The current political crisis in Lebanon has crippled the parliament, which has failed to convene in over a year. This has affected the whole country, but particularly the public sector. Among the outstanding issues that need to be discussed and ratified by the parliament, is a dam project located in the town of Bisri in South Lebanon. The dam will be funded by a $474 million loan from the World Bank, the largest loan the World Bank has ever given to Lebanon. In addition to the World Bank loan, the Islamic Development Bank will fund $128 Million and the Lebanese government will invest $15 million. If not approved, the project will expire and Lebanon will lose the secured funds for the project.
The Lebanese government has developed a Water Supply Augmentation Project (WSAP) to improve the water supply in greater Beirut. One of the components of the project is the Bisri Dam, which is located in Wadi Bisri in the Jezzine District of Southern Lebanon. The dam is expected to be 73 meters high and hold 125 million cubic meters of water. Once completed, it will be the second largest dam after the Qaroun Dam.
The WSAP is part of a larger water supply plan by the Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW), plans to construct several dams throughout the country contributing to a storage amount of 1 billion cubic meters. For different reasons, implementation of most of these dams is behind schedule and the ones that are being implemented have been controversial. In 2013, the construction of Balaa dam commenced in the midst of political bickering and accusations between the main political parties. The construction of Janna Dam was initiated without a proper environmental impact assessment and strong disagreements over technical issues. These problems and the current state of governance have made the average citizen skeptical about such large infrastructure projects.
An environmental and social impact assessment of the Bisri Dam has already been conducted and available online. According to the report, some of the advantage of this project are the storage volume of the dam is considered high, it will use existing transmission, treatment and storage facilities at limited additional cost, the reservoir floor is characterized by low permeability deposits, low pumping costs and cost effective (compared to other dams)
As the area surrounding the land is mainly agricultural with many forests, a major anticipated adverse impact is the loss of natural vegetation and productive land. Other disadvantages include risk of damaging historic and cultural artifacts, high sedimentation risks that can be mitigated and a high seismic risk. While the conclusion of the study favored constructing the dam, the impact assessment did call for additional investigation into reservoir geology, water tightness and seismic and sedimentation risks.
The impact assessment was published in August 2014, and it is unclear now if these other studies have been carried out. If they have, their results do not seem to be easily accessible to the public. As expected, there has been resistance to this project.
Although the impact assessment has discussed different water conservation alternatives, it did not seriously consider site alternatives. This is particularly important because the land the dam will occupy used to be a naturally protected site by the Ministry of Environment (Ministerial Decree No. 131 of 1998). The Directorate of Urban Planning decided to change the status of the land, awaiting approval from the cabinet of ministers. Some residents of the area have questioned the study and believe it failed to take into account the region’s geography and natural landmarks. Many farmers oppose the dam since they will be losing land and the Union of Jezzine Municipalities openly opposes the project.
The fact is that Lebanon needs to invest in the water sector. The water shortage has been a huge financial burden on the residents and such projects, if implemented correctly, will be highly beneficial. But it is important to ask if all options for other less cost intensive water investments been made. The lack of reliable water data makes decisions in this matter tougher, but there have been some estimates and these figures indicate the Lebanese government would be better off investing their money elsewhere.
There is about an average of 48% of non-revenue water in Beirut. That means that about half the water that goes into the water network is lost before it reaches the end user. It would be cheaper and more effective in the short term if investment was poured into rehabilitating the water networks around the country. There are many unused wastewater treatment plants around the country such that only 8% of generated wastewater is treated. Treated wastewater could be used for agricultural and grey water uses, and this would drastically reduce the pressure on the available water resources.
It would be a waste to invest huge amounts in grand water projects when the existing infrastructure is slowly deteriorating and cannot properly transfer precious water resources. Making the water network more efficient, reducing physical loss and looking into water treatment options should be the priority.