Friday, February 7, 2014

No liquidity - Lebanon braces for a year without water

Amid exploding taxi buses, an economy in disarray, the presence of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, and fears of a sectarian war, the Lebanese will have yet another biblical calamity with which to contend this year: Their country is suffering from a serious water shortage that is unlikely to be reversed.

It is beginning to dawn on the Lebanese that the absence of rain this winter (if what we have today can be called a winter) will have serious repercussions throughout the year. Agricultural production will be curtailed, pushing up the price of fruits and vegetables across the board; the Lebanese will be obliged to buy overpriced and dirty water from private water distributors, putting even greater pressure on their already tight budgets and posing increasing health risks.

Nor has this dire situation come as a surprise. For years specialists have warned that Lebanon’s inadequate water distribution system ensured that the country, though it usually benefits from rainfall and underground water, would reach such a crisis stage. But now, on top of this, some climate models suggest that Lebanon is in a region of high to extreme risk when it comes to climate change.

In an interview with NOW Lebanon in 2010, Bjorn Lomborg, an influential author and the head of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, echoed this view, warning that “Lebanon or the Eastern Mediterranean will get warmer, and it will get drier. Those are two very constant outcomes of global warming models…”

So two trends have come together in Lebanon to create – and the term is apt in its absurdity – a perfect storm of catastrophe with regard to water: a global trend making for warmer climates, which means less rain and snow to replace underground water, exacerbated by a wholly inadequate water distribution and storage system.

The big disagreement today, as a new government is in the works, is over the energy ministry. It doesn’t take much to know what that’s all about. The ministry manages the lucrative offshore gas and oil contracts, and ministerial rotation is effectively another way of saying that everyone must be given access to the state’s cash cows.

Unfortunately, no one seems overly concerned that the ministry also runs Lebanon’s water resources and must oversee a radical change in national water policy as the climate changes. Water is more valuable than oil, but our politicians haven’t yet realized how much.

When he came to office, the energy minister, Gebran Bassil, complained that he had a plan to build several dams, but that the political class was preventing him from advancing on that front.

Unfortunately for Bassil, even if what he said was true, his plans, whenever they are examined more closely, usually end up being ventures in which the public’s interest seems less of a priority than his own (witness the expensive contracts signed last year for maritime power stations). Bassil has never properly addressed the water issue. He will, doubtless, manipulate the water crisis to his advantage, but for as long as water management remains under the authority of the highly corrupt energy ministry, don’t expect serious reform.

Mismanagement, corruption, a lack of planning, and climate change are all contributing to the inevitable water disaster this year. But adding to the misery of the Lebanese is that there will be plenty of people, among them officials, who will seek to exploit this situation.

Much to our surprise, the Beirut and Mount Lebanon water authority had the temerity this year to raise its annual water consumption fees, even though last year many of us spent months without any water. When people complained, the reply was delivered with a straight face: the higher fees are needed to improve the distribution system.

Rather than play the Lebanese for fools, the authorities must, at the very least, alleviate the costs in the months ahead. No one expects the bankrupt state to subsidize water consumption, though if the funds could be taken out of kickbacks and the outrageous fees we are paying to the water company, that would be worth considering.

More seriously, something must be done to regulate the private water distributors, who charge exorbitant fees to deliver water for which we’ve already paid. However, given that officials are likely to be in on this vile commerce, any expectation of change is illusory. In parts of the Metn, for instance, water distributors have long held the inhabitants hostage, yet no broad movement of protest has formed, let alone any amelioration seen in the water situation.

A second thing that must be done, but will not be, is to verify the quality of the water that is distributed. Anyone who has consumed water delivered by tanker truck knows that it is usually filthy. The water is used not only for cleaning, but also for cooking. Children are made to wash in it. If ever there was a public health motivation for the government to intervene, then this is it. Government inspectors examine the quality of all water, and there is no reason why they should not do so the water distributed by private individuals.

But such entreaties are bound to lead nowhere, so dishonest are the networks integrating the water authorities, private distributors, and all those who gain from supplying the Lebanese with a basic necessity of life. Before we speculate about how the dearth of water will provoke the wars of the future, let us first ask how they will affect Lebanon’s stability, and who among us is going to do something about it. 

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