Wastewater in Lebanon … What does this Untapped Resource offer?
- by Mey Al Sayegh
- Source: Annahar
- 15 February 2020
Lebanon is no more the castle of water in the Middle East, due to the rising demand and the growing challenge of water scarcity, given the impacts of the climate change. Consequently, the lack of sufficient resources makes the use of adequately-treated wastewater (black and grey water) a necessity, of potential benefits in agriculture, and in creating new jobs in the Wastewater (WW) treatment sector.
Before jumping into the potential benefits, it is essential to identify the situation of the wastewater sector in Lebanon, the way it is managed, the challenges which make the treatment almost non-existent despite the funds invested in this sector, and to end up with recommendations to transform this untapped resource from a threat to an opportunity.
The situation of the wastewater sector
Lebanon produces about 310 million cubic meters (MCM) of wastewater annually, of which 250 MCM are municipal and about 60 MCM industrial, according to the “National Strategy for Wastewater Sector” launched by the Ministry of Energy and Water (MoEW) in 2010.
Two-thirds of the population is connected to wastewater networks, and only 8 percent of the generated wastewater reaches the four operational wastewater treatment plants in (Saida, Ghadir, Baalbeck and Yamouneh) as mentioned in the National Strategy, while The Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) affirms that the number of operational plants so far is 20( Tripoli, Chekka, Batroun, Ehden, Bcharre, Al-Ghadir, Jiyyah (Nabi Younis), Kfarqatra, Al- Souayjani, Saida, Nabatieh, Tibnin, Iaat (Baalbek), Yamouneh, Zahleh, Jeb Jenin , Saghbine, Kfarsir, Yohmor and Zoutar).
The difference in the number of operational treatment plants varies because the “National Strategy for Wastewater Sector” was put in 2010 while figures presented by CDR reflect the updated status of the treatment plants.
The level of treatment in these areas varies from pre-treatment to the level of secondary or tertiary treatment. However, industrial wastewater is generally not subjected to pre-treatment in Lebanon, and is often discharged together with urban wastewater into the sea, rivers or lands or unsafely used by farmers for irrigation.
Where there is no network, unsealed cesspits are used, with considerable seepage into groundwater aquifers. The primary negative impacts of poor WW collection and treatment are linked to the pollution of groundwater, surface water resources and soil, and to the generation of various health diseases as well as coastal contamination.
But it is worth mentioning that on February 20, 2019, a joint committee was formed between Ministry of Industry and The Litani River Authority to enforce the monitoring and prevention within the Litani River basin, of any form of discharge from the industrial establishments into the sewage networks without treatment.
Given that, who is in charge of managing the Wastewater sector in Lebanon?
By law, the management of the Wastewater sector comprises of:
1- MoEW which is responsible of developing the Master Plan for the Wastewater sector.
2- The four Regional Water Establishments: North Lebanon Water Establishment, Beirut & Mount Lebanon Water Establishment, South Lebanon Water Establishment, Bekaa Water Establishment are in charge of the collection, treatment disposal of wastewater, operation and the maintenance of the wastewater facilities.
3- CDR is commissioned by the Government to implement any of the above projects and to deliver the treatment plants and the networks to the relevant administration.
The full implementation of Law 221 /2000 and its amendments were impeded by significant delays and fragmentation in infrastructure investments, planning and execution responsibilities, inadequate tariffs, poor inter-Governmental coordination, and political appointments for technical responsibilities.
So far, the wastewater network does not fully cover the country, while coverage is around 80 percent in Beirut; it is less than 50 percent in the Bekaa. This is due to the institutional and financial challenges facing the operation and maintenance of the existing wastewater networks and treatment plants; the above challenges have been exacerbated by the impact of displaced Syrians (1.5 million) thus the national wastewater generation rate has increased from eight to fourteen percent, as demonstrated in Lebanon Voluntary National Review (VNR) on SDGs (2018).
Though, if we examine the funds allocated to investment in this sector, we notice that the value of the implemented public works by CDR reached $745 million between 1992 and 2017, from $3 billion dollars which was agreed upon within the National Strategy for the Wastewater sector, $2.4 billion dollars within Cedar Conference.
According to Dr. Walid Safi, Government Commissioner to (CDR): “There is a lot of politics rather than a public policy to the wastewater sector”, stressing in an interview with “Annahar” the need for a vision to be developed by MoEW that should set the strategy, define priorities and get all the stakeholders together under one roof including Ministries of Environment, Public works and Transportation, Industry, Agriculture, water establishments, municipalities, private sector, NGOs...Etc.
Thus the problem goes back to the nineties, when CDR used to build wastewater plants and main networks which were not connected to complementary networks. Starting 2010, a holistic approach was put in place, so when negotiating an agreement and appealing to financial aid, each project should include the plant, main and complementary networks and households connections, Dr. Safi affirms.
In some cases, treatment plants and networks were in place but CDR was obliged to provide maintenance for treatment plants for many years because water establishments were hesitant to take it over, due to lack of financial resources and personnel to handle the operation and maintenance. Thus in each agreement, CDR is asking as a precondition, capacity building to water establishments to be able to take over the operation and maintenance.
"If water establishments do not have the capacity they can delegate that to private sector" Dr. Safi suggests, highlighting the need for a wastewater tariff to enable water establishments to operate and maintain the service, adding that some people in villages are not willing to pay a small amount of money to flow their wastewater through networks, preferring old techniques.
On the other hand, Eng. Jean Gebran, General Director of Mount Lebanon Water Establishment (EBML) says in an interview with “Annahar”: “we are successfully operating all plants we took over from CDR, and aspire to use treated wastewater for non-fruitful trees at Chouf-Souayjani area”.
However, He stresses the need for an independent rainwater drainage network to be separated from the wastewater network at the lower collection level and not only at the upper level, to avoid floods every winter, and highlights the importance of extending the Al Ghadir network that is underway.
And in line with Barcelona Convention obligations, to avoid polluting the Mediterranean Sea, CDR was delegated to build Bourj Hammoud Wastewater Treatment Plant that needs 28 months to be functional, and it serves the Greater Beirut Northern Collection Basin, and EBML will operate it, Gebran confirms.
Success Stories …Hammana &Chouf Area
Amid that, Hammana Municipality, just 26 km East of Beirut, shows pride for being the home of the first ever wastewater treatment plant in the Middle East (WWTP) that was constructed in 1969, renovated in 2014 and the existing PV system on the treatment plant has been funded by United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
Hammana did not have the luxury to wait for the Central Government; and its late Mayor Najib Abou Haidar was a pioneer in introducing a decentralized solution for the wastewater in the sixties. “From 1990, MoEW is talking about a Master centralized plan under which Bourj Hammoud- Karantina plant should treat the wastewater discharged in the northern and southern bank of Nahr Beirut, but we have seen nothing”, says Jules Hatem, the Managing director at Triple E Company, which Hammana Municipality contracted to handle the operation and maintenance of the WWTP that works on renewable energy.
“But unfortunately the treated water is discharged in Beirut river and wasted instead of being treated to be used for irrigation”, Hatem adds during a field trip for a group of journalists to the WWTP under the umbrella of “Water and sanitation Journalism learning and exposure program” in October 2019, organized by Cewas, BORDA, AUB’s Issam Fares Institute and LEWAP.
However in Hammana, a conflict exists between the municipality and EBML because the former has no right to operate such a facility, Law 221 puts all wastewater treatment under the responsibility of the water establishments, Dr. Nadim Farajalla, Director of Climate Change and Environment Program at AUB’s Issam Fares Institute (IFI) explains.
Similarly, Chouf facilities are nearly as successful as Hammana facility, but are operated by BMLWE, Dr Farajalla points out.
In the meantime, in the villages of the upper Chouf area, there is only 18 kilometers of the complementary wastewater network left, and 5 pumping/lifting stations are under construction, funded by the Islamic Development Bank, in addition to upgrading the existing pre-treatment plant that is a part of the Bisri dam.
Based on that, can decentralization be the solution?
Dr. Safi clarifies that centralization is needed on the construction level while decentralization on the operation and maintenance level, and this is the case with the presence of 4 water establishments by Law 221.
In turn, Marc Ayoub, a researcher at IFI rules out the possibility of applying Decentralization at a small scale in each village, “but if 4 to 10 villages produce the same kind of residential wastewater for example, they can have their medium-range treatment plant and connect to the main networks; in this way they decrease financial cost and can enjoy energy efficiency”.
Turning wastewater from a threat to an opportunity
With 2700 Mm3 of net exploitable resources, it is evident that Lebanon will face a severe water shortage in 2030 as Dr. Abdul Halim Mouneimne, the Chairman of Environmental and Natural resources Engineering Department at Faculty of Agriculture Engineering and Veterinary at Lebanese University, pointed out in a joint scientific research paper entitled Wastewater management and reuse in Lebanon (2013).
In addition, Climate Change will decrease precipitation and increase losses due to evapotranspiration, thus the impact of climate change on Lebanon’s water resources is far-reaching. According to MoEW, if the temperature rises by 1°C, the total volume of water resources in Lebanon will shrink by an estimated 6 to 8% and by 12% to 16% if the temperature is 2°C warmer.
To balance the supply, non-conventional water resources, such as treated wastewater represents a great potential on the supply side, Mouneimne explains in an interview with “Annahar”. These complementary supply resources are particularly well suited for the needs of the agricultural sector, since this sector alone consumes about 70% of the total available water.
In turn, Food and Agriculture organization Of the United Nations (FAO) reached to a similar conclusion in its “Assessment of treated wastewater for agriculture in Lebanon” (2016) report, that wastewater can be transformed from a potential threat to a good source of additional water.
However, in the coastal residential urban areas like in Beirut and Tripoli for instance, that produce thousands cubic meters of wastewater per day, there are no huge agricultural lands, and thus it would be difficult and quite expensive to pump treated wastewater to agricultural lands in other governorates, some argue. Reusing treated water is more efficient in areas like Bekaa and Akaar and to some extent in Sidon if it is linked to a governmental policy that subsidies using treated wastewater in agriculture.
Mouneimne clarifies that wastewater treatment main advantage is the opportunity to reuse the effluent and sludge in agriculture and Silviculture, while the disadvantages include odor nuisance and visual impact. Mitigation measures include tree planting along the conveyance structures and recently there are technologies like the French wetland treatment systems that have nice visual impacts and no odor.
For instance in Jordan, BORDA that develops tailor-made sustainable sanitation solutions designed a wetland at Feynan Ecolodge and planted native Moringa, Acacia and Ziziphus trees that will be irrigated with treated wastewater from the lodge, thus facilitating decentralized solutions for wastewater treatment.
Similarly, The World Bank, in the Strategic assessment, capital investment plan for Lebanon (April 6 2018) concludes that with growing water needs, options of new water, such as treated and storm-water management, can be explored to fill the gap on water availability and adapt to the climate change impact.
The Capital Investment Plan (CIP) Lebanon presented at Cedar Conference includes 82 wastewater projects, covering the whole of Lebanon, but until now the Government does not agree on the priorities. However, Dr. Fadi Comair, the Director General of Hydraulic and Electrical Resources at MoEW does not seem optimistic of potential Cedar Loans allocated for wastewater sector, fearing that without reform and the implementation of the water law, the bulk of these funds will be allocated to local projects and salaries which benefit the politically affiliated decision makers.
He highlights in an interview with “Annahar” the need to allocate responsibility to manage treated wastewater at national level to one institution and believes in a “structural solution that includes the creation of a National office for Irrigation and a National office for wastewater, to be linked to the High Council of Water that should operate under the tutelage of the MoEW”, taken into account the usage of non-conventional water, because so far the water establishments do not have the ability to take over those projects of wastewater and treatment plants.
But will a new bureaucratic entity solve the governance issue?
Comair who was elected in November 2019 as the President of the Intergovernmental Hydrological Program (IHP) at UNESCO explains that is missing in the wastewater sector is an Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) to promote the coordinated development and management of water and wastewater, land and related resources in order to maximize economic and social welfare in an equitable manner, without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems and the environment.
In parallel, The 2017 UN World Water Development Report “Wastewater: The Untapped Resource”, demonstrated how improved wastewater management generates social, environmental and economic benefits essential to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The year before, UN World Water Development Report, highlighted the intersection between water issues, and employment, showing that wastewater links two important sustainable development goals: SDG 6 (universal access to water and sanitation) and SDG 8 (sustainable growth and decent work for all).
Similarly, International Labour Organization (2017) found out that investments in water related services can be very effective for job creation. For instance, The United States of America Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of direct jobs for “Water and Wastewater Treatment Plant and System Operators” at 117,000 in 2014.
In Lebanon, sources at CDR confirm that according to the Master Plan for the wastewater sector that was put in 1982 and updated in1994, 1600 potential jobs would be created in this sector that includes engineers, biologists, technicians... etc.
Given that, the question is: when Lebanon will start making use of its Wastewater and build on the above potential benefits with the skyrocketing unemployment rates? Cedar loans if released can create this opportunity, let’s not miss it and start developing an IWRM policy for this untapped resource before it is too late.
Mey Al Sayegh is a specialized writer on water issues and transboundary cooperation and has been a member of Blue Peace media network in the Middle East since 2013.