BEIRUT: Zeina paid over LL300,000 ($200) in water bills to the government last year to ensure she got access to water. It still wasn’t enough. Like many Lebanese, Zeina, who is 84 and lives near Beirut’s Al-Tariq al-Jadideh neighborhood, suffers from water shortages that become severe in the summer.
She is regularly forced to find alternative sources to cover her water needs.
“One day we get water, one day we don’t. ... For two summers now we’ve been buying water,” said Zeina, who asked that her real name not be used.
When the taps run dry, she has to call someone to fill her water tank. The source of that water is unknown.
Each refill is the equivalent of about 1,600 liters, which costs LL30,000.
“Last summer, when all the family was here, we filled twice to three times a week,” she said.
All of this is in addition to the cost of drinking water, because what comes out of the tap is not safe. Every week, Zeina buys over 10 liters of drinking water - at about LL0.500 a liter - and 10 liters more to cook with.
“When I have people [visiting], it’s embarrassing when the water cuts and I don’t know what to do, but thank God the man who fills the tank always comes to the rescue,” Zeina said.
Her issues echo around the country. Rigorous data on the water industry is hard to come by, but anecdotally at least, many people say their reality is paying for three separate water sources - the state, the tanks and the extra liters.
The paradox is that Lebanon is a water-rich oasis, with a total of about 4.7 billion cubic meters available. It is also one of the only places in the Middle East that gets enough snow to sustain a natural ski season.
In 2012, the Cabinet approved a national water and wastewater strategy that outlines a number of institutional and infrastructural steps that aim to conserve water and reduce the use of water whose origin is not accounted for.
However, political and budgetary delays have stalled the strategy’s implementation.
“The strategy set the rules, but still the water sector has been neglected because there were other problems that surfaced at the government level. For example, the issue of the electricity, the issue of the budget, the Syrian crisis, the lack of government formation,” said Suzy Howayek, an adviser to Energy and Water Minister Nada Boustani.
The Daily Star could not reach Boustani for comment for this story.
Consequently, suboptimal management of water resources, and especially insufficient infrastructure, continues to leave residents without 24/7 access to water.
Rainfall in Lebanon is concentrated mainly during the few winter months. A lot of it runs into the sea because the country has only a few storage facilities.
This means there is little to no surplus during the summer months, when demand peaks.
As a result, water shortages drive people to pay for tanks. These are filled with water whose source is unknown, or water that has been tapped from one of the 60,000 illegal wells in the country, dug to make up for the state shortfall.
This phenomenon has become widespread, particularly in the densely populated area of Greater Beirut, where a growing population has led to greater shortages.
Digging illegal wells has also become common practice among some farmers, who are forced to look for alternative sources because of the government’s inability to support them, according to a 2016 policy brief from the American University of Beirut.
Beyond the state’s mismanagement of its resources, Lebanon also suffers from poor public water quality as a result of pollution.
The problem is particularly striking in bodies of water such as the Litani River and Lake Qaraoun - an artificial repository in the Bekaa Valley formed by a dam on the Litani.
The Litani is Lebanon’s longest river, running from Qaraoun all the way to the south.
According to the Litani River Authority, the water discharged from its basin amounts to almost a quarter of the net rainfall in all Lebanese territories.
Lake Qaraoun is a crucial source of water for irrigation, the generation of hydropower and other purposes, and is also planned as a future source of drinking water for Beirut.
Despite the importance of these bodies of water, they are polluted by untreated municipal and industrial waste, as well as the dumping of solid waste along riverbanks.
Late last year, the Berdawni River, a tributary of the Litani, turned black after companies were accused of dumping untreated waste into it.
“Wastewater is the major polluter of our water bodies. Eighty percent of water bodies are polluted by sewage.
“If we treat, that we solve a large part of our water pollution,” said Nadim Farajalla, the head of the climate change and environment program at AUB.
According to figures from Fanack Water, which researches water resources in the Middle East and North Africa region, about 40 wastewater treatment plants are in different stages of completion across Lebanon.
Most of them are still under construction or in the design phase; only 18 have been completed. An even smaller number of those are fully operational.
The wastewater treatment plants are implemented primarily by the Council for Development and Reconstruction, in coordination with the Energy and Water Ministry. Most of the projects implemented by the CDR are funded by soft loans from various international organizations.
Farajalla said a major issue regarding the operation of such plants was that the donors funding these projects “were giving money for facilities or networks but not making sure they were discharging into a treatment facility.”
In other words, he said, “you might end up with a facility being built with no network treating it or a network built with no facility to treat the sewage.”
This approach needs to be addressed, he said.
The donors “cover the construction but not necessarily the operation. ... If we build a facility, do the beneficiaries have the means of operating it technically or financially? That’s a question that needs to be asked that was not asked by the donors.”
From an institutional standpoint, the mismanagement of water and wastewater is also due to a dearth of resources and financing at the regional water establishment level.
There are four decentralized Water Establishments in Lebanon - south Lebanon, north Lebanon, Beirut and Mount Lebanon and Bekaa - which are responsible for collecting tariffs, monitoring water quality and planning and distributing water resources within each of the communities.
However, they lack financing, are understaffed and in many cases are run by workers who lack training.
The establishments are therefore largely unable to operate or maintain wastewater treatment plants.
What’s more, Fanack Water estimates that water bill collection rates are at an average of 47 percent in the country.
“In the Bekaa, it’s disastrous,” Howayek, the minister’s adviser, said. “They are unskilled, they are understaffed. The [water bill] collection rate is extremely low,” which means “less control over water resources. This means less collection rate, less money coming in, less revenue and less ability to staff and employ people.”
In a bid to tackle these long-standing problems, the Energy and Water Ministry is preparing to launch a new strategy.
“Our problems in water are the management of resources, [the need to build] ... efficient storage infrastructure and [the] managing [of] the water properly through the Water Establishments.
This is what we’re working on now,” Howayek said.
In May, the energy and water minister announced new efforts toward creating a new national water strategy to revise the 2012 strategy. These were set to be finalized by the end of the year.
Her ministry had tasked five Lebanese consulting companies specializing in the water sector to draw up a road map for improving water supply, sanitation and irrigation: Bureau Technique pour le Developpement, Kredo, Dar Al Handasah Nazih Taleb and Partners, Elard and Libanconsult.
The ministry’s strategy will “not be reinventing the wheel,” but will build off the previous strategy, Howayek said.
“The strategy in 2012 identified the dams we wanted to construct, but did not identify the networks that need to be done.
“We didn’t go into the details, for example, on the number of wells we need in Bekaa, or developing springs,” Howayek said.
A focal point in the strategy is to ensure consistent water supply for residents of Lebanon by shifting the state’s reliance on groundwater to a reliance on surface water running from rivers and springs.
Doing so would reduce the number of wells built to tap into groundwater reservoirs.
“This is extremely expensive and dangerous because replenishing it is a very slow process,” Farajalla said.
“The shift from groundwater to surface water ... will keep groundwater as a strategic reserve whenever we have low flows or a bad water year.
“There will still be a strategic reserve in the ground that you can access,” he said.
The strategy is also expected to address Lebanon’s system of assessing tariffs.
Currently, the state charges a flat rate, which residents pay annually, meaning that people are billed the same regardless of their actual water consumption.
To address this issue, the government has begun installing meters in a number of pilot areas to measure consumption.
These changes are only the tip of the iceberg.
Howayek said the new strategy was still a document in progress, adding, “It’s not carved in stone.”
“We’re going to see what projects were implemented and where the gaps are. ... What we’re doing now is going one step deeper in the strategy,” Howayek said.
“The water sector hasn’t been well taken care of. ... It wasn’t well-managed. ... Politicians have put it on the side, but at some point it’s inevitable it will come up.”