Friday, February 21, 2014

Talk water, Arthur Nazarian

Two weeks ago I wrote a commentary for NOW News on the water crisis in the country. This prompted a response from the then energy minister, Gebran Bassil. Bassil provided links to reports on how his ministry planned to address water issues in the years ahead. He also linked to a report on wastewater, which made for sobering reading.  

It would be unfair to blame Bassil alone for Lebanon’s water problems, which have accumulated over the decades. But the reports to which he linked mainly involved strategic planning for the water sector as a whole, whereas the question today for many Lebanese is how their daily water burden can be lessened in the year ahead. It seems likely that, prayers for rainstorms aside, we should expect a waterless year, with potentially terrible consequences. 

A new minister, Arthur Nazarian, is in place, albeit for a few months, and the Energy Ministry has to do much more than offer links to past reports. In more advanced countries the government would be thinking of declaring a state of emergency. It would be adopting measures to ensure that the water that people are buying from private distributors is affordable and above all properly treated for health hazards. Until now, however, nothing has been done.

In my own neighborhood of Ashrafieh, we haven’t had water for three weeks, not a solitary drop. The excuse is that the neighborhood sits on a hill, and therefore there is not enough pressure to transport water from the water company to the area, though it takes five minutes to walk from one to the other. And this despite the fact that the water company raised water fees this year by more than 25 percent.

These are the kinds of problems Nazarian will have to confront, and that he must attempt to resolve. He may be gone by the end of May, but that’s just before the summer season when the water crisis is felt hardest. In other words, the minister alone can formulate a strategy to deal with the aftershocks of a winter that simply never arrived, and that almost certainly will not arrive in the coming weeks.

We can expect that cutbacks in agricultural production will raise prices on fruits and vegetables, which will affect not only households, but also the businesses relying on them. This, in turn, will cause, indeed has started to cause, inflationary pressures across the board, with many Lebanese already in financial straits. More businesses will lose customers and close down, increasing unemployment.

With its existential political and economic problems, Lebanon now has to face an environmental calamity, and is unprepared to do so.

The government should write off this year and declare a state of emergency, while the council of ministers has to take a series of decisions on all matters somehow related to water. More oversight is needed of the chaotic and unregulated private distribution of water, with particular attention to quality. The government treats all water and keeps an eye on companies that distribute drinking water; therefore it should not be insurmountable to put in place a system that tests, then treats, water being sold to households.

Just pumping water out of the ground and selling it is simply not tolerable. No one knows what chemical products have entered the water with which Lebanese wash their food. The overall impact of such pumping could have serious environmental repercussions, not least the growing salinization of groundwater, which, among other things, could negatively affect the quality of agricultural land.

Strategic planning is necessary, and now is already very late for Lebanon to begin thinking about water and desalination projects for the decades ahead. Climatic changes suggest the country may face many more winters like the one this year, and most climate models suggest Lebanon is in a high-risk zone for climate change.

There is an exaggerated tendency in Lebanon to demand that the government resolve each and every problem in society. But when it comes to a vital resource such as water, only the state can deal with it. Only the state can impose controls on water distribution and quality, and only the state can think ahead and examine ways to guarantee supplies of water for when it doesn’t rain in Lebanon.

Nazarian may have the most important job in the Salam government, given that it has so little time to do much that is decisive with respect to Lebanon’s political and economic challenges. But there is time to put on track a medium-term strategy to alleviate the very heavy load the Lebanese will feel this year from the absence of water.

No one expects miracles. Mismanagement and corruption will continue to plague the sector. But what the Lebanese need now is water whose price is kept within affordable boundaries and whose quality is checked by state bodies, and treated accordingly. Nazarian should start by speaking to the Lebanese. But will he?

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