Roland Riachi on water resources: “2018 is definitely a year of crisis”

Water resources are the keystone of Lebanon. But a defiled keystone. Let's hear Roland Riachi about it. Riachi is a specialist of the political ecology of water in Lebanon, and a visiting assistant professor at the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at AUB (American University of Beirut).

roland riachi water crisis resources lebanon beirut water resources
Roland Riachi: “Private sector took control over the public water” © David Hury
ByTheEast: What’s so specific about water in Lebanon?

Riachi: What’s really fascinating about water is that water is everywhere. In every fields in our societies: agriculture, electricity, industries, public health… Water is really everywhere and required for the sake of life itself.

During the French Mandate, Lebanon was called ‘the water tower of the Middle East’. In the 1920s, for the colonial authorities, developing Lebanon was possible thanks to its water resources. French Mandate regulated a lot of sectors through a water lens: the French implemented water laws, land properties and cadastral legislation, engineers scoped large projects potential and behind this, there was an ideology: water meant development.

In the late 1940s, when the state of Israel was created, water became a sovereignty issue. The Lebanese nationalism emerged because the water issue.

BTE: Summer is coming. Last winter was poor in snowfall and rainfall. How will it affect the next six months?

Riachi: Water we get in the summer depends on the snowmelt process. 80% of the fresh water that we have during a 12-month cycle comes from this snowmelt. And if you don’t have a properly distributed snowmelt process, no water will feed aquifers. Rain, in fact, does not really matter, it’s the snowfall that is important.

Lebanon usually gets 800mm per year, almost as much as the city of London. The main point is the distribution of those 800mm during the year. If we reach 800mm only through rainfall, it will be a year of crisis. In March, we should already have 500mm, and we were far from it. Plus, the snowmelt process has to be slow, and it did not happen as it’s supposed to. On March 23, air temperature peaked at 35ºC. From Beirut, you could have looked at Sannine: the day before the mountain was white, the following day all the snow disappeared. 2018 is definitely a year of crisis, almost as much as the 2014 drought. In addition, unprecedented rainfall of more than 100mm were recorded in a couple of days in June, leading to floods in many areas. Those extremes are certainly due to climate change.

We are used to see informal water tanks in Beirut in October when people get back to Beirut and pressure the distribution network. We should see those tanks much earlier during this summer. The worst news for the Lebanese people is that our government does not take the situation seriously and does nothing about it. As usual, there is no political awareness to declare a state of drought and deal with it.

BTE: Authorities are always criticized. What is the worst case?

Riachi: Let’s talk about the wells. In the 1970s, you would find water in 5-meter deep, as it is now in the south of France. Nowadays in Lebanon, in the Bekaa valley for example, you can dig up to 300 meters, it’s catastrophic. But this situation is a symptom, not the cause. Authorities are emptied because of neoliberal austerity measures. To sense the administrative void, for example the groundwater directorate at the Ministry of Energy and Water is meant to have 40 personnel positions, they are actually only 3. Civil servants’ vacancies in water authorities are huge.

BTE: What’s the cause then?

Riachi: At the beginning, it’s an ideological problem. You have to go back in the 1920s with the French Mandate. And after that, with the construction of an independent Lebanon. This process was supported by foreign investments during the Cold War by American funds with the creation of the World Bank… again, Lebanon was claimed to have a lot of water compared to its neighbours with a commercial comparative advantage in producing water-intensive crops. And here resides a large part of the problem today as Lebanon uses more than one third of its yearly consumed freshwater for exported fruit and vegetables.

BTE: And nowadays?

Riachi: Laws are weak in protecting the resource. For now, if you dig a 150-meter well or less and if you pump less than 100,000 liters per day, you do not require any permit or license. During the French Mandate, authorities needed to encourage agriculture and irrigation, this is why those exemptions were made. Since then, nobody suggested a new law or a new vision. Why? Because it does not suit the actual large landowners which are mostly clergymen and politicians. Members of Parliament won’t vote against their self-interests. In Lebanon, private property overrides public property. By law. Lebanon is the last kingdom of laissez-faire. We inherited this vision from the Roman law: when you possess land, everything on the ground is yours. It’s the same for the quarries, riverbeds and coastal infringements, among many others.

“All the cash collected is not used to fix the network, it goes to some huge dam projects”

BTE: Let’s go back to the water we use on a daily basis. Is it healthy?

Riachi: Actually, there are two types of contamination. The first one is chemical because of industrial and agricultural chemicals pollutants, including heavy metals. The second one is organic, mainly coming of fecal matter which are vectors of diseases. As this situation is getting worse year after year, commercial solutions appeared. In the 1990s, there was only two brands of water, Sohat and Sannine. Twenty years later, we have over 50 recognized brands and more than a thousand informal ones. Money talks: water market went from $10 to $500 million.

Private sector took control over the public water in many ways, politicians and businessmen are also currently discussing the implementation of the Water Code (known as ‘Code de l’eau’ because it’s inspired by the French model). It’s a disguised privatization, as they already tried to achieve through what was once advertised as the ‘Blue Gold’ plan. There is no more justice in the water sector in Lebanon, Lebanese people should be aware of this.

BTE: And in what shape is the water supply network in 2018?

Riachi: Technical losses in the water distribution are around 40%, and more. We do know that 92% of the network in Beirut is 50 years old. This means it can go back to the Ottoman Empire! And beyond this, there is an urban reservoirs problem. In Beirut, there is only two main tanks: one in Fassouh which dates back to the Ottoman Empire, and another one in Tallet el-Khayat which dates back to the French Mandate. Since then, nobody thought to upgrade or to extend those tanks, even if the population has been multiplied by five.

BTE: Why don’t we upgrade these facilities?

Riachi: Because there is no real money to make here. Money is flowing from and for the dams, not for the distribution network, and that’s a shame: fees collected for water in Beirut cover 300% of the operational costs. But all the cash collected is not used to fix the network, it goes to some huge dam projects.

BTE: What about the dams exactly?

Riachi: There is an old theory that Lebanon could be self-sufficient and meet its own electricity through the dams. Engineers realized since the 1960s that it’s untrue. Hydropower has low-impact in our country. Then the interest turned to irrigation and today to domestic consumption. Dams in Lebanon are huge in height but they cannot contain large volumes, for two separate reason. First, because valleys are steep, so the dam’s wall stands higher and second, because of the karst geology. All Mount-Lebanon is made of limestone soluble rocks. That is why we have caves like Jeita. That is why when the snow melts, water flows slowly to the aquifers, because of geological karst. The karst geology is a real advantage to form natural groundwater reserves. But at the same time, it is also the main natural challenger to stocking water behind dams. Surface reservoirs on top of such porous ground is pure non-sense, according to studies in Lebanon and worldwide.

There is a new dam site next in Chatine-Balaa, an area known for its natural karst-made gorges, when contractors, the French firm Artelia, started excavating they discovered chasms. In order to fill the cavities, they started grouting by injecting cement. This will certainly lead to double the initial planned cost.

BTE: Political authorities and ministries are probably aware of all those technical facts. Why do they pursue in that direction?

Riachi: Dams and politics are interconnected, all over the world. Roosevelt blooming the western desert ideology, Franco’s emblazed in Spain, Staline in USSR, Nasser and Aswan in Egypt, Assad and his mega-dams… It’s always the same story: daunting rivers is a sign of ‘civilization’ and modernity. And it’s the same story in Lebanon now: this ideology based on megalomaniac projects continues in full force and effect through. Until 2008 we only had two dams in Lebanon: Qaraoun and Chabrouh. Since Gebran Bassil is in charge, five controversial projects are on the table or already done, such as in Hammana, Mseilha, Bekaata, Bisri and Janneh.

Once again, you have to take a look at History to understand. In the 1950s, Lebanon was on the American agenda, as a pawn of their policy of containment against communism. Lebanon was a fine partner in the region, easy to co-opt. President Truman wanted to export the Marshall Plan everywhere it was needed. At that time, the Tennessee Valley Authority came to Lebanon to make site studies about potential construction of dams. Sixty years later, even though we know now that dams are not fitted for Lebanon, politicians still work on the same plans! Politicians did some rebranding of old plans, under new rhetoric of water scarcity this time, like Bassil’s ’National Water Strategy’ or director general Fadi Comair 10-year plan or more recently his Blue Gold plan, all in all based on dams. Take for example the Qaraoun dam situation today after 50 years of completion: dams in Lebanon will always turn into fiasco.