Nadim Farajalla | Friday, February 1, 2019
The Litani River is probably the most famous river in Lebanon, and it is currently the only river that is dammed. In recent years it has become the focal point of media attention for the wrong reasons – because of the elevated levels of pollution in the river and the reservoir behind the dam at Qaraoun. The outcry, a very loud one, prompted the government to act and a few years ago, a plan to “clean up” the river costing $733 million was approved by the Finance and Public Works committees in the Lebanese Parliament. How much of that plan has been put into action is unclear; what is very clear though are the current activities of the Litani River Authority (LRA) who has launched a vigilant campaign to halt discharge of untreated effluent into the river and remove infringements on the river’s flood plain, banks, and channel.
In November 2018, court orders were issued to halt all industrial activities which affected 79 factories along the Litani. Much as LRA’s push for cessation of polluting activities is welcomed, there is much more to be done and not just for the Litani.
The flow from the Litani River represents between 12% and 20% of total flows in Lebanon’s perennial rivers which have been estimated at about 2200 million cubic meters. These rivers all experience various levels of pollution ranging from innocuous suspended sediments to municipal sewage to industrial effluent; with some anecdotal evidence suggesting that up to 80% of these rivers are polluted with domestic sewage. The worrying aspect of this pollution is that most of these rivers drain coastal areas in which around 67% of Lebanon’s population lives.
While the LRA actions are a welcome first step, not enough is being done. Much can and should be done. The regional water establishments, the entities tasked with managing Lebanon’s water resources, are concerned mostly with ensuring availability of water for potable use with very limited attention to resource protection (restricted to wastewater treatment facilities) and whenever there is concern about pollution the current thought and practice are still on the immediate vicinity of a river while many pollution sources originate in areas much farther away. Thus protection of river must extend to the basin or watershed which it drains; hence a watershed management approach. This is clearly stated in Article 16 of the Law 77 – Water Code – which was passed in late 2018. The Water Code was initially formulated in 2005 and sat idling until 2018. Executive Decrees have yet to be issued to enable its implementation and this is expected to take a longer time to happen since members of parliament have already submitted amendments to the law to update parts of it that already obsolete.
Rivers are not the only waterbodies being polluted and abused, groundwater across the country is under even more severe threat than any and all surface waterbodies. The plethora of wells has led to wanton over-extraction of groundwater. The authorities operate are nearly 730 wells to which are added about 20,000 privately owned and operated out of which 14% have exploitation permits. More alarmingly is the presence of between 55,000 and 60,000 wells (as estimated in a UNDP report in 2012) that have been dug without any legal permission. The uncontrolled tapping and near total lack of management of groundwater has led coastal aquifers along the full length of the country to become saline (to various degrees). Aquifers in the interior of the country are experiencing severe drop in their water levels making it more expensive to extract water. Moreover, leaky sewage networks and at times direct discharge of sewage into the aquifers is polluting these aquifers with human waste. This pollution – salinization and sewage – is rendering many groundwater sources unusable as no large scale treatment is currently possible or feasible. Household use of reverse osmosis to desalinate and treat groundwater is growing; however, this is expensive and beyond the means of many people leading to inequity in the availability of clean water.
While the central authority and the regional water establishments share a significant portion of the blame for this sorry state of affairs, they are not the only parties to blame. Governors of mouhafazat and qa’amaqamof cazas and municipalities, are just as guilty, and at times more so. Even more, citizens and residents are responsible and often of transgressions as are the many organizations currently operating in Lebanon in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Studies have shown that there was very limited investment in the development of water sector and equally important there was never a vision on how to develop and protect the country’s resources. Focus on building infrastructure alone does not lead to water availability and protection. In addition, lack of funding and political interference – ranging from forcing the employment of incompetent cronies to giving cover to those illegally hooking up to the networks – have curtailed the ability of the water establishments to manage the resources in their areas of jurisdiction. Many factories, construction companies, waste disposal companies, and others discharge or dump their waste directly into rivers and groundwater. Municipalities also dispose their solid waste either directly into rivers or in wadis so that at the first rain these find their way into the drainage streams. Governors and regional police station chiefs often allow people close to them to drill wells without recourse to the Ministry of Energy and Water, the only well drilling permitting authority. People build in river flood plains and discharge their sewage directly into the rivers. There are many more examples of unacceptable behaviors and lack of integrity in the management of the water sector.
All the above is not new to many Lebanese and residents of Lebanon. There have been endless studies and discussions on how to handle pollution of water resources; countless dollars have been spent on consultants for recommendations yet very little has been achieved on the ground. What is happening now is new and more importantly, refreshing: Existing laws are being enforced by the LRA to curtail polluting activities and make polluters pay. Granted, some political cover has been provide but this has been forced by the desperation of residents along the Litani. All along the Litani many establishments are now seeking help and taking action to ensure that their operations are not polluting. The LRA has proven that when there is a will and full governmental support, there is a way to end wanton pollution. This example should be followed by the regional water establishments and other local authorities. Relatively minor expenditures are needed to launch such actions and the rewards would definitely be immediately felt and would be far reaching.
In conclusion, what the LRA has started in the Litani should now be taken to other rivers and water bodies. Authorities, from the Ministry of Energy and Water down to the smallest municipality, should actively and dynamically enforce existing laws, limited as they may be, for this is the quickest and fastest way forward in tackling our environmental problems.
Nadim Farajalla, Director, Climate Change and the Environment Program, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut.
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