By Nadim Farajalla
Director, Climate Change and the Environment Program, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut.
Op-Ed #1 from the “Lebanon Nears Collapse: What’s Next?” Op-Ed series
UNICEF’s Representative in Lebanon Yukie Mokuo, caused a media storm on Friday (July 23, 2021) in Lebanon when she declared in a statement that most water pumping will gradually cease across the country in the next four to six weeks due to the rapidly escalating economic crisis, shortages of funding, fuel, and supplies such as chlorine and spare parts. She stated that a minimum of $40 million per year are needed to allow the water establishments to continue operating. This news comes as a further blow to the crisis-hit country and adds to citizens’ list of life-threatening issues. Lebanon has been facing a series of crises since the beginning of 2020, which reflects the country’s decades’ long mismanagement .
The linkage between water energy has been well established scientifically and technically, and residents are well aware of it –for example, when there is a power outage, pumps do not work and water does not get pumped into their buildings’ reservoirs, so they rely on private generators instead. Aside from the role electricity plays in making water available in households, electricity is also needed to pump water from the source to the water treatment facility; for the water treatment process; and for pumping to storage facilities. Electricity is also needed for wastewater treatment. According to a recent study by the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (AUB-IFI),the lack of electricity to power wastewater treatment facilities is a major reason why many of these facilities are not operating in Lebanon. Untreated wastewater, thus, gets discharged into rivers and groundwater, contaminating them and making them inaccessible.
The same study has shown that electricity accounts for more than a third of the operational costs of all four water establishments (WE) responsible for managing Lebanon’s water resources. These WEs are unable to cover their operational expenses due to the low tariff levied, and the near continuous power outages in many regions of the country, which have forced the WEs in some locations to rely on private diesel-powered generators to supply electricity to their facilities. This option has failed to solve the problem since Lebanon is also facing a fuel crisis, which limits access to diesel for power generators. This situation pushed water establishments over the past weeks to inform their customers that the WEs may be unable to deliver water in the near future.
The problem is further compounded by the free fall of the Lebanese Lira versus the US dollar. The WEs revenue from subscriptions is in Lebanese Liras, and so is the modest support these establishments get from the government. This decreases WEs ability to purchase spare parts for their water treatment facilities and their laboratories for testing the quality of water because the prices of these remain on the rise, mostly as a result of the existence of different exchange rates in the country. Additionally, contractors are also frustrated because of the severely diminished value of their contracts preferring to pay the penalty for the such actions. This has impacted the ability of some WEs of maintaining their networks and/or executing rehabilitation projects for some facilities.
It is obvious that the government is financially unable to support the water establishments in securing funds to purchase diesel and to pay for the other financial needs; fortunately, the donor community, led by the UNICEF, USAID, AFD, EU, and others, has stepped in. Many donors have had stressed the point that they do not want the water sector in Lebanon to collapse, given that they have previously witnessed this exact situation in Iraq where the cost of reviving the water sector cost significantly more than it would have cost them to maintain its operationality. Such support though should not be totally spent on the purchase of diesel, consumables, spare parts etc., instead it should be structured in a manner to ensure the resilience and sustainability of the sector against similar shocks in the future. One important investment the donor community should focus on is the conversion to renewable energy. Any investment in renewable energy today will reduce future donors’ expenditures and help Lebanon’s water sector move away from reliance on fossil fuels. The AUB-IFI study, funded by the European Union, identified many water and wastewater facilities that are ready for such conversion It indicated that one of the major costs involved in the shift to renewable energy is the storage of power, which is decreasing and is expected to become affordable. Donor support over this period would be more effective and long lasting than supporting diesel purchase.
Thus, the donor community is strongly urged to continue supporting Lebanon’s water establishments and to include in this support investing in renewable energy facilities on land owned by the water establishments and municipalities to power the water sector.
While Lebanon is facing a total collapse scenario due to an unprecedented economic crisis, IFI launched an OpEd series that will tackle the drastic repercussions of the crisis on the state’s sectors and the people’s living conditions. The series will cover several facets of the crisis, pertaining to education, energy, economy, public health, and the private sector, in addition to human rights protection, gender equality among others.
Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.