Alia Fawaz

Contrary to other countries in the region, Lebanon is blessed with ample water resources. However, there is a need for better management of the water supply. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its partners are working closely with the country’s regional water authorities to identify the necessary projects and to ensure that the most vulnerable people have access to clean water and waste management facilities. Beyond speaks to UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon to understand more about the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) situation, particularly in the areas with the worst WASH conditions.

What kinds of WASH conditions exist for the most vulnerable Syrian refugees?

Over 80 percent of refugees rent their accommodations in Lebanon (garages, warehouses, unfinished buildings, shelters, etc.). They live in harsh WASH conditions because of the terribly weak WASH infrastructure in those locations: Sewage networks are lacking in most refugee hosting areas, and their access to water networks is very limited. The infrastructure in these informal settlements was practically non-existent before humanitarian and developments agencies intervened. In addition, the amount of solid waste has increased greatly over the past years along with the increase in the number of residents. The number of refugees exceeds that of locals in certain villages, especially in the Bekaa valley and North Lebanon.

Quality of water and contamination are major issues, especially in view of the influx of refugees.

Quality of water and contamination of water throughout Lebanon is a persistent problem that pre-dates the Syrian crisis. According to the national wastewater strategy ratified in 2012, only eight percent of wastewater in Lebanon is treated. The remainder is discharged into the environment (rivers, water irrigation channels, etc.) According to a study carried out in 2014 by the Ministry of the Environment, the increase in Lebanon’s population has led to an increase of between eight percent and 14 percent in the amount of wastewater that is generated, and it has produced an additional 324,568 tons of solidwaste per year.

Water management is another big problem.

Access to water is impaired by an aging and fragile water infrastructure, poor service delivery, and low awareness of conservation. Most of the water networks are over 30 years old and have made a minimal investment in maintenance. As a result, an estimated 48% of the water supply is lost through leaks and unofficial connections. This is 13% higher than the global average water loss standard. In addition the current water payment system in Lebanon is based on flat fees, regardless of water consumption.

This does not encourage water conservation among consumers. You seem to face plenty of challenges.

UNH CR and its partners are facing challenges with regard to improving sites, especially informal settlements where refugees live in the hardest conditions. These challenges are mostly the result of the fact that many sites were not constructed on suitable pieces of land, but rather they were often constructed on agricultural land, where drainage is poor and site improvements/proper waste treatment infrastructure is prohibited. In collaboration with the Ministry of Energy and Water and the Ministry of the Environment, UNH CR is trying to develop alternative wastewater treatment solutions to be implemented on a larger scale. These will provide the necessary improvements in Lebanon, benefiting both Lebanese and Syrian refugee communities.

What are these alternative wastewater treatments?

• Installing non-permanent wastewater treatment plants (which will partially treat the wastewater) at the informal settlements. Restrictions and lack of sufficient funds have so far prevented the implementation of proper wastewater management. Agencies are also looking into installing biogas digesters in order to transform excreta into gas and use the gas for power generation.

• Installing decentralised communal wastewater treatment plants, which would benefit both the host community and the Syrian refugees.

• Rehabilitation of drinking water supply networks to prevent wastewater intrusion and the resulting water contamination.

• Upgrading existing wastewater treatment plants to enable them to receive and treat the wastewater sludge that is generated by latrines.

More funding and approval to make structural changes would help to boost and accelerate these programs. What are some of the most recent projects?

In December 2014, UNH CR handed over five communal water reservoirs in the Shouf region. Over 38,000 Lebanese and 9,000 Syrian refugees have benefited from the increased water supply in Iqlim Al Kharoub. Another project is a European Union-funded water project that aims to upgrade water supply facilities for communities hosting large numbers of refugees in urban and rural areas in the Bekaa Valley and North Lebanon. This will benefit at least 61,000 Lebanese locals and 17,900 refugees in the North of Lebanon, and 81,500 Lebanese locals and 25,000 Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley.

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