Water-rich and thirsty

Tapping Lebanon's renewable wealth

Mortada Alamine

Of all Lebanon’s problems, a looming water crisis is arguably the most threatening… and the most avoidable. Unlike fuel, electricity, and dollars, there’s plenty of water within the country’s borders, replenishing itself through rain and snowfall. Yet Lebanese increasingly face dry taps in the summer, rising prices for the trucks that refill their rooftop tanks, and bouts of waterborne illness. All these problems stand to intensify as temperatures heat up and the economy further degrades. They do not flow, however, from any shortage per se, but rather from a state that has long abdicated responsibility for managing this sector. In its absence, Lebanon’s water—and Lebanese themselves—are hostage to private providers who enrich themselves by ransacking a public asset.

Water’s annual renewal grants recurring chances to do better. And, beyond water itself, Lebanon has ample resources to realize its potential: Foreign donors have long been keen to invest in this ailing sector, and Lebanon’s institutions, universities, and villages brim with technical know-how. The stakes of correcting course could not be higher: If Lebanon is to recover from its downward spiral, water will necessarily play a central role—for the country’s health, agriculture, and industries. To get there, the first step is to grapple with how this treasure has been wasted, pillaged, and degraded from national inheritance to invisible threat.

Plentiful chaos

From a young age, Lebanese are taught that their country’s mountainous topography delivers them plenty of water. Mount Sannine’s winter snowcap feeds numerous springs downhill, from which people still fill their bottles directly. The Litani River winds its way between the country’s western and eastern mountain ranges, nourishing the lush Bekaa Valley and filling up the scenic Lake Qaraoun. Even more lies beneath the surface, as water trickles through porous limestone into underground aquifers, which residents have tapped for centuries by boring artesian wells. All in all, Lebanon is blessed with some 4.5 billion cubic meters of renewable water per year—more than double the 1.8 billion that it withdraws annually, according to the 2018 estimates published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

This bounty, however, has always required scrupulous management to reliably meet society’s needs. Precipitation varies dramatically from one season to the next: The Lebanese Economic and Social Council estimates that the first five months of the year deliver three-quarters of Lebanon’s annual surface flow, while the final five bring less than ten percent. Heavy rain and snowmelt replenish the water table in the winter, only to give way to perennial shortfalls during the parched summer—as surface water evaporates, seasonal streams run dry, and the water table drops.

Rural residents prepare their homes for the heavy rains of al-marbaniyat

Traditionally, Lebanese developed habits and household infrastructure to manage seasonal flux. Elderly residents of rural areas still anticipate and prepare their homes for the heavy rains of al-marbaniyat: the first forty days of winter, from 21 December to the end of January. Farming communities resort ever more heavily to the time-honored practice of digging out irrigation ponds, which hold rainwater to use in the fields over the summer. Many village households implement capture systems of their own, by channeling rainfall from their flat rooftops into reservoirs that sit beneath the house.

Nationwide, though, such efficient practices are the exception rather than the norm. For the most part, Lebanon does little to harness the wealth of water coursing through it: Each year, more than half of Lebanon’s rainwater washes out to sea, according to a 2019 study conducted by the Issam Fares Institute. Worse still, the Lebanese state is similarly laissez-faire when it comes to protecting the water which remains within its territory. Decaying, leaky infrastructure leads to further losses, and metastasizing pollution stains Lebanon’s verdant topography. However picturesque Lake Qaraoun might look from afar, its waters are today so tainted as to kill fish, erode metal pipes, and repulse livestock who think better of drinking from it.

Sheep on the shore of the lake Qaraoun, under.a bright blue sky

Absent a functioning system for water management, some Lebanese turn to a destructive form of do-it-yourself: helping themselves to whatever flows beneath their feet, regardless of the collective costs. A farmer in Baalbek explained that most locals—himself included—don’t think twice about siphoning water from the public pipes that crisscross their region: “Landowners have a right to this water, as it comes from a spring they were already using before the Romans were here.” Hundreds of illegal, unmetered taps are said to exist in the surrounding area, depleting the public supply. Another Baalbek resident complained:

When I first decided to build a house here, I suggested to the neighbors that we should dig one well that everyone could share. But most of them don’t care about the public good. Why would they share a well when they could have one of their own? As a result, the spring that we all rely on to irrigate our lands is drying up from over-extraction.

Authorities only encourage these trends, by failing to exert any meaningful control over rampant, unlicensed drilling. In 2014, an official assessment counted around 80,000 wells across the country—almost eight per square meter of Lebanese territory. Of these, three-quarters were illegal. Rather than seek to rein in this practice, the state has doubled down on its permissive approach: In 2018, Lebanon’s new water code affirmed that landowners do not need a permit to dig wells on their property, provided they not drill more than 150 meters deep nor pump more than 100 cubic meters per day. Knowing that there is little surveillance, many go deeper and extract more.

The public water grid functions in remarkably similar ways. Subscribers in Beirut, for example, pay a flat annual rate of 340,000 Lebanese pounds, which in principle entitles them to one cubic meter of water per day. In practice, though, there is little metering, so they can easily take as much as possible. A resident of a village in South Lebanon acknowledged: “I don’t know if we exceed our quota, but we probably do—particularly because we have four different households connected to our single subscription.” One Beirut resident bragged about tapping the public network without a subscription for 15 years: “Why would I pay if I can get it for free? Most people here do the same. The whole building gets water through subscriptions for only two apartments.”

Even industries can capitalize on this pervasive lack of oversight. An owner of a soap factory in Tripoli explained that they do not worry about getting water, even though it is a crucial input for his manufacturing process. He added: “The price of water from the public network is so negligible that I don’t even include it in my accounting.” Similarly, tourist resorts may take far more than their fair share of public water to fill up swimming pools, even if it leaves their neighbors dry.

Cashing in on collapse

Along with all this unfettered consumption, a majority of Lebanese also face gaps in access to water. The public grid has long been unreliable, not least due to chronic shortages of electricity; many don’t have access to private wells, and those who do are constrained by the costs of fuel and the retreating water table. This predicament has given rise to a thriving industry of private providers, who exist to profit off the shortfall—at considerable cost to the public.

Privatized water services build on the same extractive logic described above, albeit on a larger scale. Companies and individual entrepreneurs fill tanker trucks with water pumped from wells, which may or may not be licensed for domestic use. They then transport it to the country’s apartment buildings, and pump it up into rooftop reservoirs. The trucks typically deliver on demand, one flat at a time, making them a familiar feature of urban life. As they block traffic, their motors roar over the racket of frustrated car horns.

Households spend 21% of their water budget on trucked water

Lebanese society is in thrall to these truckers. In 2021, a Triangle study reported that households spent 21 percent of their water budget on what are meant to be stopgap supplies. Again, this dependence increases in the summer, when the public supply can be just a day or two per week—or none at all. A concierge of a residential building in Beirut’s southern suburbs explained that, in the hot season, each building in his area might need between one and three trucks per week, each carrying one to two thousand liters of water.

Although this sector operates with virtually no official oversight, it is anything but a free market. Instead, it functions much like Lebanon’s infamous generator mafia: Individual truckers maintain virtual monopolies within their zones of operation, coordinating with their peers to form de facto, small-scale cartels. A former trucker in Beirut’s suburbs outlined this unofficial yet robust arrangement:

If a certain trucker covers your area, no other provider will try to do so. Truck owners agree not to trespass on one another’s territory. Say you live in my area, and I decide that I don’t want to sell you water—maybe just because I don’t like you. You might call another vendor. The very first thing that person will do is ask who you usually buy water from. The last thing he’ll want is to cause problems between us, which could then affect his own business.

This lack of competition enables private providers to hoard and price-gouge at will. In 2016, a team of researchers at the American University of Beirut estimated that, in dry months, an average household in Lebanon’s capital might spend 16 percent of its income on trucked water. Those steep costs then lined the pockets of truckers, who—per the same study—could reap profits of up to 700 percent. While these numbers will have changed over the past six years, the fundamentals are constant: Unaccountable profiteers pump water at minimal cost, and then see just how much they can over-charge customers. That high price, moreover, is no guarantee of quality; in the absence of testing and oversight, vendors can make their own choices about what, if any, safety measures they apply.

An equally opaque submarket controls the country’s drinking water. Across the country, corner shops sell ostensibly potable water by the gallon; this is often nothing else than tap water that has been filtered according to an undisclosed, unmonitored process. There are also 42 licensed brands, which compete for consumers by touting their healthfulness: Sannine, which borrows its name from the snow-capped mountain visible from Beirut, boasts a total absence of nitrates, while Nestle Pure Life advertises an eight-step quality control process. Even they, however, face little oversight to corroborate their marketing.

View of the inside of a water treatment plant, with massive pipes in grey and blue

Here, as in the trucking sector, providers pump water for cheap, and then sell it at a steep markup to consumers with little choice but to pay. A former director of investment at the Ministry of Energy and Water revealed that licensed brands were paying significantly less per cubic meter than the already very low price offered to households, with lax monitoring of actual consumption. An investigative journalist confirmed: “No one supervises brand water companies. The Ministry doesn’t actually check the meters. So god knows how much they really extract.” What is clear, though, is just how lucrative this market is: In 2019, a Blominvest study found that these companies were selling an estimated 800 million liters per year, for a total of $300 million.

These arrangements placed a heavy burden on ordinary citizens even before Lebanon’s economic crisis. Today, the combination of price hikes and collapsing incomes means more and more Lebanese struggle to afford privatized water. And providers face rising costs of their own—notably fuel for pumping and transportation—which they inevitably pass on to their captive client base. A respected academic, specialized in water management, put it starkly: “The private sector operates in a very simple way: It will charge as much as it can. If you can’t pay for their water, they will find someone who will.”

"The private sector operates in a very simple way. If you can’t pay for their water, they will find someone who will"

Of course, people cannot do without water. As a result, growing numbers are forced to cut corners in ways that compromise their health and even their infrastructure—thus racking up hidden costs that are borne by residents themselves and, ultimately, society writ large. For example, poorer neighborhoods in coastal areas depend on drilling to the point of sucking ever more seawater into the aquifers on which they rely. A resident of Chiyah, a southern suburb of the capital, shared his experience: “We don’t pay any expenses at all for water, as what we get is from a local well. But it is very salty. We often need to replace the pipes and sinks because they get ruined by the water.”

While underclass communities are at the forefront of this crisis, affluent segments of society will no longer be spared. Especially in summer months—when demand peaks, supply drops, and energy prices rise—providers may seek to maximize profits by cutting corners of their own. To save on fuel, individual truckers may start to tap shallow, contaminated wells or even rivers and lakes. Bottled water companies might skimp on replacing filters, to spare the expense of procuring new ones in hard currency. Such shortcuts could come at a high cost, notably in the form of waterborne illness; in June of this year, an outbreak of Hepatitis A hinted at what could be in store. As such episodes multiply, even the most privileged may come to wonder, within the comfort of their luxurious abodes and fancy resorts, what exactly they are drinking, showering with, and swimming in.

A shriveling state

The way out of this impasse is as obvious as it is elusive: In short, Lebanon needs a state to reform and regulate management of this precious resource. For now, though, the authorities show no interest in doing so. On the contrary, they appear less engaged in this sector than ever before, at precisely the moment when they are needed most. This hasn’t always been the case.

In fact, water was a little-known centerpiece of Lebanese state-building, in the years following the country’s independence in 1943. As elsewhere in the post-colonial Arab world, Lebanon’s fledgling government churned out a slew of studies, strategies, and infrastructure projects aiming to upgrade and centralize water management. Most prominently, the state erected a 60-meter-high dam on the Litani River to create Lake Qaraoun: a vast reservoir which, in its heyday, powered three hydroelectric plants providing power to most of Lebanon. These ambitious projects were overseen by an increasingly robust administrative apparatus: The Ministry of Hydraulic and Electrical Resources was established in 1966 to organize the sector, through 22 water offices responsible for distribution across the country.

View of the inside of a water treatment plant, with massive pipes in grey and blue

Lebanon’s civil war derailed this process of consolidation. Water management, along with most other facets of governance and service provision, splintered into a decentralized, disjointed affair. Day-to-day tasks devolved from central authorities to a new layer of 209 local committees, which barely reported to the ministry at all. Meanwhile, investments were put on hold, pumping stations damaged, and existing networks ruptured. This wartime disorder led more individuals to bore wells, sowing the seeds of the free-for-all which persists to this day.

After the war, Lebanon’s elites sought to re-centralize ownership over this sector’s most lucrative facets—while neglecting everything else. Above all, this meant courting money from foreign states willing to bankroll big-ticket infrastructure projects: first as part of the 1990s reconstruction drive, later amid the flood of foreign aid accompanying the Syrian conflict and refugee influx. Between 1992 and 2006, no less than $2 billion went into water projects across the country, according to a study published by the Issam Fares Institute. In 2018, the government applied for $6 billion in loans to erect new dams. Such projects fit neatly into an economic model based on rents and patronage: pulling in foreign currency that ruling factions can divvy up among their partisans in government and the private sector, while funding jobs, investment, and services in parts of the country loyal to them.

Authorities drag their feet, to extract ever more aid while doing as little as possible

The authorities’ eagerness to build dams using donor money was matched by their unwillingness to tackle the nuts and bolts of reforming and regulating a sector in disarray. Despite constant political prodding and financial incentives from international sponsors, it took a decade of peace for the state to draft a new law promising to merge Lebanon’s kaleidoscope of institutions into four regional water establishments. The authorities then waited another five years before issuing, in 2005, the decrees needed to put this law into effect. This cycle has only continued in the years since: Donors demand reform and authorities drag their feet, seemingly with the goal of extracting ever more aid while doing as little as possible.

In the meantime, confusion and mismanagement reign over a public water administration riddled with ambiguity and redundancy. Responsibilities such as dealing with wastewater still overlap between regional water authorities, local committees, and municipalities, enabling individual administrators to shirk their duties—or, conversely, jostle for resources and bureaucratic turf. A reputed researcher on Lebanon’s water sector sketched the state of pandemonium:

The municipality of Ali Nahri, near Zahle, rehabilitated and operates the water network in its area. But the Bekaa regional establishment has tried to take over the collection of fees and administrative oversight. In some cases, the establishments want to assume all responsibilities, because it increases their funding. In others they do the opposite, because they want less work.

Indeed, public bodies often seem not to care much about the fundamentals of water management. An especially telling gap relates to the authorities’ failure to collect subscription fees, which should in principle cover day-to-day operations. In practice, however, collection rates vary dramatically—from 79% in Beirut to just 32% in the Bekaa, according to the government’s 2020 National Water Sector Strategy. Moreover, these bills are still priced in Lebanese pounds, which means their value pales in comparison to the costs of running a sector dependent on equipment and fuel priced in dollars. The central government, for its part, does little to plug the gap: In 2020, the Ministry of Electricity and Water accounted for only 0.38% of the total state budget, according to the Beirut-based Institute of Finance.

The Ministry of Electricity and Water accounted for only 0.38% of the total state budget

Ideally, the present crisis would force an overdue reckoning—on the part of both Lebanon’s government and the foreign backers who have long subsidized a broken system. Instead, the opposite is occurring: As needs rise and state coffers shrink, the system depends more heavily on aid dollars than ever before. The general director of South Lebanon’s water establishment confessed, in a public conference last year, that his office can only procure equipment thanks to funds from international agencies such as USAID and UNICEF. The director of another establishment privately concurred: “We are barely able to keep working, and only because we are supported by international aid organizations. We spend over $10,000 a day on operational costs, and these partners are the ones paying!”

For now, donors see little choice but to invest in quick fixes that slow the collapse of Lebanon’s public water sector. UNICEF sounded the alarm against this very prospect a year ago, and launched a $40 million intervention to prevent vulnerable communities from losing access to water. They took on the costs of fuel, spare parts, and maintenance of public infrastructure. But the thought of indefinitely bankrolling such basic services puts donors ill at ease. The money, they warn, will ultimately dry up; in the meantime, these efforts enable the state to further shrink from its most fundamental responsibilities, while a public resource is plundered for individual profit.

***

Indeed, if Lebanon currently has all the resources it needs to change course, this will not be the case forever. Donors, over time, will grow less forgiving, as will Mother Nature: Amid rising temperatures and declining precipitation globally, second chances will shrink from one year to the next. And, as water drains away, so too will human capital. This sector’s seasoned veterans are aging, and their younger counterparts will continue to emigrate in growing numbers.

Now, then, is the moment for all parties to this crisis to explore a new approach. The state has the most work to do, although arguably the least can be expected of it. Yet even marginal steps could make a major difference. Authorities should start by regulating the prices charged by profiteers that fill the gaps; imposing and monitoring minimum hygiene standards for truckers and bottling companies; and properly metering the largest-scale forms of drilling. None of these is beyond the capacity even of Lebanon’s frail institutions—at least while they enjoy robust support from foreign sponsors. The latter, therefore, must do more to insist that continued support will hinge on tangible progress on all these fronts.

Society, too, has a role to play. Ordinary Lebanese cannot solve the sector’s most debilitating structural problems. They can, however, begin to work toward a more conscientious and cooperative relationship to water—a resource and a problem that is shared by all. This might be as simple as gradually cutting back on wasteful practices, or more ambitious: replacing individual wells with communally managed ones, testing ways to help one another in moments of shortage, or starting conversations with local authorities about how to collectively tackle scarcity and pollution. Such changes won’t add up to fix Lebanon’s broken system, but they can indeed help communities to survive in the meantime. By protecting, even in small ways, their natural wealth, Lebanese shore up another essential resource: those social ties that have long helped them to pull through.

18 July 2022

Mortada Alamine researched the Lebanese water sector for two years, as a fellow with Synaps.

Illustration credits: author's own photographs of water pipes in West Bekaa, sheep on the shore of Lake Qaraoun, Ghadir wastewater treatment plant, a village pond in the South, and Lake Qaraoun / licenced by CC.

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