Beyond Dams: Turning to Alternative Solutions for Water in Lebanon

Credits: Empty Brissa Dam, August 2019 – Antoine Atallah

Author’s Note: For a country the size of Lebanon, hosting a wide diversity of ecosystems and spectacular landscapes is equally unique and precious. The countries’ environment, however, has been subject to a longstanding onslaught enabled by a laissez-faire economic system. This commodification of natural resources is further exacerbated by a sectarian political system turning land and resources into opportunities for profit-sharing. As a result, the quality of air, water and soil has deteriorated dramatically, while pollution-related health problems are increasing year over year.

There is however reason to be hopeful; the environmental movement in Lebanon is gaining momentum. More Lebanese are opposing the state’s destructive policies and striving to secure the permanence of Lebanon’s natural wealth. Compounded by the waste crisis in 2015, awareness of the impact of environmental problems on the country’s livability continues to grow.


Dam-based water policies are being increasingly revised on a global level. Environmental/social impacts, inefficiency and safety risks are a few of the red flags the Lebanese government continues to disregard with a fierce campaign of large dam developments across the country. Posing threats to already limited natural resources, this policy has ironically failed to improve water provisioning to communities with citizens continuing to suffer from seasonal water shortages.

With the absence of a comprehensive water strategy, dam construction has primarily served the sectarian profit sharing system intertwined with corporate interests, in what can arguably be assessed as the epitome of corruption and irresponsible governance. Nevertheless, the October 2019 uprising empowered environmental activists in their struggle against ill-advised water policies. As a result, they managed to halt the World Bank-funded Bisri Dam, the largest project in the government’s water strategy and the largest World Bank investment in Lebanon to date. In light of this historical turning point in the debate on water, this article will analyze the multiple impacts that large dams have had on the environment and society, exploring the availability of alternative solutions for water supply.

The Failure of Dam Planning In Lebanon

The National Water Sector Strategy (NWSS) developed by the Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW) outlines the development of additional dams in order to combat water shortages. After receiving approval in 2012, dam construction resumed at an unprecedented pace; three new dams were swiftly built in Qaisamani, Yammouneh and Mseilha. Five others are currently under construction, or in the final phase of commissioning in Bekaata, Balaa, Janna and others. The operational dams have realized notable benefits, including hydropower generation, irrigation (Qaraoun Dam), and domestic water supply (Chabrouh Dam). However, the commissioning of such projects must take into account long-term financial costs, safety risks, environmental and social impacts, the availability of alternatives and more. Studies show that the current domestic experience in dam building and management has proved to be grossly inefficient and costly. Completed in 2013, the Brissa Dam in Donniyye failed to collect water due to its location on karstic limestone, causing a high rate of infiltration. This scandal led the financial prosecutor to raise allegations of corruption against the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR). The Qaisamani Dam, inaugurated in 2017, is yet to reach its full capacity, even after the heaviest rain season Lebanon had seen in a decade. Though the dam is supposed to provide drinking water to the villages of Metn el Aala, residents of this area continue to experience water supply interruptions every summer. The Balaa Dam in Batroun, still under construction, is located on top of sinkholes and chasms, which has delayed the works and caused extensive costs for grouting and isolation. Likewise, the 2007 Chabrouh Dam in Keserwan leaks in excess of 30,000 cubic meters on a daily basis, incurring high expenses for maintenance and repair.

The ineffectiveness of Lebanon’s multiple dam projects is highlighted in multiple reports and studies. The National Council for Scientific Research (NCSR) stated that the region of Mount Lebanon is dominated by highly permeable karstic rock formations, making large dams unable to collect water efficiently. NCSR also warns that many of the proposed dams are located on active seismic faults, posing grave threats of reservoir-induced-earthquakes (RIEs). The impoundment of dam reservoirs in the context of Mount Lebanon produces entirely new seismic activity in the area, risking the lives of millions.

Disregard of Local Environmental Law

On top of the technical failures, dam construction in Lebanon has been substantially harmful to the environment, blocking free rivers and degrading riparian ecosystems. The Janna Dam has caused irreversible damage to the Adonis Valley, an area that holds 70% of Lebanon’s plant and animal species. Also in Mount Lebanon, the Kaisamani Dam was built within the Catchment area of the Hammana spring, severely compromising local water quality. The Qaraoun Dam in the South Bekaa is extremely contaminated by sewage and industrial waste, rendering it unsuitable for irrigation or domestic use. It is no coincidence that the rates of cancer in the Qaraoun’s surrounding villages are among the highest in the country. The now-infamous Bisri Dam plan would have potentially destroyed one of the most remarkable landscapes in Lebanon according to the National Physical Masterplan. It stood to devastate six million square meters of forests and productive land, dismantle more than fifty archeological and historical sites, and pose risks of landslides and RIEs.

In principle, environmental laws in Lebanon provide the necessary guidelines to prevent such harms taking shape. Despite this, the legal frameworks that govern the planning and implementation of dam projects have been repeatedly violated. The Ministerial Decree No. 8633/2012 (attributed to Article 58 of the Environmental Protection Law No. 444/2002) requires any large project, public or private, with potential environmental harm, to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) subject to the evaluation of the Ministry of Environment (MoE). In blatant disregard to these measures, the dams of Balaa, Beqaata and Mseilha were commissioned and/or implemented prior to completing an EIA Study. The Janna Dam was commissioned in 2014 regardless of the expiration of the EIA study dating back to 2008 (EIAs are valid for only two years). At the request of the MoE, a new EIA study was conducted, concluding that the project’s harms largely outweigh any potential benefits. Yet, MoEW dismissed the EIA and continued the construction, which constitutes a “criminal offense” as stated in Article 15 of Decree No. 8633/2012.

Credits: Nahr El Jawz / Mseilha Before (2013) and After (2018) - The Dam project was implemented without conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment
Credits: Nahr El Jawz / Mseilha Before (2013) and After (2018) – The Dam project was implemented without conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment

According to another decree, No. 8213/2012, a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is required for sectoral plans that impact the local ecosystem to ensure environmental concerns are fully addressed appropriately at the earliest stage of project planning. However, the SEA of the National Water Sector Strategy (NWSS) was not conducted until as late as 2015. The SEA recommended scaling back the dams’ development, considering its social, economic, and environmental constraints. For instance, the study described the Bisri Dam as “land greedy” and criticized its unrealistic amount of resource exploitation. The assessment classifies the proposed dam projects as “highest-regret” measures and proposes less risky and more-efficient alternatives. Still, the Ministry of Energy and Water firmly clings to its water plans, dismissing sounder recommendations along the way.

Water Shortages Point to Corrupt Mismanagement

Although Lebanon is abundant with water sources, citizens routinely suffer from seasonal shortages. This is primarily due to mismanagement and a lack of comprehensive and informed planning in the water sector. As of this writing, the government is yet to conduct the necessary studies and assessments to understand the country’s water resources. The Ministry of Energy and Water has not monitored rainfall or surveyed the springs and aquifers since the 1960s, nor has it conducted the required monitoring of groundwater extraction since 1970. The German Federal Institute for Natural Sciences and Resources (BGR) described MoEW’s strategy for water as being based on erroneous figures and outdated studies. The UNDP-conducted assessment of the Groundwater Resources (2014) showed that Lebanon is not suffering from water deficit as claimed by MoEW. Instead, the national water budget shows clear surpluses, with groundwater being the main water resource in Lebanon, averaging 53% of yearly precipitation. However, aquifers are subject to mismanagement, with around 80,000 wells operating illegally across the country, leading to ineffective groundwater usage. Furthermore, the government has not implemented any effective plan to ensure the treatment of wastewater, with 98% of the sewage in Lebanon left unmanaged, contaminating rivers, aquifers, and the sea at large. Though many wastewater treatment plants were built across Lebanse territory, costing the government a total of 1.1 billion USD, they remain dysfunctional as a result of institutional failure, vague division of responsibility and blatant lack of accountability. Moreover, large parts of the water transmission and distribution network in Lebanon suffer from corrosion, leakage, and encroachment. In the absence of monitoring and with the prevalence of favoritism and corruption, many encroach on the public network and use public water for commercial purposes. The rate of Non-Revenue Water (water loss in the network) reaches 48% in Lebanon and 40% in the Greater Beirut Area (MoEW, 2012).

Credits: The rate of Non-Revenue Water in Lebanon compared to other countries in the region - MoEW (2012)
Credits: The rate of Non-Revenue Water in Lebanon compared to other countries in the region – MoEW (2012)

Alternatives to Large Dams

Given the above, Lebanon is in urgent need of a hybrid, low-risk, and environmentally conscious water strategy. Such a policy must consider reforming water agencies, redesigning tariff systems and improving data collection and assessment. It would require rationalization of irrigation and domestic water use, reduction of non-revenue water rates to below 25% (through the rehabilitation of infrastructure and the monitoring of encroachments on public networks), and the regulation of groundwater extraction. Diligent geological-based planning of public and private wells and the implementation of groundwater protection zones will eventually improve both the quality and quantity of domestic public water supplies.

It is also possible to adopt creative solutions to enhance the natural renewal of groundwater reservoirs. These may include Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) techniques like implementing MAR dams that help control the speed of streams, allowing water to easily infiltrate underground reservoirs, along with injection wells that help direct stormwater into the aquifers. The Assessment of Groundwater Resources in Lebanon (UNDP, 2014) proposed the implementation of such wells in Lebanon, stating that the potential recharge volume in the Beirut and Mount Lebanon area alone can reach up to 136.3 MCM (million cubic meters) per year, which would help mitigate water shortages during the summertime.

Furthermore, Lebanon’s major springs can play a significant role in the country’s water security. One particular example is the Jeita spring, currently supplying the Greater Beirut Area with around 60% of its domestic water supplies. The rehabilitation and extension of the Jeita spring’s transmission mains would augment their capacity from 250,000 to 400,000 cubic meters. This would increase water supply from the Jeita and Kashkoush springs to 105 MCM per year, compared to the current capacity of 77 MCM. This would also close the gap between supply and demand in the Greater Beirut Area during the dry season. A feasibility study conducted by the German Federal Institute for Geoscience and Natural Resources (BGR) estimated the total costs of this project to be 31 million USD. Other solutions include small and medium-size storage dams, urban stormwater harvesting and onshore exploitation of submarine springs.

One would ask why the government has turned a blind eye to these solutions and focused on building large dams instead. Naturally, large infrastructure projects are usually quite costly and therefore more financially profitable. Consequently, dam development has long served particular construction firms connected to corrupt political powers, especially through the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), an extra-ministerial public institution functioning as a cartel without any form of transparency or accountability. Dams are also an opportunity for political advertising, enabling sectarian leaders to make exaggerated promises and claim that they are achieving something “big” for the benefit of their own community. These politicians recruit their supporters to work in dam construction to secure their loyalty, maintaining an archaic and clientelistic system.

Conclusion

Dam development in Lebanon continues to fall short of the government’s promises of improved water supply, causing severe damage to the environment and local communities. They help perpetuate the processes of corruption and clientelism to the detriment of citizens’ basic right to water. Alternative solutions are available; they are cheaper, more efficient, and more sustainable. Yet, the ability to implement them requires drastic political and institutional reform. Accordingly, Lebanese at home and abroad are invited to continue organizing and pushing for an overhaul of the sectarian system that has created overarching vulnerabilities in all sectors. If further evidence is required, look to the continued abuse of the country’s natural resources.

Finally, the importance of the diaspora’s role in the struggle against large dams in Lebanon is worth noting. Expatriates in the US, UK, France, Germany, Switzerland and other countries actively participated in the efforts to stop the Bisri Dam project. They lobbied in the World Bank’s member countries to push the organization to withdraw its financing for the dam. In early September 2020, their efforts paid off as the World Bank announced its decision to withdraw from the project. Pooling our efforts and convictions across the world, we can continue to make a difference.

Bisri | Dams | Solutions | Sustainable Energy
Roland Nassour
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Roland is an urban researcher, planner and environmental activist. Through his research and work, Roland is interested in making cities more livable, healthy and sustainable. He is the cofounder and coordinator of the Save the Bisri Valley Campaign which aimed to stop the World Bank-funded Bisri dam project, advocating for alternative solutions for water in Lebanon. He also contributed to research projects on public space, urban pollution, and housing rights. Roland is the Community and Advocacy Coordinator at Public Works Studio, currently working on issues related to post-disaster rehabilitation and reconstruction. He holds a Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy from the American University of Beirut, and has pursued studies in urban management and climate change at Erasmus University in the Netherlands and in sustainable urban design at Lund University in Sweden.