball.
Sister Grace Salameh, director of the school, points at the channel, which she says is the source of the foul odor.
“This is not a river. It is full of wastewater running from the Iaat wastewater treatment plant,” she tells The Daily Star. “The plant is supposed to treat the water and send clean water to the farmland ... so they don’t expose people to illness, but it is not functioning properly.”
The situation has only grown worse this past year due to above-average rainfall, she adds.
Some 450 students aged between 3 and 15 attend the school. Many complain about being unable to breathe because of the smell and some, Salameh says, have fallen ill.
Clara Kozah, a 15-year-old student, says the smell has become so bad that she can’t sleep some nights and stays inside during the summer because the smell gets worse. “When we eat vegetables, we can taste the polluted water,” Kozah says.
Six-year-old Chris Ghostine’s hair started falling out three months ago. According to his mother, Rawya, the doctor told her that a bacteria from the pollution was causing her son’s hair loss and making him sick.
Deputy Mayor of Deir al-Ahmar Sami Habchi says that “everyone” shares responsibility for the pollution. “Cabinet, the Agriculture Ministry, the Industry Ministry, the Environment Ministry, everyone needs to help solve this problem.”
The Iaat wastewater treatment plant went into operation in 2005 and is situated a few kilometers from Deir al-Ahmar.
It was commissioned by the Council for Development and Reconstruction, funded by the World Bank and built with the intention to treat the flow of domestic wastewater from the Baalbeck area.
However, it was not designed to cope with the industrial waste being poured into the water, according to Nabil Amacha, a professor of environmental engineering at the Lebanese University.
“Do you see the oil collecting on top of the water? That’s waste from industries, gas stations, hospitals and slaughterhouses,” Iaat Mayor Hussein Abdel Sater says during a tour of the plant.
Amacha, who visited the plant 18 months ago, says it is missing a key preliminary process required to treat the wastewater. The preliminary phase of treatment is meant to remove debris and to ensure that particles won’t break down pumps in the second phase of treatment.
This was confirmed by Youssef Karam, manager of the CDR’s Irrigation, Water, Sewage and Infrastructure Department.
While he says the water is being screened for debris, he confirms that the screening process cannot handle the industrial waste.
“The preliminary phase does not have grease removal capabilities. ... Wastewater treatment is for domestic waste only, not industrial waste. You can’t have a treatment plant that treats everything. It’s not possible,” Karam says.
Karam explains that one of the key measurements for the effectiveness of a wastewater treatment plant is the Biochemical Oxygen Demand measured in the water. The incoming BOD of water being treated should be around 350 milligrams of oxygen consumed per liter, but the number going into the Iaat plant is much higher because of industrial waste.
According to a water analysis conducted by the Bekaa Water Establishment in 2018, the incoming BOD of the water showed 522 milligrams per liter, which Karam says is a strong indicator of the presence of nondomestic waste, part of which may be industrial, including blood from slaughterhouses.
Despite this, Karam says the treatment plant is still managing to reduce the outgoing BOD quantity to 28 milligrams per liter, which is only 3 milligrams higher than the standard value of 25 milligrams per liter.
“I’m not saying the water being produced is perfect, but there is something else contributing to this pollution. ... Raw sewage and garbage, for example, that is going into the water course,” he says, stressing that industrial waste must be banned from the plant in order for it to work properly.
Randa Nemer, an adviser to the energy and water minister, also confirms that one of the main issues across all wastewater plants in Lebanon is the discharge of untreated industrial wastewater, but says the problem does not fall under the ministry’s jurisdiction.
“The ministry is in charge of setting policies and the general master plan, but all the mandate regarding wastewater treatment plants is upon the water establishment,” Nemer tells The Daily Star.
Water Law 221 says the Bekaa Water Establishment is responsible for the Iaat plant’s operation, but the CDR has been overseeing operations because of a lack of staff and resources, according to Karam.
“When new projects are built, they operate under the CDR for two or three years and are later supposed to be transferred to the Bekaa Water Establishment,” Rizk Rizk, chairman of the board and general director of the Bekaa Water Establishment, tells The Daily Star.
More than a decade later, the water establishment has not been able to take over. “The treatment of the wastewater costs a lot. It’s approximately LL300,000 [nearly $200] per household per year to treat domestic waste, and we aren’t able to collect tariffs because of the social economic status of the people in the area,” Rizk says.
However, both Rizk and Karam say the plant’s operation will be transferred to the water establishment in the coming week or so, after Cabinet decided it would allocate the necessary funding.
Nemer says the Energy and Water Ministry is planning on conducting a study to determine what needs to be rehabilitated in the plant. “But we don’t think this is the only solution, we are still very concerned over the quality of the operation and the industrial wastewater coming into the plant,” she says.
According to Nemer, one of the main issues across Lebanon is its large number of small industries, many of which do not have permits and do not treat waste at the source.
Dani Gedeon, director-general of the Industry Ministry, says that the ministry is seeking a solution.
“We are working on this matter now ... we have achieved around 200 inspections on 200 factories during these last two months and we are working on the matter until we finish it,” he says.
“We didn’t have any information about these illegal industries and factories. When we have all the information we didn’t have before, we will take the measures. We aim to finish the inspections and implementation of measures and requirements before the end of the year,” he adds.
For Salameh and her students, this could not come soon enough. “Something needs to be done, people need to be responsible. We just want this problem to solved, ” she says.