Lebanon water ministry needs $25 million to tackle cholera, failing sewage network

Lebanon water ministry needs $25 million to tackle cholera, failing sewage network
Many of Lebanon's wastewater treatment plants were offline, leading sewage to be dumped in rivers and the sea.
6 min read
04 November, 2022
Experts warned that simply throwing money at Lebanon's water establishments would not solve their systemic issues.

Lebanon's ministry of water and energy is facing a budget shortfall of $25 million to adequately respond to the country's cholera outbreak, an official told The New Arab.

The ministry needs the funds over the next four months to cover "interventions in informal settlements", as well as "electricity and staffing costs" in the country’s water establishments, Suzi Hoayek, an advisor to the minister of energy and water, told The New Arab.

She added that the ministry needs $4 million per month for fuel and staff salaries alone.

UNICEF and other international organisations have donated fuel and supplies, like chlorine tablets, but without the funds to pay staff, these supplies might end up going to waste, Hoayek warned.

She added that "there has not been a positive response" from donors to the ministry's appeal for more funding.

The budgetary shortfall comes as Lebanon confronts a growing cholera outbreak, with cases proliferating in the country's underdeveloped north and its eastern Bekaa valley. Cholera causes severe dehydration through diarrhea and is spread through water contaminated with human fecal matter.

Lebanon's crumbling water infrastructure creates "the perfect storm" for the waterborne disease to thrive, Ettie Higgins, UNICEF’s deputy representative to Lebanon, told The New Arab.

Lebanese authorities are trying to kickstart water pumping stations and wastewater treatment plants to contain the cholera outbreak, but are facing years of systemic neglect of the water sector.

Lebanon's water treatment network has been crippled by chronic underinvestment and bureaucratic fumbling. Many of the country’s wastewater treatment plants are offline or only partially operational.

Wastewater treatment plants are meant to treat and sanitise human and industrial waste, such as sewage - something which is key to preventing cholera’s spread.

But, in the absence of functioning treatment plants, many municipalities simply dump untreated or partially treated wastewater into the sea or nearby rivers.

From there, contaminated water poses a risk to farmers who rely on rivers or ground water sources for irrigation, to swimmers enjoying a day at the beach, or refugees who rely on springs for drinking water.

Crops, especially leafy greens like lettuce or parsley, irrigated with cholera-contaminated water can be another vector for spreading the disease. In Yemen, which has battled its own cholera epidemic since 2016, has seen contaminated crops be a major factor for the disease’s proliferation.

“90 percent of farmers use groundwater for irrigation in Lebanon,” Ihab Jomaa, the head of irrigation at the Ministry of Agriculture-affiliated Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI), told The New Arab.

“There are regulations for the use of treated wastewater, but these are just rules on paper. More rules for irrigation will not be followed. It’s difficult to monitor,” Jomaa said.

A broken sewage treatment system

According to a September study, around 60 percent of Lebanon's wastewater treatment plants were non-operational or only partially functioning in 2020.

One of the authors of the study – Marie Nassif, an independent expert on wastewater policies – told The New Arab that she suspects that today this number is even greater, given Lebanon’s worsening economic crisis.

An engineer working in the wastewater treatment sector in the Bekaa valley said that 3 out of the five treatment plants under their purview are out of service.

The engineer, who remained anonymous as they were not authorised to speak to media, told The New Arab that some of the stations had been not working "for months."

The Tripoli Wastewater Treatment plant, one of the country’s largest, only brings in 10 percent of the amount it can treat, Dr. Ahmad al-Mel, a water scientist at Lebanese University-Tripoli, told The New Arab. He explained that the plant was built without the accompanying network to pump in sewage from surrounding areas.

That wastewater that does make it to the plant is not properly treated, but is merely ran through a sieve to remove solid waste before being dumped into the sea, Dr. al-Mel said. He added that this endangers anyone swimming off the coast of the populous northern city.

Usually, that wastewater should be sent out some two kilometres off-shore, but due to electrical shortages, the Tripoli plant dumps the partially-treated wastewater directly off the coast, Hoayek said.

A new promise by the prime ministry to prioritise water establishments on the electric grid should help get some of these treatment plants back online, according to Hoayek. However, about 40 percent of the country’s treatment stations are not connected to the electric grid and thus would not benefit from this order.

No employees, no responsibility

At the root of Lebanon’s dysfunctional wastewater treatment system is bureaucratic dysfunction. Two different ministries, at least 62 different municipalities, and four different regional water establishments compete for control over the country’s wastewater treatment plants.

The exact number of treatment plants in the country is unknown. Hoayek says there are 75 wastewater treatment plants, Dr. al-Mel says around 60, while Nassif and her co-authors say there are 104 – though they caution this number is not representative as there might be more plants they missed.

The Water Ministry itself was unable to provide The New Arab an exact number of how many wastewater treatment plants are currently operational.

Many of Lebanon’s wastewater treatment facilities are built with funds given by foreign donors, through what is called a Build-Operate-Transfer scheme.

Foreign funds go through the Council for Redevelopment and Reconstruction (CDR), and once complete, responsibility for operating the plant is given over to a municipality or regional water establishment.

Once handed over to local authorities, many of these plants start to stagnate. Some municipalities do not have the necessary expertise to run the plant and do not conduct proper maintenance, leading the plants to operate sub-optimally or not at all.

Others run into financial issues, as municipalities or ministries do not have the money to continue to operate them. Due to the devalued national currency, oftentimes municipalities cannot afford to import essential components – which they have to pay for in dollars.

In May 2022, Lebanon’s Water and Energy Ministry noted that private operators of wastewater treatment plants had not been paid in three years and pledged to pay them by June. It has yet to do so.

Staffing is also a key issue for these plants, as public sector salaries of 2 to 3 million Lebanese lira (approximately $60-$90) have led many employees to under perform or leave their jobs entirely.

“NGOs who want to help need to pay employees, not just donate equipment. You need staff to repair and operate the stations. Why pay $1 million for a new treatment station if there’s no one to operate it?” the engineer from the Bekaa said.

Still, even with more funding and international help, experts warn that it will take time to get the wastewater sector up-and-running again.

“There are stations in the Bekaa that haven’t been operated in a month or two. If you want to start using them again, it will be like building them from scratch. It will take time.” the engineer said.

Rehabilitation of these plants takes time, especially since you don’t have a strong, well-structured government.