'This is Lebanon': why water taps are drying out

Published July 17th, 2014 - 03:55 GMT
The lawmaker emphasized that Lebanon was negotiating “state to state” and not with any private companies. The Turkish Embassy declined to comment.
The lawmaker emphasized that Lebanon was negotiating “state to state” and not with any private companies. The Turkish Embassy declined to comment.

Lebanon is moving forward with a plan to import water from Turkey, having failed to impose any restrictions on water usage in response to one of the worst water shortages in recent memory.

“It is unbelievable that they think now of importing and they have done nothing to stop waste,” said Nadim Farajalla, an environmental hydrologist from the American University of Beirut. “If we need to import, that’s the last thing we do.”

Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk expressed a similar sentiment in a statement released Wednesday in which he said that conserving Lebanon’s existing resources should be prioritized over importing water.

Even the architect of the plan, MP Mohammad Qabbani, admitted his frustration that the rest of a proposal put forward by his parliamentary committee to address the crisis was being ignored.

“Today I drove through Solidere [Downtown Beirut], and they were hosing down the sidewalks,” he said, shaking his head.

Despite his reservations, Machnouk has submitted an official request to the Turkish government to import 100,000 cubic liters of water a day for a period of four months, starting in September, Qabbani told The Daily Star Wednesday. While the government has yet to receive a reply, Qabbani said Ankara responded positively “in principle” when the Turkish ambassador conveyed an earlier, oral request.

The lawmaker emphasized that Lebanon was negotiating “state to state” and not with any private companies. The Turkish Embassy declined to comment.

Qabbani said that, if an agreement is struck, the imported water would be pumped into the Dbayyeh water treatment plant and, if possible, the one in Dayshounieh, for distribution to the Beirut area.

A water expert who has worked closely with the Water and Energy Ministry said neither location currently has the infrastructure to receive water from a large tanker

“It’s doable, but it will need some time for to put the infrastructure in place,” he said.

“I’m not sure if it can be done in the remaining two months of summer,” he continued, adding that the Dayshounieh plant would require an additional 5 kilometers of piping.

Importing water is one of several proposals put forward by Qabbani to manage the crisis following an unusually dry winter. He admitted that the drought was compounded by years of “mismanagement” of Lebanon’s water resources.

He added, however, that some of the other recommendations put forward by the committee, including bans on using hoses, washing cars or sidewalks and watering lawns, as well as a moratorium on certain types of irrigation, could be enacted by a decree from the Energy and Water Ministry, and did not need Cabinet approval.

When asked why none of the recommendations for conserving water had yet been adopted, he said: “This is Lebanon.”

The Daily Star was unable to contact Water and Energy Minister Arthur Nazarian, and has received no ministerial response to a request filed last week seeking permission to speak to the head of the Water Authority for Beirut and Mount Lebanon.

Qabbani said other proposals, such as the temporary expropriation of private wells by the government, had come up against political opposition.

“What I’m really afraid of is that there is going to be fighting over water,” especially if the price of water skyrockets, he said.

Apart from the logistical consideration, importing water from Turkey would likely prove expensive as well.

“It is neither possible, nor suitable to do it,” said Elie Zakhour, head of the head of the International Chamber of Navigation of Beirut, which represents shipping companies.

While he declined to speculate about the approximate cost, he insisted: “It would cost too much.”

Zakhour dismissed the plan, saying, “It will never happen.”

Israel seemingly cooled to a similar plan for economic reasons.

In 2002, Tel Aviv signed an agreement with Ankara to import some 1.75 billion cubic feet of water a year. The plan stalled when the Israelis balked at the cost of transport, and was later scrapped by Turkey in retaliation for the killing of nine activists aboard a Gaza-bound Turkish vessel in 2010.

Farajalla called for increased government transparency, demanding to know the names of the experts behind the plan to import water and how it would be implemented.

“There is a general waste of money and lack of awareness in the government,” he said. “I have no trust in them, no faith in them. What they are doing is not right.”

The Ministerial Committee dedicated to the water crisis is scheduled to meet Thursday.


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