Lebanon faces water crisis

As annual rainfall decreases and water consumption levels rise, Lebanon has fallen below the so-called “water poverty line” and must work to develop innovative solutions to address this crisis.

al-monitor Cracked soil is seen at a dried area of an artificial lake in Qaraoun, West Bekaa, Dec. 2, 2010.  Photo by REUTERS/ Mohamed Azakir.

Topics covered

water management, water crisis, water, lebanon, lebanese economy, energy

Mar 30, 2014

In the past it has been a mere assumption, but Lebanon’s dropping below the water poverty line is now becoming a reality. This is especially true in light of local and international studies, indicators and observations, which have started sending out a series of alerts and warnings to this effect.

On March 21, under the title of “Energy-Water Interdependence,” a symposium was held at the Press Association Headquarters on the occasion of World Water Day. It was organized by the Friends of Ibrahim Abdel Aal Association, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the Association of Lebanese Industrialists, and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

Looming crisis

Speaking to As-Safir on the sidelines of the seminar, head of the Friends of Ibrahim Abdel Aal Association Naser Nasrallah explained that all indications suggested that “a water crisis is looming.” He also questioned what had been circulated among concerned parties: that Lebanon was capable of meeting its own energy needs through water resources. “The parties making these claims are politicized. What they have been promoting is not even remotely close to reality,” he said.

“The media should not be used to blind the Lebanese about what awaits them in the future. It has been said that in 2020 we will have a surplus of 500 million cubic meters, and in 2030, this surplus will rise to one billion cubic meters. This is not true,” he added.

According to international averages, the water poverty line is set at 1,000 cubic meters of water per person annually. Lebanon’s per capita annual share of water has dropped below this figure, meaning that Lebanon has fallen “below the water poverty line.” According to Nasrallah, this situation was confirmed by the head of the Sustainable Development and Productivity Department at ESCWA, Roula Majdalani.

This fact can be explained as follows: the number of Lebanese, without taking into account tourists and the displaced, amounts to about 4 million people. This means that to be above the water poverty line Lebanon needs 4 billion cubic meters of water annually. The annual rainfall average is about 8 billion cubic meters (although the amount expected this year is much less than that). About 50% of the rainfall evaporates, while a lesser percentage is wasted. Added to this is the waste caused by the Lebanese terrain and the amount of water seeping into the aquifer.

According to Nasrallah, all this indicates that we have a water deficit and that our needs exceed our water resources. Relying on water to produce energy is also a tricky matter.

Eliminating pollution

In light of this ominous reality, Nasrallah emphasized the need to work swiftly to protect water and water resources. The following steps should be taken:

  • Eliminating pollution from all water basins where pollution has reached catastrophic levels due to sewage, domestic and industrial waste.
  • Serious efforts should be made by the public and private sectors to prevent water pollution. Should the situation worsen, we will not be able to take advantage of the water.
  • Encouraging the production of alternative energy in all fields: water, wind and solar, among others.

Nasrallah underlined the importance of developing a clear scientific policy based on statistics and numbers. However, he noted that political instability and national problems led to incomplete solutions. He also pointed out to contradictory arguments between technicians, especially those working in public administrations, where they adopted figures and information that were in direct conflict with the higher national interest.

On a global scale, out of 7 billion people, about 2.5 billion people are not provided with “reliable power or do not have power at all.” Furthermore, 2.8 billion people are living in areas suffering from great water scarcity, while one billion suffer from hunger, 1.1 billion live without safe drinking water and 1.3 billion live without electricity.

Interrelated resources

In light of these figures, the national program coordinator of Montreal Protocol Activities and Environmental Matters in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria at UNIDO, Dr. Nada Sabra — who spoke on behalf of the organization’s representative, Cristiano Pasini, during the seminar — said that “in our current situation, we are dealing with water security separately from energy security. We need to address both issues from the same angle, as energy and water should be seen as interrelated natural resources.”

“Energy production requires water, particularly hydroelectric power, cooling, and fuel extraction, refining and treatment. Using water also requires energy in order to extract, treat and move water,” Sabra added.

It is expected that by 2035, due to population growth and urbanization, energy consumption will increase by 35%, which in turn will increase water consumption by 85%. This is why UNIDO warns that if the mismanagement of natural resources in energy production and water and energy consumption persists, our need for these resources will not be met in the future, mainly in light of global warming and population growth.

On the other hand, if water, energy and food are seen as correlated, there is a possibility to bring about change through the use of renewable energy, rationalization of water and energy consumption, reduction of food wastage, etc.

Industry consumption

“The international organization has placed the correlation between water and energy at the heart of its activities, particularly since industry is the most water and energy-intensive sector. It consumes around 20% of potable water around the world and accounts for one third of the world’s energy consumption,” Sabra affirmed. She pointed out that the mission of the organization was to support comprehensive and sustainable industrial development in order to promote efficient use of natural resources and the most efficient production techniques, in line with the green industry initiative the organization had launched.

During the seminar, Ziad Bakdash, vice president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists, reiterated that it was necessary that vital ministries not be assumed by politicians, but rather by unbiased ministers who were able to manage them. He considered that it was shameful not to have a vision to face the challenges of the water crisis in 2014. He noted that estimates showed that in case there was a good investment in water, revenues would stand at about $1.5 billion a year.

Relying on an ESCWA study, Majdalani shed light on “the meaning of correlation between energy and water,” noting that the Arab world makes up around 5% of the world’s population and has only 0.5% of the world’s renewable water sources. This means that the Arab world, including Lebanon, falls below the water poverty line, i.e. less than 1,000 cubic meters per capita annually.

40% of water wasted

Majdalani noted that the rate of water wastage was about 40%, while it was only 10% in other countries. She set forth a successful agriculture project implemented by the organization in the Lebanese town of Debel. She warned that the desalination of seawater would not be a process carried out only in Gulf countries, as other Arab countries intend to follow suit.

With the discovery of offshore gas and oil in Lebanon, Majdalani raised the alarm, since such a process will need amounts of water that will not be as available as before. She reiterated that the region was facing a significant challenge, including unstable weather and the issue of snow-water storage in Lebanon. Enhancing the efficiency between water and energy by establishing active institutions that can face the challenge of water scarcity and the threat of energy security was among the proposed solutions.

It is important to note that the seminar included a discussion panel led by the secretary general of the Friends of Abdel Aal Association, Ramzi Arab, with the participation of the director general of the Beqaa Water Establishment Maroun Msallem; industrialist Assad Saade; Director of Water Energy in the Litani Water Establishment Ghassan Gebran; member of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists Rana Salib; and farmer Mohammad Ali Nahouli.

Ban Ki-moon to provide resources for the majority

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon conveyed a message on World Water Day, stressing that water was at the core of sustainable development. He touched on “the links between water and energy,” noting that “both are critical for eradicating poverty. They interact with each other in ways that can help — or hinder — our efforts to build stable societies and lives of dignity for all.” He continued, “Climate change driven in great part by the unsustainable use of energy will exacerbate water stress and scarcity in many regions. Efforts to provide universal access to water and energy will be undermined if the current warming trend continues.”

“The many strong links between water and energy demand coherent, integrated policies and innovative strategies. Water must be used — and electricity must be generated and distributed — equitably and efficiently, so all users get a fair share,” Ban affirmed.

He ended his message as follows: “On World Water Day, let us pledge to develop the policies needed to ensure that sustainable water and energy are secured for the many and not just the few.”

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