Should Lebanon declare a state of water emergency?

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Last week, Mohammad Qabbani, the head of the parliamentary committee on water, called for a state of water emergency. Qabbani stressed the need to set water-usage guidelines to help Lebanon cope with the extreme shortage expected this summer. According to one of the MPs in the committee, “In August, we will have run out of water, especially in Beirut.” Qabbani argued the need to put privately owned wells under the control of public water institutions, importing water from turkey, limiting the use of water for cleaning of streets and washing cars, and halting irrigation of seasonal crops while compensating the farmers to conserve it for domestic use.

However, a water expert has criticized this proposal and decried the plan as “impractical.” The expert warned that negotiating with farmers to halt irrigation of seasonal crops is a complicated decision-making process, with potential implications for crop availability in the market. He argued that the plan is not comprehensive and that connecting private wells to the government network is a major technical challenge, proposing instead to rehabilitate the current infrastructure and raise awareness on the issue of water conservation.

Since the dry winter, officials have been issuing warnings about the imminent water shortage in Lebanon. The Ministry of Environment has already tried to push for an awareness campaign but the Lebanese have been forced to conserve water anyway due to the continuous cuts. There is a 400 million cubic meters deficit between needed and available water this year. It will be a major challenge for policymakers to alleviate water scarcity; however, policies need to be set now to prevent further shortages in the future.

Agriculture consumes about 70% of the total water in Lebanon. Improving water efficiency in this sector will decrease a significant amount of pressure on the country’s scarce resources. For example, only 4 million cubic meters of wastewater was treated in 2006, only 50% of which was used for agriculture. The total potential amount of water that can be used from treated wastewater in Lebanon  is 100 million cubic meters of water; 25% of the current water deficit. In addition, a thorough evaluation of the existing irrigation systems is necessary to realize which ones need rehabilitation. Various programs and initiatives are already underway to implement such schemes. The South Bekaa Irrigation Program reduced water use per ha from 15,000 cubic meters a year to 6,500 cubic meters. Drip irrigation systems in some areas have helped reduce up to 50% of the water used.

Efforts to conserve water should not only focus on the agricultural sector. Raising awareness on the issue and adopting sustainable water practices are also effective ways to combat future water scarcity.

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