BEIRUT: “Let me tell you one thing,” Raghida Haddad, the executive editor of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia, a Lebanese environment and development magazine, says. “There are 12 rivers in Lebanon that go into the sea, and you can call them sewers.
”Poisoned with effluent and often strewn with garbage, Lebanon’s rivers are grotty and unwell. They should be both a source of usable water and recreation, but a report published by the United Nations Development Program and the Environment Ministry in 2010 compiled data showing that rivers, both coastal and inland, contain unacceptable levels of raw sewage. In many, E-coli and coliform are not only above acceptable levels for drinking water, they are also above levels acceptable for bathing water as set by the Environment Ministry.
Blessed among its neighbors in terms of water potential, Lebanon’s contaminated rivers are both a source of sickness and disease and a contributor to the pollution of the country’s coast and marine life.
Haddad points out that the high concentration of heavy metals in river water can accumulate in the human body, affecting the nervous and digestive systems and damaging the heart and kidneys. Meanwhile Mark Saadeh, PhD, a hydrogeology specialist, recites a phrase well known in his profession: “The health of a marine environment is determined by the state of rivers.”
The interconnection of aquifers, rivers, seas and oceans means that pollutants added to any one of these will inevitably affect the others.
Saadeh pulls up a file on his computer and opens a series of images of the Litani river, Lebanon’s longest waterway. The pictures show a bright green, algae-covered channel. “It’s turned into a sewer system,” Saadeh says. “It’s not even moving; it’s stagnant.”
He explains how older people living along the river describe a time when it was clear and fast flowing, and they would happily use it for swimming and as a source of drinking water.
But since Saadeh first studied the waterway as a consultant with the Litani River Authority some five or six years ago, it has looked just as it does in his photographs. “It cannot get any worse than this,” he says.
What has happened can be explained with a short science lesson, which Saadeh provides. The high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus found in fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture and in raw sewage and detergents seep into the country’s rivers and ultimately groundwater sources. Once in the rivers, these nutrients set off the process of eutrophication, whereby their addition induces an excessive growth of algae and plankton, clogging up the waterway, greatly reducing water quality and bringing about the collapse of the river’s natural ecosystem.
The solutions to this problem appear obvious: regulate use of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides and treat wastewater to avoid the seepage of raw sewage into rivers. But, Saadeh says, “precious little” is being done to address river pollution.
“There’s a huge black hole between legislation and execution [in Lebanon],” he says in explanation for the seemingly unregulated use of fertilizers. However, where a significant impact may be made – in the treatment of raw sewage – Lebanon fails on a grand scale. It is the “only country in the Middle East not treating its wastewater, save Yemen, I believe,” Saadeh says.
Haddad is of a similar view. The “authorities are not doing anything,” she says. “There is not one functioning wastewater treatment plant [in Lebanon].” Wastewater treatment plants have been built in the country. As he goes through his photographs, Saadeh points out one located next to the Qaraoun dam on the Litani. “It isn’t functional,” he says.
Former Environment Minister Mohammad Rahal says that many international organizations, the UNDP, USAID and EU among them, have helped Lebanon build works to treat its wastewater, but these WWTPs have not been maintained by the government. He believes there are two possible causes for WWTPs falling into disoperation in Lebanon: perhaps the budget for their maintenance is insufficient or unavailable, or perhaps a lack of coordination between the ministries responsible for them (the Environment Ministry and the Water and Energy Ministry), the Council for Development and Reconstruction and the municipalities leads to confusion over who is tasked with maintaining the plants.
Saadeh adds to this that projects like WWTPs are high-tech and require not only money but also expertise to remain operational.
Haddad does point out though that there are plans to build a number of WWTPs both on the coast and inland. The Energy and Water Ministry although contacted to verify use and construction of WWTPs had not responded at time of print.
The pollution of Lebanon’s rivers also impacts the country’s economy. Beyond the obvious negative repercussions of pollution on tourism, pollution also harms the agricultural and industrial sectors’ potential.
Farmers tap contaminated river water to irrigate their crops, and Rahal says this has resulted in the country’s exported produce being returned.
“The EU sends vegetables back because of pollution,” he says. “We can only sell in Lebanon.”
Meanwhile the decreased water quantity available due to pollution curtails opportunities to establish industry. “Limited water resources make some industries impossible,” Saadeh says. “There’ll be no Levi’s factory in Lebanon.” (Tony Allan, a British geographer, estimates that a pair of jeans takes 11,000 liters of water to produce.)
Saadeh argues that the best thing Lebanon can do to deal with water pollution aside from building wastewater treatment plants is educate its citizens about water conservation.
“Water quantity is inextricably linked to pollution because water efficiency and conservation would lead to reduction in effluent volumes,” he says.
As an initial step, he suggests metering water use and charging people on the basis of the volume used rather than a flat rate for an annual water connection. He also recommends revision of the irrigation systems used in agriculture – the furrow, flood, and sprinkler irrigation systems favored in Lebanon use larger quantities of water and are much less efficient than drip irrigation systems. Finally, he recommends the installation of more discerning household plumbing – toilet flush systems that give the option of both a smaller and a larger flush would be a good starting point, Saadeh says.
But, he concludes, “change is going to require a shock to the system.”