Lebanon News

World Bank official insists Bisri Dam feasible as activists push alternatives

Ferid Belhaj, left, and Nadim Farajalla speak during the conference at AUB in Beirut, March 27, 2019. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Disagreements over the controversial Bisri Dam took center stage Wednesday at a dialogue on water governance policy, during which Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank’s regional vice president, insisted the project was a feasible solution to Lebanon’s water shortage problem.

The event, held at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute, came on the heels of last week’s World Water Day. It gave Belhaj a platform to discuss the bank’s approach to water governance in Lebanon, and the Bisri Dam quickly became the key topic of conversation.

About a dozen students interrupted the event to protest and hold up signs that read “Stop funding big dams” and “Stop funding ecocides in our country” before walking out.

The dam, a World Bank-funded project that would create a 125 million-cubic-meter reservoir in the Bisri Valley - one of south Lebanon’s most culturally and ecologically rich areas - has been the subject of much controversy. The agency has said the project would benefit over 1.6 million people by installing a 26-kilometer underground tunnel that would move treated water to greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon.

“If there is one place where water is wasted, it is Lebanon,” Belhaj told the audience of students, activists and politicians, many of whom expressed skepticism and worry about the project’s impact.

According to the World Bank’s website, water is wasted in Lebanon as a result of poor resource management, limited water resources and infrastructure deficits.

Consequently, residents rely on expensive bottled and delivered tanker water. This negatively impacts poor populations.

“If you look at this year, Lebanon got 8 billion cubic meters of rainfall. Lebanon more or less consumes 1.6 or 1.8 billion cubic meters,” Belhaj told The Daily Star. “You have that delta that is huge and that is wasted ... that is going to the sea, which is a shame because you can use that as blue gold. ... If you have that much [water], you could extract from it enormous financial gains.”

Belhaj also said the World Bank had conducted several studies on the issue. “All of them concluded that ... at this particular juncture, Lebanon needs a dam. The studies looked at alternatives and none of those were economically, socially [or] environmentally better.”

Belhaj argued that there needed to be more creative ways to prevent water waste, and that a dam was one of those solutions.

However, environmental groups strongly oppose the dam’s creation, citing issues related to biodiversity, cultural heritage, public health, the local economy and seismic activity.

One anti-dam activist explained his group’s opposition.

“We are not against all dams, but against dams where scientific research says they should not be built and where there haven’t been sufficient economic impact assessment studies, like in Bisri [Valley],” said Paul Abi Rached, president of the Lebanon Eco Movement, a large coalition of NGOs.

According to Abi Rached, the World Bank studies that approved building the dam were hastily conducted and didn’t include enough information on the project’s impact on the environment, including potential seismic activity.

He said immediate solutions in lieu of building the dam included more studies conducted by Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research, instead of foreign organizations, on water quality, seismic risk and other environmental impacts.

He added that in greater Beirut, “there are big quantities of groundwater and studies say that we have 53 percent of precipitation every year that goes to groundwater. Our treasure is in the ground, not in the dams.”

Last week, residents of the Bisri Valley held a protest during which Sidon lawmaker Osama Saad claimed that the World Bank was “a partner in the conspiracy against nature in Lebanon.”

Earlier this month, opponents of the dam submitted a petition to the World Bank with 22,500 signatures.

The petition recommended alternatives, including fixing existing water networks’ physical failures, citing a figure from the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources that states that “40 percent of water currently provided to Beirut is lost through uncontrolled leakage.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 28, 2019, on page 2.

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