Clean and constant water supply still a distant hope for many in Lebanon

water sinkAn article I published in the Daily Star back in March 2011, after conducting a poll in several neighborhoods of Beirut. Anyone who has been living in Lebanon knows perfectly how water supplies are still a mirage in many areas of the country, despite its richness of springs. 

Clean and constant water supply still a distant hope for many

March 22, 2011 12:00 AM, By Andrea Glioti

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s gas, or its potential for gas, might be the “hot” topic of 2011, but the public still faces considerable burdens ensuring its supply of water. Very few people escape a set of high costs for water, whether for drinking, household needs or other purposes. At the home level, people can’t rely on public water supplies and thus regularly pay private water companies and well-owners for their daily needs.

In Beirut and its suburbs, state water supply cuts might last from two to five days, and even longer, while the cost of securing water from privately-run firms and wells is on the rise, reaching fees equivalent to a year’s salary on minimum wage ($4,000) – compared to much-lower rates in the U.S. and Europe, for example, relative to wages. Furthermore, the quality of water extracted from homemade wells is often poor, due to the intrusion of seawater and sewage.

People would certainly like to avoid the financial burden and the hassle of arranging visits by trucks distributing water, if they could secure a continuous flow of water from the state-run Beirut and Mount Lebanon Water Authority.

Elias Mfarrej, 26, from Dikwaneh, regards the private supplies “an extra expenditure that unnecessarily burdens people,” but he clearly has no other alternative, since the 16-apartment building where he lives gets water only two hours per day.

This falls far below the minimum daily standards of 1m3 of water for each 200m2 the water authority is supposed to guarantee, based on United Nations guidelines.

Even in supposedly upscale areas such as Ramlet al-Baida, some people complain that the situation is dire.

“I used to get water from the government once every four to five days,” says Mohammad Faqour, 79, noting that even this low supply has deteriorated.

In the neighbourhood of al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq, not too far from the glittering Beirut Central District, the dire status of electricity supplies has hurt the flow of water through domestic pumps.

“The government water comes when the electricity is off,” says Khalil Homsi, 42. “And only one hour when the electricity is on, so this is the only time when the water comes in full force – when the electricity is off, the water comes in drips.”

Some areas known for facing hardship in terms of electricity supplies, such as the southern suburbs, seem to enjoy relatively better services when it comes to water.

“The government water service is much better than the electricity service,” Nazih Dirani, 24, says, “usually 24 hours per day, but every couple of days they cut it off.”

For a still-underperforming authority, its fees remain quite high, at LL235,000 per year, equal to around 4 percent of the minimum wage.

Yassra Houri, 84, from al-Tariq al-Jadideh, said she pays an even higher annual fee of LL265,000.

As for the water that comes from privately-owned wells, in Ramlet al-Baida Faqour says he pays a fixed $4,000 annual subscription, the equivalent of an entire year’s salary on the minimum wage of LL500,000, or $333, a month. Moreover, the fee could arbitrarily rise, as it is wholly determined by the owner of the well, without any staggered rates based on individual consumption.

In other cases, the financial burden for non-state supplies of water is less significant. It nonetheless reaches 30 percent of the minimum wage in al-Tariq al-Jadideh, 25 percent in al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq and 12 percent in Dikwaneh, according to people surveyed.

According to World Bank figures, 75 percent of total household water expenses in Lebanon are related to the private sector water market.

Another worrying aspect is that these expenditures are subject to unpredictable jumps. Last year, the price of one barrel (200 liters) rose by 50 percent in Ain al-Rummaneh, the southern suburbs, and al-Tariq al-Jadideh.

“This week, it’s been four days that we didn’t get any public water,” remarks Annamaria Haddad, 21, from Ain al-Rummaneh, “the situation is only getting worse and we will have to buy private water more often.”

Rana Dirani, 29, from Achrafieh, is of the same opinion.

“One gallon [20 liters] costs around LL20,000, at least. So if this happens continuously, then it will affect our budget in a big way, because it’s equal to a whole day’s salary.”

Besides the financial aspects, the water extracted from local wells is often of poor quality, resulting in the calcification of household pipes, as in the case of Khalil, who relies on a well dug in Burj Abi Haidar

According to a study carried on by USEK hydrogeologist Dr. Mark Saadeh in 2008, the poor quality is down to the intrusion of seawater, in turn a result of the overexploitation of coastal aquifers. The seawater is rich in chloride and sulphates, meaning that it is corrosive to plumbing.

Moreover, because of the proximity of wells to sewer lines, there is a constant risk of waterborne diseases. Faqour’s water became salty because of the large number of buildings overusing the same well, and he doesn’t conceal his concerns about it.

“Since we use it to take baths and wash our food, it will probably affect our health in the long run,” he says.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the water coming from other sources enjoys better standards.

“I don’t know where this private water comes from, but I know that it’s not very clear water. If I had the choice I wouldn’t buy it,” Haddad says. “This is why we try to buy the minimum possible of this water.”

The water provided by the authority to Beirut is also below drinking standards and often contaminated with seawater, although the authority regularly says its water is free of contaminants.

“The government water is very contaminated, of course we cannot drink it, during the summer it becomes very salty,” Nazih points out. “Also, the privately-supplied water is not suitable for drinking, but at least it’s not salty like the government water.”

A simple plastic gauge inserted into the main pipe is the only system regulating the flow of water into households. Abdo Tayar, an advisor to the Ministry of Water and Electricity who was quoted in a magazine interview as saying that “those who remove the gauge get more, and those who keep it get less than 1m3 per day.”

There are well-known national needs in the water sector when it comes to irrigation and dams, but the more basic need for less expensive and better quality water at home remains an eyesore in the country’s post-war reconstruction era.

The illegal diverting of public water supplies hasn’t become “an issue” as in the electricity sector, but if the structural problems in the sector persist, perhaps people will start talking about stealing water as much as they do stealing electricity.

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