Struggling to stay afloat: Lebanon sinks deeper into the abyss with fresh water crisis

A young boy seen selling clean water in a shop. Lebanon host over a million of refugees that had fled from the neighbouring country seeking safety [Getty Images]
16 September, 2021
Amid further societal capitulation, Lebanon now faces the resurfacing of a water crisis that has placed families under renewed stress. The New Arab speaks with activists about their attempts to shed light on the issue.

Lebanon should be an ideal country in the Middle Eastern region due to the abundant amount of water sources, from rivers to groundwater and seasonal springs, but the reality is far from it. A short video series soberly entitled Water Crisis in Lebanon explains how far gone the water crisis is in a country already plagued by deep financial and political crises.

With optimistic music and videos of Lebanese streams and mountains, the voice of humanitarian clown and performer Sabine Choucair describes the wonders of her land in the first episode of the video series: “In Lebanon, our snow-filled mountains feed 15 rivers and over 2,000 freshwater streams.” She then continues in a more playful tone: “Aren’t we lucky to have access to so much freshwater!” But seconds later, the reality is exposed, setting the scene for the episodes to come: industrial pollution, fresh and groundwater contamination, mismanagement, agricultural abuses, medical waste and others – all explored in a compelling and sartorial way.

Water supply systems are on the verge of collapse in Lebanon with more than 71% of people at risk of losing access to water

The series was mandated by the Swiss government through a German NGO called Media in Cooperation and Transition (MICT) for The Blue Peace initiative, a long term project focusing on water-related issues in the Middle East.

MICT has been working since 2017 to raise public awareness about water in the region, first through journalism training mostly in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, then through short video series exploring different aspects of water in Jordan and now Lebanon.

The idea is to inform and make people aware, not only in the countries mentioned but also globally. “We get a lot of positive feedback from viewers on Twitter and YouTube,” the MICT head of programmes Dirk Spilker tells The New Arab. “We’re looking at around 50,000 views for each video, mostly from Lebanon but also a few other countries in the region, including the UK, the US, and Germany.”

According to the series and a report published by UNICEF, the water situation in Lebanon is critical, and water supply systems are on the verge of collapse in Lebanon with more than 71 percent of people at risk of losing access to water.

It states that due to the financial crisis and the lack of access to fuel and supplies necessary to treat the water and bring it from its sources to people’s homes, the majority of the country will have no access to water.

Two boys are getting ready to distribute clean water to the refugees in Beirut's Shatila camp [Getty Images]
Two boys are getting ready to distribute clean water to the refugees in Beirut's Shatila camp, where they already face issues such as daily harassment, domestic violence, lack of sanitary assistance and education, food and water shortage and housing issues [Getty Images]

This is just the latest structural issue that has gradually destroyed the quality of the Lebanese water over decades of political and technical mismanagement. “In my view, the problem is not based on the lack of capacity, funding or expertise,” said Sammy Kayed, a scholar at the American University of Beirut, and co-founder of the Environment Academy, “but with the amount of intellectual, practical and financial resources put into it, there should be a lot to show by now.”

High levels of pollution are being observed, mostly by private entities that are the only ones making their research’s results public, by the coastline and in most rivers and even groundwater.

This pollution mostly comes from untreated sewage composed of faeces and garbage, heavy metals from the industrial sector and fertilisers from the fields which are all infecting the water distribution network directly. Where people swim, what people get at home from the tap, what people shower with, everything is affected.

"You can’t fix anything in a system that is already broken"

“Now that I have worked on this series, let me tell you that I shower with my mouth closed,” joked Lebanese-American journalist and documentary filmmaker George Azar when interviewed by The New Arab. “I agreed to work on this project because water is part of my life in Lebanon. I encounter this problem every day.

He continues, "I love the sea but it’s horrible, and where I live water is always a struggle – it used to be too salty, then it runs out so you have to pay a lot of money to get it from somewhere else. Why can’t we have water from the tap? I started scratching the surface and I discovered how bad it is.

"Imagine that 60 percent of the Lebanese tap water has traces of faeces. When you flush the toilets, you basically inject it directly into a stream. That’s how bad it is.”

Azar is now disillusioned about the possibility of change: “You can’t fix anything in a system that is already broken.”

The series tackles the themes of mismanagement and corruption, yet faces a constant, uphill task to delve into the true extent of the problem. “There is a lot of money coming from abroad to fix those things,” Kayed told The New Arab. “But then, who actually gets it? How is it spent? How can you get millions to build a waste treatment centre and not use it at its full capacity? There is a big problem of accountability. I think the water crisis is representative of so many issues we have in this country.”

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Norway after six years spent in Lebanon. She reports on the environment, women's issues, human rights and refugees in the Middle East, Africa and Europe

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena