As the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon surpasses 1 million, the country’s ageing water infrastructure is coming under further pressure and water is becoming increasingly expensive for residents.

The World Bank estimates that the local population in Beirut is paying an estimated $308m a year on private water supply to ensure they have access to potable water, despite the Levant country being one of the few in the region with an adequate rainfall.

“Water supply is a big problem,” says a Lebanese expatriate living in Dubai. “It is costing my family a lot of money to get water from private companies as the supply isn’t reliable.”

While Lebanon enjoys substantial rainfall, it has not been able to harness the resource due to long-running political issues heavily affecting the economy and preventing much-needed investment projects from going ahead.

GDP growth is forecast to remain flat at 1 per cent in 2014, significantly down on the 10.3 per cent achieved in 2009 and the 8 per cent recorded in 2010.

As a result, the required investment in improving and expanding the country’s water infrastructure has not been available, and the government has turned to international finance and aid institutions to assist in efforts to tackle the growing water shortages.

Water shortages

On the face of it, Lebanon should not suffer from water shortages. The country is home to several large rivers and has an annual rainfall of about 8,600 million cubic metres. Total water demand is estimated at between 1,473 and 1,530 million cubic metres a year (cm/y), according to data from the Issam Fares Institute (IFI) at the American University of Beirut released earlier this year.  

However, the existing infrastructure is unable to store and process the rain, and much of the water flows into the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, many Lebanese citizens do not receive adequate supply.

While up to 80 per cent of households are estimated to be connected to the water network, supplies of water are, at best, sporadic.

The Greater Beirut Water Supply Project
  Estimated cost ($m)
Bulk water supply infrastructure: tunnels, water treatment plant, transmission and distribution 257.5
Supply reservoirs, distribution network and metering 61
Project management, utility strengthening and national studies  15
Total 334
Source: World Bank 

A World Bank Social Impact Assessment conducted in 2009 found that only 10 per cent of connected homes in Beirut received water every day, with 52 per cent receiving water every other day and 37 per cent every third day.

The utility Mount Lebanon Water Establishment (BMLWE) reports average technical and commercial losses of up to 40 per cent, which are due to a combination of faults in the network and poor regulation of the supply market.

With demand for water soaring due to the influx of refugees, the problem is worsening and people are facing increasing uncertainties over supply of the vital resource. According to the World Bank, Lebanon could face chronic water shortages by 2020 unless the problem is addressed and key projects are implemented.  

The water shortage is not just pushing up living costs for families, but is having a significant impact on the country’s economy, which is already strained by a fall in tourist numbers as a result of the political uncertainty in neighbouring Syria.

It is estimated a lack of adequate water supply cost the economy about $433m in 2010, in addition to the estimated $190m environmental cost of the discharge of untreated water, according to the World Bank. 

Planned projects

Lebanon’s government has been planning ways to improve the water supply in Greater Beirut since the early 1960s. However, due to prolonged periods of instability and civil war, the necessary projects did not materialise. With the humanitarian situation worsening, the World Bank and other international aid organisations have stepped in to assist.

At the centre of efforts is the $370m Greater Beirut Water Supply Project, for which the World Bank approved a $200m loan in December 2010. Following several delays, the Lebanese government signed an agreement for the loan for the scheme in February 2012.

The Greater Beirut project involves increasing the supply of potable water and improving the pipes running into buildings in Beirut. The proposed water supply scheme will involve constructing two water tunnels, three big storage reservoirs, 16 supply reservoirs, a water treatment plant and new smaller pipelines, pumping stations and household meters.

The project will take water from the existing Joun reservoir, which draws water from the Litani and Awali rivers. Water from the Joun reservoir will be transferred through the underground tunnels to a water treatment plant and then on the three major storage reservoirs.

The water scheme aims to increase short-term supply of potable water in the area by 250,000 cubic metres, with 1.2 million residents expected to benefit from the project. Importantly, the project will supply water for about 350,000 low income residents in a southern Beirut suburb, which are most in need of water.

The project is being developed jointly by the Electricity & Water Ministry, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) and the BMLWE.

Despite the loan contract for the project being signed more than two years ago, the bureaucratic nature of Lebanon’s tendering processes has resulted in delays with the bidding process for the main packages. However, despite the delays, progress is being made with the projects in 2014.

CDR and BMLWE received bids from four prequalified contractors for the estimated $180m main tunnelling packages in May, with Italy’s Cooperativa Muratori Cementisti di Ravena (CMC) submitting the lowest price. The client is still currently evaluating the bids and hopes to award the contract by the end of the year.

Contractors have also been invited to submit bids for several packages to supply pumping stations and distribution networks.

BMLWE has already awarded an estimated $23m contract for the construction of distribution networks in Zone C and has received bids for one of the distribution network packages and is evaluating bids for Zones A and D.

In May, it invited bids for Zone B, which includes distribution networks and pumping stations for the areas of Haret Es Sitt, Wadi Chahrour, Merdash, Louaize, Hazmieh and Chia.

For the contract to build the 250,000 cubic-metre-a-day (cm/d) water treatment plant and associated networks, CDR has invited consultants to submit bids for the design package by 23 September.

Due to the uncertain nature of Lebanon’s projects market, the fortunes of which are influenced by the domestic political situation and that in neighbouring countries, international companies are selective over which projects and clients they choose to bid for work on.

“Lebanon is an exciting market, but we will only participate in tenders that have funding guaranteed from the World Bank,” says an international consultant interested in the Greater Beirut project.

Wastewater infrastructure

In addition to boosting the water treatment and supply network, CDR is also pushing ahead with projects to improve and expand the capital city’s wastewater infrastructure.

It has invited companies to submit bids for the contract to design and build a wastewater outfall pipeline in the southern city of Sour. The project is being funded by a loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and will involve the design and build of onshore and offshore sections for the outfall pipeline.

In late 2013, CDR invited firms to submit bids for the contract to build the Khenchara wastewater plant (WWTP) in the North Caza area of the country.

Refugee crisis

While the Greater Beirut Water Supply project is the government’s primary focus for boosting water supply, the influx of more than 1 million refugees has resulted in the urgent need for water.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is one international non-governmental organisation (NGO) assisting Lebanon to cope with the soaring demand for water.

According to the ICRC, 80 per cent of the Syrian refugees are renting apartments or staying with local families connected to the municipal water networks. The remaining 20 per cent are in camps of shelters partly connected to the water network.

With the Syrian crisis exacerbating the already overstretched water network, the ICRC is assisting the government to undertake several emergency projects to upgrade pumping stations.

Poor maintenance and insufficient capacity of existing pumping stations leads to regular water shortages, and the ICRC is undertaking a number of projects to overhaul and expand the existing facilities.

In early 2014, the organisation completed upgrades of a pumping station in the West Bekaa area, which supplies water for 42,000 residents and 10,000 refugees across 15 villages. It is also currently building a simple pumping station in the Zahleh area of Bekaa to boost water resources for an estimated 35,000 people.

While Lebanon is continuing to face several threats to its political and economic stability, from neighbouring Syria and the rising power of jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), one of the most important challenges the government must overcome is providing adequate water supplies for both its people and refugees.

Executing the complex Greater Beirut Water Supply scheme will provide numerous technical and logistical challenges, but this is one project Beirut cannot afford to let politics derail.