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Saturday, March 7

The Wells of Beirut

"Throughout history, countless songs and poems have celebrated Lebanon’s sweeping and picturesque landscape: snow-capped mountains overlooking a pristine Mediterranean, wandering rivers dividing bustling cities and towns, and mounds of colorful fruits and vegetables on fertile spring-fed lands."
-- From Water in Lebanon:  Matching Myth With Reality

Given its huge water problems these days Lebanon has been saved from a fate worse than death by the collapse of its offshore oil and gas dreams because offshore drilling takes a lot of water the Lebanese can't afford at this juncture in their history.  Yet there's nothing like the prospect of fast wealth to addle the human brain.  Those people thought they were going to get rich.

Same with the Cypriots, by the way, which helps explain why the Cyprus government took leave of its senses and made huge loans to Greece with money it didn't have. Reality finally intervened.  France's Total came up dry in its explorations off the Cyprus coast, in a block that's right next to Lebanon's, and also the price of oil and gas took a dive.  This led to hand wringing among energy experts in those countries but drill down into Lebanon's water problems to see that instead of mourning the loss of a pipe dream Lebanese should be thanking their lucky stars.

However, the World Bank was miffed.  Lebanon's government, also counting their chickens before they were hatched, signed onto a comprehensive Bank plan to solve a chunk of the country's water problems.  After the offshore oil and gas dreams went up in smoke: cancel the plan!  Those plans cost real money and a lot of manpower to put together.  To blow off steam the Bank told the unvarnished truth. From a news report last year at Al-Hayat:
The [Lebanese] government looked into several promising projects to provide a sustainable water supply for the capital and develop the water network.
[...]
Yet these were all vain attempts. According to a World Bank study, the [project failed due to] the concerned authorities’ lack of administrative competence, their negative competitiveness and their overlapping responsibilities and interests — especially between water departments and the Council for Development and Reconstruction.
If the criticism sounds familiar to American readers, reference California's hydropolitics, which were aired in great detail as the catastrophic drought deepened in the state last year. Change the names and locales to find striking parallels not only between California's water crisis and Lebanon's but between all present water crises the world over.

So we've seen this movie before: A region with inadequate water infrastructure and lousy water management gets hit with a big drought. Then there's an uproar about fixing the problems. Then it pelts rain or the snowpack for that year is good and everybody goes back to worrying about something else. Until the great casino in the sky stops favoring human procrastination.

That's what happened last year in Lebanon. On August 24, 2014, Al-Hayat reported on a severe drought in progress in the country (see the Al-Hayat link above). Less than two months later Lebanon's Daily Star headlined a report Rainy week douses Lebanon drought fears.

The same kind of bureaucratic foot dragging and infighting found in California hydropolitics, and the same astounding ignorance, has made Lebanon increasingly dependent on the weather's moods. The difference is that the United States is a huge and wealthy country; other U.S. states can absorb those Californians fleeing a drought that just won't go away. Lebanon, according to Al-Hayat "the fourth richest country in water resources in the Middle East and North Africa," is a tiny country of 4 million people that now hosts many Syrian refugees.
 
Last year, by the time the number of refugees passed the 1 million mark, the country was plunged into a drought -- a severe drought of the kind not seen since 1932.  This meant 27 percent of the Syrian refugees were without potable water, therefore forced to drink unfiltered water -- and tensions rose between drought-stricken Lebanese farmers and the refugees.

Ironically the refugee crisis finally focused Lebanese and the international aid community's attention on the country's water management issues.  An international organization called ACTED (Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development) announced in an undated Internet press release that it was constructing
10 reservoirs in the district of Mont Lebanon, home to over 200,000 thousand refugees, over the course of 2014. Through the support of UNHCR, these reservoirs have been designed to meet the water supply gaps in vulnerable communities, ensuring that both Syrian refugee and Lebanese families have sufficient access to safe drinking water.
But in a chilling parallel to California's situation, the widespread digging of private wells in Beirut  is generating huge problems.  According to another missive from someone at the World Bank (see above link for Matching Myth With Reality):
Over 20,000 illegal groundwater wells have also been dug across the Greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon area alone. It is where over half of the Lebanese population lives, works, and endures the dramatic winter floods, polluted sea waters, and either poor quality or highly expensive water
Why polluted?  The usual: untreated industrial and human waste dumped off the coast, etc.  But the worst news for the present is that the unrestricted and unmetered well-digging carries the most severe penalties, as those who followed the California water crisis know. From an August 24, 2014, report by Sophie Cousins for Al Jazeera English headlined Lebanon skeptical of 'save water' effort:
Aside from the [water] awareness campaign, the [energy and water] ministry also has said it would dig more state-owned wells and erect more dams "where possible". The new wells are expected to produce between 40,000 and 50,000 cubic metres of water per day.

But Lebanese water resources expert Claude Tabbal, who has worked on water projects in partnership with the United Nations, said that digging new wells was not the answer to the water shortage.

"Digging more wells is particularly dangerous [in coastal places] like Beirut and all other cities on the coast because the practise and over-exploitation of wells leads to the abstraction of [an] excessive amount of water, putting pressure on the aquifer and leading to seawater intrusion and the degradation of the quality of water," he told Al Jazeera.

"This is confirmed by the elevated total dissolved solids and chloride levels in well water samples. Today, everybody in Beirut is complaining about the salty taste of water [from] the tanks."

This reality is evident in the seaside suburb of Hamra, one of the commercial hubs of Beirut. "Hamra has had water shortages throughout the summer, but at my house we haven't because we had a well underneath," said an AUB student who lives in Hamra, who did not want to be named.

"If you don’t have a well underneath your apartment block then you’re [out of luck]; If you run out of water, you order a roof tank. But our groundwater is so salty because we’re now hitting the seawater. It’s gross," the student said.

Nadim Farajalla [associate professor of environmental hydrology at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences at the American University of Beirut (AUB)] said this was occurring because wells are being pumped at a higher rate than the recharge rate from snowmelt and other filtration in coastal aquifers allows, meaning that seawater is entering the wells. [...]
What happens if the recharge rate collapses from a sustained lack of rain and snowfall?  The same thing that happens to estuaries when they're overwhelmed by seawater.  The same thing that happens to a well when its water level drops to a certain point.  The water becomes so toxic it can't be drunk by man or beast or crops.
  
The doomsday scenario hasn't descended on Lebanon; the country is home to at least 15 aquifers and several rivers, and as a long as the snow and rain keep returning Lebanese can avoid the worst. This doesn't mean they can avoid the next to worst.
     
Nowhere in the dozen reports I looked at on Lebanon's water issues did I find mention of land subsidence in and around Beirut or anywhere in Lebanon, but it must be happening in Beirut given all the wells dug there and the city's burgeoning population.  The big question would be the rate at which the land is sinking. 

Land subsidence occurs when "large amounts of groundwater have been excessively withdrawn from an aquifer," generally by overzealous well digging. An aquifer, to refresh memories, is "an underground layer of permeable rock, sediment, or soil that yields water."

So it's not only that aquifer water becomes brackish and even toxic if it can't be recharged or replaced fast enough; it's also that the land over the aquifer starts sinking -- and the more pumping, the faster the land sinks. That's why California's San Joaquin Valley now has huge infrastructure problems -- roads, irrigation pipes, canals, buildings, you name it.  The structures are built on land that's been sinking so fast and so much (about a foot a year during the past few years) that it's useless to do repairs on the infrastructure because as soon as they're done, the land has sunk again.

I note that Nadim Farajalla, the associate professor at AUB who spoke to Al-Jazeera, did mention subsidence in passing in a presentation (PDF) to a climate change conference in 2012, saying that land subsidence is a key problem for the northern coastline of the Nile Delta. 

Moving along -- subsidence and undrinkable groundwater are just the windup. Here's the punchline. From a July 28, 2014, Inter Press Service report headlined Drought and Misuse Behind Lebanon's Water Scarcity:
Sheik Osama Chehab, in charge of the Osman Bin Affan Mosque [in Beirut], explains that 20 years ago water could be found three metres under the ground surface.

“Yesterday,” he told IPS, “we dug 120 metres and did not find a drop.”
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