Dead fish, garbage, cancer: The Litani River’s seven plagues

Dead fish, garbage, cancer: The Litani River’s seven plagues
6 min read
In the fertile Bekaa Plain, Lebanon's longest river has become an open garbage dump due to corruption and mismanagement. Animals are dying and people are falling ill. But despite the crisis, the situation is gradually improving.

The glistening green waters of Lake Qaraoun stretch as far as the eye can see, surrounded by picturesque villages nestled on the mountainsides of the southern Bekaa valley.

However, a foul smell plagues the lakes’ dry shores, where garbage piles up in heaps.

Created in 1959 for a dam, Lebanon's largest artificial lake has suffocated and been declared clinically dead since 2016.

“The lake used to be full of life: zooplankton, algae, edible fish,” recalls Kamal Slim, a professor at Lebanon University and former research director at Beirut's National Center for Scientific Research.

Over 45 million cubic meters of industrial pollutants, sewers, pesticides, and phosphates were carried by the Litani River to the lake, Kamal explained. He has been taking measurements of the lake's water for 15 years and has become a witness to its decline.

"Meandering 170 km from north to south, the banks of the country's longest river are littered with waste of all kinds...As a result, cancer rates have skyrocketed to 4.5 times the national rate"

From one disaster to the next

The lake’s story is harrowing: the first fish began dying as early as the 1980s, by 2008 the lake turned green, and by 2016 the smell became unbearable - leading to demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes throughout the region.

Then, in the summer of 2021, Qaraoun made global headlines when hundreds of thousands of carp washed up dead on the shores.

“It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it,” says Iffat Idriss, an environmental activist involved with the Lebanon Eco-Movement, who took part in the clean-up of the lake.

The region's economy has been severely affected: fishermen have been banned from selling the surviving fish from the lake.

The citizens are fighting the effects of this environmental crisis. “In 2009, thanks to international aid, we built four of our own waste treatment plants to curb pollution,” Yahya Daher, mayor of the town of Qaraoun, told The New Arab.

The system, powered by solar energy, is managed by the community itself and allows waste to be disposed of without dumping it into rivers.

Dead fish, garbage, cancer: The Litani River’s seven plagues
Jamili, a Syrian refugee, fetches groundwater from a water pump set up by the farmer-owner and on the edge of her refugee camp [photo credit: Phillipe Pernot]

The shadow of drought

But Daher is worried about the threat of drought. “As kids, we used to play in the fresh sources in the mountains, but they are all dried up now,” he sighs.

Authorities have banned the use of water from the lake and the Litani River since 2018, even though it once provided 80% of the Bekaa Valley's agricultural water needs.

“We cannot use the lake’s nor the Litani’s water for irrigation because otherwise, we'll contaminate our fruits and vegetables,” sighs Sharab Bou Fares, an organic farmer in Qaraoun.

Like many farmers, he was forced to drill one of the region’s 60,000 underground wells, which have caused the groundwater levels to plummet.

“We have lost one meter yearly for 70 years, and because of climate change, snowfall is now also decreasing,” warned Nadim Farajalla, director of the Climate Change and Environment Program at the American University of Beirut.

The Litani - a suffering valley

Not only Qaraoun but the entire Litani river basin is threatened by drought and pollution.

Meandering 170 km from north to south, the banks of the country's longest river are littered with waste of all kinds.

As a result, cancer rates have skyrocketed to 4.5 times the national rate, Dr. Ismail Sukkarieh, a gastroenterologist and former MP, told The New Arab.

“We are plagued by mosquitoes that spread diseases, suffer from itching and stomach problems,” said Maha, a farm worker and Syrian refugee from Deir ez-Zor, who lives in a refugee camp near the river in Joub Jennine.

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Syrian refugees: victims of pollution and political scapegoats

Many Lebanese residents accuse the 400,000 Syrian refugees living in the valley of causing the pollution, as they are often forced to dump sewage and waste into the Litani.

“Although we pay the municipality for garbage collection, they don't come and we have to live in our own garbage,” Ibrahim, a livestock farmer and refugee from northern Syria told The New Arab while his goats grazed in the plastic-strewn grass along the riverbank.

The United Nations High Commissioner's Office (UNHCR) and UNICEF should, in theory, dispose of their waste. “But the UN is not cooperating. You often see their trucks collecting the garbage and then dumping it into the river further downstream,” Abu Hamad criticizes.

UNICEF answered The New Arab’s question by email, stating, “In general, wastewater is collected in sealed tanks at the household level and regularly emptied by private contractors engaged by partner NGOs. The contractors then dispose of the wastewater in designated locations as approved by the appropriate authorities.”

Nassim Abu Hamad, head of the water management department at the Litani River Authority (LRA) [photo credit: Qaraoun]
Nassim Abu Hamad, head of the water management department at the Litani River Authority (LRA), Qaraoun [photo credit: Phillipe Pernot]

Mismanagement and corruption

Mismanagement and corruption are indeed the main causes behind the continued degradation. “Back in the 1970s, the government built a sewage system, but never the necessary treatment plants, so everything ended up in the Litani”, sighs Nassim Abu Hamad, head of the water management department at the Litani River Authority (LRA)

“Fifty years later, we are still suffering from this mismanagement.”

The main problem is that there were only two sewage treatment plants available for the hundreds of towns, farms, wineries, and factories of the Bekaa Valley, Abu Hamad said.

In 2015, the World Bank and various donors granted the authorities a $55 million loan to build three sewage treatment facilities.

“Ten years and 37 meetings later, none of this has been implemented,” criticized Yahya Daher, the mayor of Qaraoun.

This is due in part to the sheer number of responsible agencies that must cooperate together: the Bekaa Water Establishment, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Industry, and many more.

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“There were a lot of politically motivated agendas and corruption, but that has gradually gotten better with new laws,” researcher Nadim Farajalla told The New Arab.

Indeed, there is hope. “Thanks to a 2018 law, we sued about 90 polluting companies and won all our lawsuits. They were forced to dispose of their waste and clean up the environment,” Abu Hamad rejoiced.

“This has never happened before in Lebanon.”

His agency has cleaned up wetlands near Job Jennine and built a wastewater treatment plant amid orchards - a model that raises hopes for detoxification of the Litani in the coming decades.

Philippe Pernot is a French-German photojournalist also living in Beirut. Covering anarchist, environmentalist, and queer social movements, he is now the Lebanon correspondent for Frankfurter Rundschau and editor for various international media.

Follow him on Twitter: @PhilippePernot7

Mira Succari is a freelance Lebanese translator.