Specialists warn of potential water shortage

A dirty reservoir in southern Lebanon is the main supply of water to some local residents. (Serene Assir/IRIN)


BEIRUT (IRIN) - Water specialists have warned that Lebanon will face a severe water shortage over the coming years unless an effective water management system is soon put in place.

“Some say that there could be a serious deficit by 2010 to 2015,” said Fadi Comeir, director-general of hydro-electrical equipment in Lebanon’s Energy and Water Ministry. He added that the country might experience shortages even sooner than that.

While Lebanon actually has an abundance of rainfall and underground water, for years it has struggled to distribute this water and prevent it becoming contaminated in the earth.

According to Ahmed el-Dor, a water engineer in the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF), the main problem with the water system in Lebanon is the mismanagement of distribution.

“Add to that a lack of qualified manpower in the sector, and you begin to appreciate the seriousness of the gaps in the system,” el-Dor said.

El-Dor said that severe damage to the water system incurred as a result of Israeli bombing during the recent war served only to exacerbate an already existing problem.

In a country where experts say water management is chronically poor, a shortage would not only mean that residents would have problems meeting their daily water needs, but also that the quality of the water would be adversely affected.

“As things stand, each household receives less than 50 litres of water per capita per day, which forces people to resort to supplementary sources,” said May Jurdi, a professor of environmental health at the American University of Beirut. The World Health Organisation states that people need on average 70 litres of water per day for all their needs, including sanitation.

In the event of a shortage, the use of unregulated water resources would go up, Jurdi said, increasing the risk of diseases while imposing an additional economic burden on families having to buy water for drinking and household use.

For many years, households across Lebanon, in urban and rural areas, receive water from public water authorities a maximum of three times a week, for about eight to 12 hours a time. The rest of the time, groundwater is usually pumped into urban buildings, including hospitals and schools, using individually fitted pumps. This water is then stored in tanks.

“Groundwater [in Lebanon] is often contaminated with sewage and agricultural waste,” Jurdi said. According to her, some of the health effects the population suffers as a result of using contaminated water include diarrhoea, hepatitis and cholera.

Unsafe water

However, Jurdi said that data was unavailable on the number of people who fall ill each year as a result of using unsafe water, because Lebanon was lacking an adequate reporting and information system.

But many urban residents say they have no choice but to use groundwater.

“If we were to rely on the water pumped to our home, we would have no drinking water at all, nor would we have enough for cooking and our own hygiene,” said Ahmed Ramadan, who lives and works in the under-serviced southern suburbs of Beirut, which also suffered heavy damage in the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah.

“We have to buy water every week,” said Ramadan.

For drinking water, while the more affluent may be able to afford branded, bottled water, the majority of urban residents buy water from water shops in their area, while people in the countryside use wells.

“Who monitors the quality of water in those shops? Who monitors the quality of water in the wells? Nobody,” Jurdi said.

As for water for household use, in areas where insufficient water is pumped by the water authorities, many families buy a tank each week for the equivalent of about US $7 to supplement the water they pump from the ground, said Beirut resident Dunia Madhoun.

During the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, areas that suffered the heaviest damage also incurred severe disruption to their water systems. This left towns across southern Lebanon reliant for weeks on bottled water and temporary tanks distributed by numerous NGOs and aid agencies.

However, water specialists say the pre-existing water distribution systems in those areas are no standard to go by in the country’s ongoing post-war rehabilitation phase.

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