One month after the explosion of the port of Beirut, access to safe water and sanitation is still a major problem for hundreds of thousands of Lebanese. A critical situation, but not new because Lebanon has been experiencing a serious water supply crisis for several years.
One month after the double explosion of the port of Beirut, the site is still colossal. While most people affected by the tragedy have moved temporarily, food resources and especially water are a daily challenge. The government estimates that 300,000 people lost their homes during the tragedy. Many are still facing a shortage of safe water and sanitation services. A situation that further exacerbates the supply crisis that the country is already facing.
If the port, as well as several hospitals and grain elevators, suffered extensive damage during the disaster on August 4, the hydraulic infrastructure was relatively spared from the explosion. However, the supply has become much more complicated in the capital, says Nadim Farajalla, professor of hydrology and water resources at the American University of Beirut, interviewed by France 24.
“The explosion caused little direct damage to the infrastructure itself, even though the windows and doors blew out of the explosion. On the other hand, it caused a power outage, which in the district of Achrafieh, east of the capital, causes shutdown of the pumps and therefore major supply problems.”
Another problem is damage caused to building installations. “The air radiation has seriously damaged the plumbing buildings and the tanks on the roofs of the buildings, which provides the necessary extra water for households,” explains Olivier Thonet, head of the water and sanitation department at Unicef Lebanon. “More than 3,500 tanks were destroyed, it will take at least three weeks to replace them all.”
The blast damaged thousands of homes and created a massive exodus to areas further away from the port. For Nadim Farajalla, this displacement of the population is a major problem for water supply: “Hundreds of thousands of people were homeless and therefore dependent on their families. However, water cuts are often in Lebanon and” Drinking water is a significant cost because most people consume it in bottles. Many Lebanese today are in a situation of increasing health crisis. “
An already critical water crisis
In Lebanon, water supply is a major problem in daily life, characterized by repeated cuts. The country benefits from relatively large resources with its snow-capped mountains in the winter, but outdated distribution infrastructure and lack of storage cause real difficulties.
As early as 2005, Semide, the Euro-Mediterranean water expert, warned that 60% of distribution systems had to be rehabilitated, while 50% of water resources were not used, indicating the risk of water shortages in the medium term.
“The sector has been abandoned, the lack of reforms has led us to this situation,” believes Nadim Farajalla, “the cost of public water supply has not changed in decades, it is extremely low. Today it barely covers the salaries of workers in the sector. There is not enough. “money for infrastructure works so the service is bad. Because the service is bad, most Lebanese do not. Do not pay. It is a vicious circle,” he lamented.
Finally, among the aggravating factors of the crisis are poor water quality (only 36% of the country’s population consumes water that meets international safety standards, according to a study by Unicef 2016) and strong pressure on demand linked to the Syrian migration crisis (more than 1.5 million refugees have arrived in Lebanon since 2012, or almost a quarter of the total population).
This water crisis in Lebanon represents a major project that has become an absolute emergency since the port’s explosion. Many humanitarian organizations present on the ground have made it a priority, such as the Red Cross or Unicef, in the face of both urgent needs and structural problems in the sector.
“The highest priority today is to ensure the continuity of water supply,” Judge Nadim Farajalla. “Iraq’s example has taught us that rebuilding such infrastructure is extremely expensive. International support must now be directed to equipment maintenance, the purchase of fuel for generators and treatment products. Of water.”
In a deep budget crisis, Lebanon has no choice but to rely on international support to stay afloat. Since 2 September, the European Union has set up direct support for water offices through Unicef in the amount of EUR 10 million.
“Water suppliers do not have subsidies in Lebanon. If we do not support them, the risk of service interruptions is high,” says Olivier Thonet. “Prioritization is to restore financial autonomy by maintaining the service in order to retain customers. This is all the more important because the port area, which had one of the best collection rates in the city, represents a huge financial loss for the sector.”
An important assignment that is the subject of concern for the head of Unicef. “Today we are wondering about the future of these neighborhoods. We do not know if people will return; everything must be rebuilt,” he concludes.