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Lebanon is one of the few countries in the Middle East with adequate water. Rainfall is relatively plentiful and the country is blessed by several large rivers. But when the residents of Beirut and its surrounding suburbs turn on their water taps, most of the time, nothing trickles out. In summertime, the water supply can be as little as three hours per day for many households.
To provide 1.2 million citizens of Greater Beirut with clean, reliable water, the World Bank is proposing to help finance new pipelines and several reservoirs and pumping stations.
Q: If there’s plenty of water, relatively speaking, in Lebanon, why isn’t there enough water in the system for everyone to use?
A: The water situation is particularly bad in the hot summer months. The problem is caused by the fact that there are only a few places to store water. Also, too much of the country’s potentially drinkable water flows out to the Mediterranean. And these problems are coupled with growing demand and an old and leaky system of pipes and reservoirs. If Lebanon does not upgrade its water network, experts warn there could be chronic water shortages in the country as soon as 2020.
Q: Who would benefit from improved water?
A: Improving the water supply in Greater Beirut would affect about half of Lebanon’s population—about 2.1 million people, including about 350,000 thousand people who live in the low-income neighborhoods in Southern Beirut. Across the entire project area (see map) people who live on the top floors of the many apartment buildings would benefit as well: low water pressure often means that what little water there is in the pipes, doesn’t make it all the way up to their apartments. The quality of the water will also be in line with international standards, in addition to being much more consistent.
Q: So what are people doing now, in order to get clean water?
A: Even though about 80% of the people in Greater Beirut are connected to the water system, many of them must rely on private water salesmen for their drinkable water. Small-scale private water vendors, most of whom are unregulated and many of whom are illegal, provide water of dubious quality. So even those who pay extra for water aren’t sure of what they are drinking, where it comes from, or even whether it is safe.
And private water is expensive. Families can spend disproportionate amounts on water from private water companies. Total household expenditure on private water supply is estimated at $308 million per year. Families in and around the project area spend more on water than their counterparts in other countries—some of which are much drier than Lebanon.
Q: Is there an economic impact?
A: Lebanon is classified as a middle income country, but the water system is not in line with the country’s economic development. Economists figure that the lack of reliable water costs the country about $433 million in US dollars every year. And the environmental impact caused by the discharge of untreated sewer water is estimated at around 190 million USD. So the old and outdated water supply system ends up costing the country growth.
In addition, there’s the cost to individual families, many of whom can’t afford the high price of private water.
Finally, because most households aren’t metered, people aren’t charged for what they actually use. So there’s no incentive to save water (when there’s plenty of it). So the current water supply system is inefficient by almost every standard.
Q: Why has no one focused on this problem before?
A: The Government of Lebanon has been considering ways to improve the water supply in Greater Beirut since the early 1960s and has considered many sources of water supply. But it is a massive undertaking. In addition to increasing the flow of drinkable water, the project’s managers plan to improve the pipes running into buildings. They will also build new pipelines to connect poorer residents to the network. And the project aims to increase the number of customers by almost 50% who will get running water for 24 hours daily.
To do this, engineers propose building two big water tunnels, for a total 24 kilometers, to bring water from an existing source at the Joun reservoir, to those who need it. They propose building three big storage reservoirs, 16 supply reservoirs, a water treatment plan and new, smaller, pipelines, pumping stations and household meters.
After extensive study, the Government of Lebanon, the World Bank Group, and many engineers and consultants, have concluded that this project is the fastest and cheapest way to get the best quality water to those who need it in the very short-term. The Government of Lebanon continues to explore long-term options for delivering more water to the Greater Beirut and other areas across Lebanon.
Q: If this is such a relevant project, why was a request for inspection submitted in connection with it?
A. The Inspection Panel is an independent mechanism established by the WB Board of Directors in 1993 so people can channel their concerns about World Bank compliance with its own policies and procedures. One such request has been made in connection with this project and further information about can be found at www.inspectionpanel.org.