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Environmental Issues Fueling the Lebanese Crisis

While Lebanon is drowning in political, economic, and financial dilemmas, an environmental disaster is aggravating the situation that this country faces.

One in nine people worldwide use drinking water from unimproved and unsafe sources. 2.4 billion people live without any form of sanitation and the lack of this is one of the most significant forms of water pollution. Every day 2 million tons of sewage and other effluents drain into the world's water.

Although Lebanon is one of the few countries in the region with abundant water supplies, up to 70% of natural water sources are now polluted with bacteria. According to the government's Capital Investment Program, 71% of domestic sewage is discharged into the natural environment without being handled in any way by proper drainage treatment plants. This equates to over 300 million cubic meters of polluted wastewater that ends up in aquifers or in the Mediterranean. Just 48% of the population has clean drinking water, and only 20% has safe sanitation. The drinking water supply is reduced as a result of unsustainable water use activities, inadequate sewage management, and water treatment issues.

Recently, the issue of degrading water quality has emerged as one of the most prominent national concerns, posing a serious threat to human life in the area. Due to the lack of restrictions, the disposal of liquid and solid waste (i.e., industrial, municipal) is prevalent, particularly in river courses and streams. As a result, the poor geo-environmental situation in Lebanon as a result of water pollution has created a new challenge for the water sector.

The Litani River is currently experiencing significant pollution issues that are rapidly worsening. As a result, Lake Qaraoun's water (in the Litani River Basin) is no longer drinkable and is now used for irrigation in certain conditions. Municipal and industrial wastewater, solid waste, and the runoff of agricultural chemicals, including non-degradable pesticides, are the major sources of contamination.

In 2014, the lake experienced a major decrease of 24 meters. In 2015, levels increased slightly before plateauing in 2016 due to a reduction in precipitation. On July 16, 2016, oxygen levels in the lake's depths dropped, causing aquatic animals to suffocate. This has had and will continue to have a direct effect on agriculture, with some speculating that if the issue continues, crop production in Lebanon will cease to exist in just a few years.

At the end of April 2021, dead fish were seen at the largest artificial lake in Lebanon. The total amount of dead fish removed from Lake Qaraoun was 120 tons of the carp species “Cyprinus Carpio”. Lake Qaraoun was built in 1959 as part of an attempt to provide water and hydroelectricity to local communities. It was constructed through use of a dam on the Litani River in the Western Bekaa. The causes of this disaster are still being investigated, though it might be a result of the copious pollution in the lake or a viral epidemic that caused the death of thousands of Cyprinus Carpio.

“The deteriorating economic situation has pushed some displaced Syrians to consume these fish and to sell them in the Lebanese markets,” stressed Ahmad Omeis, Deputy Mayor at al-Qaraoun municipality. Unfortunately, Beirut municipality has announced that it has seized a large quantity of carp with an unpleasant odor in the Sabra market in Beirut. The municipality noted that no documents were presented by sellers to reveal the source. Authorities decided to destroy these unidentified fish and plan raids on warehouses that distribute them to sellers in the local markets.

More than $900,000 was spent from 2016 till 2021 on Pollution Prevention Projects in Lake Qaraoun, which was funded by different sources. On October 27, 2016, the parliament passed Law 63, which mandated that sanitation projects be implemented by the Council of Development and Reconstruction in collaboration with the Ministry of Energy. As a result, it had set aside $55 million to fund pollution-reduction projects in Lake Qaraoun. The 2016 pollution reduction project for Lake Qaraoun was designed to:

  1. Improve municipal sewage collection

  2. Encourage the use of good agricultural practices

  3. Improve pollution control by concentrating on solid waste, water quality monitoring, and capacity development.

Even with a significant number of research and pollution control programs, nothing has improved in terms of water quality. On top of that, pollution levels have been steadily increasing. Furthermore, no effective management plans have been presented or implemented to address the problem.

A source familiar with the matter tells DecipherGrey that the delay in expropriation processing is due to the retirement of the head of the Appraisal Committee in Zahle and the failure to appoint a new head since 2019. This was arguably, yet unquestionably, for political reasons. Furthermore, due to the lack of a statistic center that deals with such things, Lebanon relies heavily on research and surveys conducted by NGOs and external consultants, however, differences do occur in the majority of situations. Moreover, the financial crisis has affected the execution of these projects, as contractors were unable to access their foreign currency deposits. Suppliers demand payments in advance that could not be provided unless fresh US dollars were deposited into their accounts. Integrated management of river’ water, backed up by environmental legislation and laws, where assessment and monitoring must be continuously applied is the only way out of this problem.

Yes, the issue is largely administrative and infrastructure-related, but much of the fault lies in a lack of awareness. There are no integrated and effective environmental controls in place to restrict people's behavior when it comes to river exploitation. Crop plantations, dairy farms, and a slew of factories generate garbage, waste, pesticides, and animal carcasses, all of which are dumped directly into the lake. This can be attributable to a variety of factors, the most important of which is the country's political status. As a result, undesirable works may be found in all of Lebanon's rivers, direct water pumping from rivers and nearby springs when there is no control or measurement technique (i.e. unlawful), which is especially widespread in upstream areas of the Lebanese streams. Uncontrolled water use from rivers, where multiple private water systems are connected to rivers, and subsequent conveyance of water for cultivation through privately owned canals. The length of these canals can reach hundreds of meters. Chaotic water abstraction, whether from river recharge zones, where they get their water from springs and groundwater aquifers, which refill rivers.

It’s worth noting that by the next year, 2022, the Lebanese government will start paying the $55 million loan as specified in the assigned contract between The International Bank For Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) and The Lebanese republic. Yet the question is, would the Lebanese government be able to repay the formerly mention loan when enduring a socio-economic and financial crisis?


Written by Yara Dally


Yara Dally is a columnist at DecipherGrey.


Photograph: he:User:DMY | Wikimedia.org