In Lebanon, drinking water has become a luxury that few can afford

In Lebanon, drinking water has become a luxury that few can afford

An unlicensed water distributor working for a private company operates in the neighbourhood of Sin el Fil in Beirut. Lebanon the third most threatened nation in the world by drinking water scarcity, according to the World Resources Institute.

(Ethel Bonet)

Teressa Walid is a mother of three who works as a nurse in the epidemiology department of Rafik Hariri University Hospital, Lebanon’s largest public hospital, located on the outskirts of Beirut. Like most Lebanese, she is struggling to survive in the midst of the worst financial crisis in the country’s history, which has seen a substantial deterioration in living conditions. Electricity, clean water, medicine and fuel are in short supply, the Lebanese currency has lost 90 per cent of its value and inflation has soared to triple digits. As a result, more than 80 per cent of the country’s population now find themselves living below the poverty line.

“We shouldn’t have to pay to drink water, but our government has forced us into this situation. Bottled water is considered an essential commodity in Lebanon. There’s no alternative for drinking water,” says Walid, as she waits in line at a water treatment and distribution facility to fill her containers with the life-sustaining liquid.

Walid has an afternoon shift at the hospital and her husband “works all day” to pay for the expenses, so she takes her car to collect the water containers. She could also have the company deliver them to her home but the bill would be 25 per cent more to cover the cost of petrol, so she prefers to pick them up herself and save money that will help her cover other basic needs.

Walid’s family lives in the Choueifat neighbourhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where there has been no running water for weeks. Water cuts are common in the summer, she explains, but they have never been “this long and continuous”. According to a UNICEF report, amid frequent power outages, per capita water supplies have decreased dramatically since the beginning of the crisis, falling short of the 35 litres a day considered to be the minimum acceptable quantity.

As a nurse, Walid is particularly concerned by the lack of health controls for tap water: “It’s no good for taking a shower or washing food. It comes out dirty, smells bad and is causing our children to contract diseases. We don’t have any of our basic rights. The state should at least provide us with clean drinking water so we can live,” she says.

Half a salary, just for water

With this basic public service lacking, many Lebanese households have been forced to rely on private companies and water tankers for access to running water. The same is true for electricity: due to power cuts in the public grid, inhabitants have to rely on expensive private generators to provide at least 12 hours of electricity per day to their homes.

In addition to the financial instability shaking the country, Lebanon’s public institutions lack the liquidity to import fuel - on which almost all of the country’s electricity production depends, and which they purchase in dollars. This has led state-owned utility provider Électricité Du Liban, which controls 90 per cent of the country’s electricity production, transmission and distribution, to cut electricity supply to three hours a day.

This in turn affects drinking water supply networks, as electricity is needed for pumping water and operating water treatment plants. While the lack of fuel is one of the main factors accelerating the drinking water crisis, Hicham Richani, former president of the water companies’ union, explains that the root of the problem lies in “government mafias that wanted to monopolise water”.

Lebanon is a country with abundant water resources. It has snow-capped mountains that feed 16 perennial rivers – which flow uninterrupted all year round – with a combined annual river flow of between 2,151 and 3,900 million cubic metres.

But despite these natural resources, years of dysfunctional administrations and poor policies on the use and maintenance of water reserves had by 2019 made Lebanon the third most threatened nation in the world by drinking water scarcity, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington-based NGO.

“The Lebanese government chose to privatise the water by licensing several dozen bottling companies, the majority of which are operated by multinationals Nestlé and Pepsi, rather than invest in water infrastructure,” says Richani. Since Lebanese have no other choice but to buy drinking water, the current crisis has seen the emergence of a parallel market, with hundreds of local companies operating illegally and offering much cheaper but poorer quality water.

A 2016 study by Blominvest Bank shows that the bottled water business in Lebanon has been a growing market for years. The licensed bottling companies alone account for an annual production of between 700 and 800 million litres of water. If illegal companies were counted, the figure would be much higher. The annual profit from this business is around US$300 million, and continues to grow with each year.

“Since 2012, we’ve been fighting for more licences to be issued and for more competition in the market, but licensing has remained a personal dispute between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Industry, which has yet to be resolved,” explains Richani. The veteran trade unionist sums up the drinking water crisis in two words: “Simply inaccessible”.

Spiralling inflation in the country has caused the price of bottled water to rise dramatically, with Lebanese consumers paying three to five times more than they did a year ago. According to UNICEF’s calculations, a family of five drinking about two litres of bottled water per person per day would need to spend 6.5 million Lebanese pounds (US$4,300) a year on water.

In other words, given that the average Lebanese salary now ranges from 900,000 to one million Lebanese pounds (between US$600 and US$660), a family in this situation would need to spend just over half their salary on drinking water.

As a result, many families who can no longer afford to pay nearly US$5 for a 12-litre container of water from licensed companies are now buying their bottled water from unlicensed sellers for US$1 or US$2, even when it means putting the health of their loved ones at risk.

According to its most recent report on the water crisis in Lebanon: “One year ago, UNICEF warned that the water system was at breaking point. While a total collapse of public water supply networks has so far been averted, the crisis has not been resolved and millions of people are affected by the limited availability of clean and safe water.”

Migration, the climate crisis and untreated wastewater

In addition to the collateral damage caused by the energy crisis and mismanagement of water supplies, other factors have contributed to water stress. Lebanon, it should be recalled, has been host to nearly 1.5 million Syrian refugees for more than a decade. As the refugee population has increased, so have water demand and consumption. However, while their arrival in the country coincided with a 20 per cent increase in domestic water consumption, the refugee population has only increased national water stress (an indicator that measures the need when demand for this essential commodity exceeds the available quantity) by 6 per cent.

Other factors such as climate change and drought have also contributed to water scarcity. According to a study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), renewable water resources available in Lebanon have fallen below the water stress threshold of 1,000 cubic metres per capita per year. In fact, according to data from 2017, water availability then was already at around 704 cubic metres per capita per year, leaving Lebanon facing significant challenges in securing potable supplies.

In addition, due to the lack of wastewater monitoring, tons of rubbish and industrial waste are dumped into the sea and the country’s rivers in certain areas, polluting the available resources. One of the most dramatic examples is the Litani River in the Beqaa region, Lebanon longest river and an essential source of its socio-economic development since the construction of the Qaraoun dam in 1959.

Today, however, “the levels of contamination are so high that the dammed water is not suitable for cultivation,” says Yousef Antoun, director of the Litani River Authority, a public institution that acts autonomously to implement irrigation, drinking water supply and electricity generation projects. Each year, the upper Litani basin receives about 45.5 million cubic metres of domestic wastewater and another 3.7 million cubic metres of industrial wastewater, which is discharged into the river without any treatment.

Antoun warns that “better planning for the responsible use of water resources is urgently needed, as high levels of water pollution have put biodiversity, agricultural production and the health of the Lebanese population at risk”.

Despite an ambitious US$800 million plan announced by the government in 2016 to clean up the Litani River and Lake Qaraoun, financed in part by loans from the World Bank and other donors such as USAID and the UN, there has been “very little progress in implementing these projects,” Antoun says.

“If factory inspections aren’t being carried out there is little we can do,” complains Azhara Yousef, a laboratory technician at a treatment plant on the banks of the Litani. “The water from the river is very polluted. We lower the toxicity level here by 1,000 points, but if we don’t stop the waste discharges, it simply gets polluted again,” she says.

While short-term solutions to the crisis remain elusive, its socio-economic consequences are catastrophic. For many of the families across the country who live below the poverty line, receiving their water ration has become a daily battle.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson