Words Jihan Seoud and Alia Fawaz
Lebanon has always stood out for having relatively more water resources per capita than its neighboring countries, thanks to its topography, which favors moderately high rates of precipitation (rain and snow). However, unsustainable water resource management practices and weak water governance have put a huge strain on the country’s water resources, in particular groundwater. The country was in dire need of a comprehensive groundwater study in order to assess the existing situation (the last comprehensive national groundwater assessment was done back in 1970 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
In 2014, after three years of meticulous work, thanks to an expert consortium of local and international companies, a new comprehensive National Groundwater Assessment study was completed, implemented by UNDP in partnership with and on behalf of the Ministry of Energy and Water and funded by the Government of Italy. This latest study covered hydrogeological information-gathering, mapping, surveying, and land installation of some continuous monitoring stations in a certain number of wells. This study was the first critical step in order to have the necessary data for the country to take proper water management decisions.
The Water Study: The Main Findings
• Lebanon’s level of usable ground water has decreased significantly since the 1970s, and many of the coastal wells are now saline (salt water intrusion as a result of over pumping).
• The water balance was calculated, and although there is an overall surplus (more water being received than being lost) at the national level, ironically it does not mean that we have sufficient water to be used. This is because water supply is not evenly distributed throughout the country. For example, on the coast water is mostly saline, in some areas the groundwater is too polluted, and so forth. This lack of evenly distributed, sufficient clean groundwater is attributed to poor water management.
• An estimated 60,000 unlicensed illegal wells are operating. This situation has spiraled out of control (because of a lack of water supply from the public water network, people are constantly digging to find their own wells).
• The agricultural sector, the biggest consumer of water, relies too much on groundwater, as surface water is too polluted for irrigation.
• The influx of Syrian refugees has increased both water pollution and water demand.
Better monitoring of water sources is needed, whether of groundwater surface water, or precipitation/meteorological water. Furthermore, the “illegal water sector” (such as the water truck suppliers that fill the void when government-supplied water is scarce) needs to be better managed. However, these practices can only be curbed once the government can supply sufficient water.
The existing water network is outdated, and the system allows for too much water wastage (about 60 percent). Major investment and planning is needed to reform the network in all areas. Furthermore, water conservation practices need to be improved.
The Government is working towards coordinating the interventions in the water sector to ensure that water resource management is improved. However, there must also be improved water management among institutions, and within the Ministry itself, to better coordinate the work between the different players and sectors.
Legislation has to be upgraded and improved along with enforcement by the institutions that manage the networks. However, there are not enough human and financial resources currently in this sector, and there is a lack of government funding. Furthermore, the loose flat-water fees system (no water meters), which also contributes to water wastage, does not bring in enough capital to pay for significant changes.
To say that a country such as Lebanon is facing water shortages seems almost paradoxical, but decades of mismanagement and misuse have clearly brought this about. The challenges ahead are huge. However, with proper data and planning, decision-makers and citizens should be able to combine efforts to better manage Lebanon’s precious groundwater.