Why is Lebanon flooding, and what will it take to fix?

Why is Lebanon flooding, and what will it take to fix?
6 min read
19 March, 2024

Every winter in Lebanon, people lose their lives to flooding. In January, a seven-year-old girl died in Akkar. In December, four children were killed in Zgharta. In late 2023, the Beirut International Airport was partially flooded, while in February, water levels rose dangerously at some busy intersections. People's lives, livelihoods, and belongings are in danger.

Nadim Farajalla is the Chief Sustainability Officer at the Lebanese American University. He holds a PhD in environmental engineering and has worked for years on stormwater drainage and water infrastructure. The New Arab interviewed the expert about the root causes of floods in Lebanon. 

"The increase in urban flooding can be attributed to the post-war period in Lebanon, where uncontrolled and poorly planned urban sprawl has outpaced the development of storm-water infrastructure"

The New Arab: We've seen how floods in Lebanon threaten infrastructure, livelihoods, and lives. Are floods becoming more frequent?

Nadim Farajalla: Although the frequency of river floodings has remained stable, urban flooding has risen.

The increase in urban flooding can be attributed to the post-war period in Lebanon, where uncontrolled and poorly planned urban sprawl has outpaced the development of storm-water infrastructure.

The current stormwater drainage systems, both the existing ones and the new upgrades, cannot handle the increased stormwater runoff caused by the growing impervious surfaces.

TNA: What are the main causes contributing to urban flooding in Lebanon?

NF: Many older buildings in Beirut used to have a maximum of three or four stories. However, after the war, many of these buildings were replaced by high-rise buildings that accommodate more families.

This led to an increase in water needs, which resulted in people drilling wells and bringing in tankers to meet the demand. In managing water, it is essential to ensure that the water going into a household is taken out as sewage.

Unfortunately, many sewage networks did not increase in size, which caused the sewers to overflow, since their carrying capacity could not match the increased sewage discharged by these new buildings.

Corruption, climate change, and carelessness contribute to Lebanon's rising urban floods [EPA]
Corruption, climate change, and carelessness contribute to Lebanon's rising urban floods [EPA]

To solve this problem, many buildings started discharging their sewage directly into the stormwater drainage network instead of the sewage network.

Furthermore, many areas in Beirut have combined sewer networks that carry both stormwater and sewage.

In both cases, the sewage being discharged into oversized pipes allowed the sedimentation and eventual hardening of the sludge, thereby decreasing the carrying capacity of the pipes. Consequently, every time it rains heavily, the sewers tend to overflow, particularly when they are not maintained.

Another significant cause of flooding in Beirut is that street sweepers tend to keep sweeping until they reach a drain and then dump the trash into it, which causes clogging.

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TNA: Does climate change contribute to flooding intensity?

NF: There is currently no evidence of a general increase or decrease in rainfall in Lebanon, but it is apparent that storms are becoming more intense. It is not yet clear whether this is directly linked to climate change.

However, the lack of proper infrastructure in Lebanon has had a direct impact on flooding, which frequently poses a threat to the safety of drivers and passengers on highways.

TNA: Highways in Lebanon are frequently flooded, posing a threat to driver and passenger safety. What is the reason for this?

NF: The expansion of highways in Lebanon began after the war and this is where the problem started. Let's take a closer look at the example of Jounieh.

Over the years, and again this year, the Jounieh highway has been flooded by a 100-year storm, which means a storm with an intensity that has a one in 100 chance of being equalled.

This storm fell on the eastern side of the highway, which has experienced significant urban growth. As a result, the water ran off down to the highway instead of being absorbed by the land.

Another factor contributing to the flooding was the concrete barriers that were put up by the authorities to prevent cars from crossing the median into the southbound lanes of the highway.

Unfortunately, these barriers had no openings to allow water to pass through into the highway drainage system on the southbound lane and acted as a barrier for water flow. This resulted in the northbound lanes being flooded.

If metal safety barriers had been used instead, the water would have been able to flow freely. However, authorities did not choose this option because these barriers would have to be replaced when dented. Authorities were aware that they would not be able to maintain them, as funding for maintenance has been dwindling since the time of Rafiq Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon (1992-1998; 2000-2004).

Overall, there has been no integrated plan to manage stormwater in the context of urban development and increased traffic.

TNA: What actions can be taken to address or reduce the impact of flooding in Lebanon?

NF: On an individual level, we must immediately stop throwing trash on the highway through car windows since it clogs the drains. Additionally, we should avoid corrupting the system.

TNA: How is corruption linked to floods? 

NF: Corruption means certain people can build on a floodplain. In general, corruption contributes to flooding.

When someone is allowed to connect their sewer to stormwater drainage or someone turns a blind eye when rubbish is thrown into the river, it contributes to blocking the drainage network.

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Naturally, Lebanon must take action to address these environmental issues. 

Currently, there is an overlap of responsibilities among various institutions in the country, such as the Ministry of Municipalities and Interior, the Ministry of Energy and Water, the Ministry of Public Works, governorates, districts, and municipalities.

Therefore, there needs to be continuous coordination between these institutions to effectively tackle these issues.

Along with this, a reform of the judiciary is also necessary. Environmental district attorneys can penalise individuals who cut down trees or throw trash in the river, but they are not currently taking action.

Moreover, it is important to note that the ongoing economic crisis has reduced the public sector's ability to deal with these issues. As a result, we must start paying for services such as water supply, sewage collection and treatment, solid waste collection, and disposal to ensure these services are delivered effectively.

Laure Delacloche is a French freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon, She focuses on social issues, especially how crises impact women. Her work has appeared in French and international outlets and is a member of Solvo, a solutions-oriented collective of journalists.

Follow her on X: @LaureDelacloche