Setting the ground for water reuse policies and projects in Lebanon

Farmer showing water use infrastructure for vineyard
25 October, 2022

Increasing water shortages in Lebanon has made informal water reuse become a common practice.

In the dry summer months, reusing treated (or untreated) wastewater has helped farmers compensate for their irrigation needs and alleviate pressure on freshwater.

But left unorganized, reuse threatens public health, generates conflicts, and comes with limited economic benefits.

To help Lebanon expand its safe water reuse, ReWater MENA and its partners have worked on different tracks to lay the foundation for national planning and regulations along with pilot reuse projects. With the country’s financial crisis and prolonged governance issues, this does not come without challenges.

"The use of recycled water in agriculture is regarded as one of the most sustainable solutions to water shortages in Lebanon, given the number of freshwater withdrawals"

Despite Lebanon’s natural endowment with plenty of freshwaters as compared to its neighbours, most river basins are today overexploited.

The agricultural sector alone consumes 60–70% of all annual freshwater diversions, with rivers and spring water providing half and groundwater sources providing the remaining part. 

Since the 1960s, freshwater allowed irrigation to develop with limited state intervention but years of uncontrolled abstractions and poor management led to its overexploitation. In parallel, the delay in implementing wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) and their underperformance led to acute pollution in many river basins.

Farmer showing potato field being watered [photo credit: REVOLVE]
Farmer showing potato field being watered [photo credit: IWMI]

Since the 2019 financial crisis,  both the state and the communities have found it difficult to pay for fuel in order to sustain the operation of water networks and wastewater treatment plants.

The situation in Lebanon is today critical. As stressed by the ‘Road-map to Recovery of the water [and wastewater] sector in Lebanon’ issued by the Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW) in May 2022,  deep reforms are needed for the government to be able to ensure just access to water and sanitation services. So how can water reuse contribute to that and what are the limits? The ReWater MENA project brings many learnings in this regard. 

With the existing volumes of wastewater treated at the time of the project’s data collection in 2020, 48 plants would have a reasonably high reuse potential score, while if existing WWTPs were fully functional and operated at full capacity, up to 82 plants would fall within this bracket.

Reusing treated effluents would supplement or substitute water needs in sectors suffering from water shortage, reduce groundwater pumping and alleviate the use of freshwater in the agricultural sector.

“Using recycled water would supplement or substitute water needs in sectors suffering from water shortage, plus it would reduce groundwater pumping and alleviate the use of freshwater in the agricultural sector.”

Water Reuse in Lebanon: An interesting potential conditioned by a healthy wastewater sector and functioning state and community institutions

To expand safe water reuse in irrigation in Lebanon,  ReWater MENA carried out four main activities since 2019, in close consultation with a National Steering Committee (NSC).

In one of them, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers led a study to explore the potential for expanding the safe treatment and reuse of wastewater in Lebanon.

The ‘National Analysis of Water Reuse Potential in Irrigation’ published in September 2022, further refined the national-scale wastewater treatment plant database provided by the MEW. The sophisticated model generated ‘potential areas’ and ‘reuse potential scores’ of each existing and planned WWTPs across the country.

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The analysis found that with the existing volumes of wastewater treated at the time of the study, 48 WWTPs would have a reasonably high reuse potential score, while if existing WWTPs were fully functional and operated at full capacity, as many as 82 would be in the same bracket.

However, structural shortcomings in the wastewater sector combined with challenges of governance and the lack of a regulatory framework for reuse management impede the materialization of this potential. 

The study revealed poor administrative capacities and weak local stakeholders’ engagement in the planning, implementation, and management of existing WWTPs. It recommended empowering local actors and involving irrigation committees in planning and managing future reuse systems. The Ablah and Zahleh Water Reuse Plants provide a good example of such co-design processes. 

Farmer transporting water tank [photo credit: REVOLVE]
Farmer transporting water tank [photo credit: IWMI]

Engaging local stakeholders leads to better planning

The Ablah and Zahleh Water Reuse Plants are situated on the east bank of the Litani River, Lebanon's largest river (currently over-allocated and extremely polluted).

Both plants were identified by the National Analysis of Water Reuse Potential in Irrigation as being part of the 18 WWTPs with the best reuse potential.

As part of ReWater MENA project activities, two water reuse systems were designed with their respective management plans through a participative approach, where the different concerned stakeholders were engaged.

The Ablah WWTP is a small domestic, trickling filter-based treatment plant (2,000 cubic meters per day) managed and auto-funded by the municipality of Ablah town. In 2015, a complete irrigation system was installed for the reuse of the treated sewage effluent to reduce groundwater use in a depleted aquifer.

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The reuse system - established by the EU-funded Project ACCBAT -  used to supply water to 37 grape farmers (20 hectares). In 2022, only four farmers used the treated effluent through a direct connection to the WWTP facilitated by the operator.

ReWater MENA, together with Ablah municipality and the farming community, developed a plan to rehabilitate the existing system and extend the network to irrigate some 10 more hectares. 

The Ablah WWTP has a high potential of wastewater reuse because of the effluent quality, the crop types grown in the area (mainly fruit trees) and, equally important, the sustainable management and governance of the treatment and reuse system.

The benefits are multiple: the reuse of wastewater reduces the cost of individual pumping from wells and alleviates pressure on groundwater resources. Ablah’s irrigation system would be managed by a farmers’ committee in partnership with the Municipality of Ablah. 

Farmer showing grape varieties for export [photo credit: REVOLVE]
Farmer showing grape varieties for export [photo credit: IWMI]

The Zahleh WWTP is also located near the Litani River, in the Zahleh agricultural plain, on the border with Barr Elias. It is a large domestic treatment plant (25,000 m3/day) in this case implemented and managed by the Council of Development and Reconstruction (CDR), who will hand it to the Bekaa Water Establishment (BWE) as per the Lebanese legal framework.

There, the treated effluent from the Zahleh WWTP represents a vital water source both to downstream farmers in Barr Elias, and upstream farmers from Zahleh, where some landowners are already pumping water from the Litani to reduce their energy costs. Farmers in this region mainly grow wheat, potatoes, and fruit trees, using a variety of irrigation systems.

Irrigation management lies in the hands of the local community, as in the first case study of the Ablah Wastewater Treatment Plant. ReWater MENA suggested designing a system that would distribute water to Barr Elias in the first irrigation season and to Zahleh in the second half of the summer. 

Regulating water reuse will improve irrigation and agriculture

According to Lebanon's new National Water Sector Strategy, water reuse might diminish the country’s water problems, but this strategy has to be followed with official regulations for water reuse quality.

To ensure that these standards are met, ReWater has worked closely with the Lebanese Standards Institution (LIBNOR), the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI) and several other public administrations to assess the health and environmental risks associated with irrigating fresh vegetables from different water sources of varying quality.

To do that, the partners carried out a two-year field trial at LARI’s Tel Amara station in central Bekaa, on the right bank of the Litani River, in two main trials. 

The first one was looking at the productivity, quality and risks on health, crops and environment, of recycled water -coming from Ablah wastewater treatment plant, located only a few kilometres away from LARI’s fields- compared to groundwater -representing a clear water source- and Litani river water -known to be highly polluted at this level of the Bekaa -when using different irrigation methods.

The experiment showed that the nutritional quality of crops irrigated with treated water was good. The experiment also looked into parasite contamination which proved that several factors needed to be put under consideration, thus reinforcing the idea of the importance of formulating norms for water reuse in agriculture.  

The second trial was focusing on the effect of irrigation withholding before harvest as a simple method to minimize health risks. The recommendation from this second experiment was to withhold irrigation for 2 to 4 days before harvesting to reduce contamination with little loss of yield.

As stated by IWMI experts, to ensure the potential of water reuse in the long term, the formulation of official water reuse standards is vital. 

Farmer showing small tomato plant [photo credit: REVOLVE]
Farmer showing small tomato plant [photo credit: IWMI]

Identifying innovative and replicable solutions

The use of recycled water in agriculture is regarded as one of the most sustainable solutions to water shortages in Lebanon, given the number of freshwater withdrawals. And here comes the challenge: water reuse cannot solve water scarcity once and for all, it can only alleviate it. Therefore, institutional reforms and collective efforts are also needed in Lebanon to overcome water stress.

Identifying promising innovations and validated reuse models such as the Ablah and Zahleh WWTPs, will support the Lebanese government to design better-recycled water policies in the future.

The potential for integrating wastewater reuse into agricultural production in Lebanon and the MENA region at large would also complement the dwindling water supply, and reduce pressure on groundwater.

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For the project to succeed, IWMI’s study used a participatory approach. According to Dr Marie-Helene Nassif, Researcher and Project Coordinator of ReWater MENA: 

“This is one of the most important learnings of the project: investing efforts in stakeholder analysis and engagement is crucial to understand hydrosocial dynamics, conduct grounded research and develop policies and projects adapted to both environmental and social contexts.”

Martina is Communication Assistant at REVOLVE. She is passionate about the Mediterranean region and geopolitics, with a special interest in how natural resources drive diplomatic relations. She has a strong interest in water-related issues, particularly in water diplomacy.

Follow her on Twitter: @valls_martina