Mahanna al-Salih regrets not taking the 1000 liras from his daughter Aya: “I said let her be, she’s happy, she wants to buy something”. The peak of the latest storm occurred in Beqaa. The Berdawni River, which crosses the Faida region in the Zahlé plain, rose at least two meters with the water flowing rapidly downward toward the Litani River in Bar Elias. Mahanna entered his tent on the banks of the Berdawni, leaving Aya to head to the nearby store. Three minutes was enough for his four-year-old daughter to disappear: “We couldn’t find her. She vanished into thin air”.
Mahanna, his wife, their family, and the neighbors from the other tents searched for Aya. Only her uncle found a trace: marks from her hands and feet as she slipped from the river’s edge toward the flowing water. At the end of the track left by those tiny sliding hands and feet, they found the 1000 liras on a small rock and realized that the river had washed their daughter away. They called the Civil Defense, the Red Cross, and the UNHCR. Thirteen days later [at the time of writing], they are still roaming the Berdawni in search of her. “She might have ended up in Lake Qaraoun”, her father says in earshot of her mother, who is heaped in the corner of the tent embracing her young children.
Aya is the third child to be washed away by the Litani and its tributaries and channels during the winter of 2019. The three are among over 68 thousand Syrian refugees left on the banks of the Berdawni and Ghzayel rivers (tributaries of the Litani) and the Litani itself, including the Qasimia Channel in South Lebanon.
Aya may have been swept away by the Berdawni toward the Litani. Two-year-old Ahmad, on the other hand, escaped the river but did not escape having to sleep in the banana grove in the Zahrani region after teams from the Litani River Authority (LRA) swept away a Syrian refugee camp near the Dabbana Station at the Zahrani-Nabatieh intersection in the direction of the coastal highway to Tyre. The LRA removed 31 tents with lavatories located on the Litani’s irrigation channel, which irrigates approximately 100 hectares of agricultural land in the same region. That night, 17 Syrians unable to find alternative shelter slept outside in the nearby groves. Ahmad awoke during the night and asked his father if they could return “home” to their tent that lay in ruins.
The LRA: We Remove Encroachments, Lebanese or Syrian
The Syrian refugees’ presence on the Litani river and its tributaries is no ordinary matter anymore. The issue “concerns their safety and health and their surrounding environment, on one hand, and the cleaning of the Litani, on the other”, as Sami Alawieh, the LRA’s general director and president of its administrative council, tells The Legal Agenda. He says there is ample funding for displaced persons: “Where is the UNHCR? Where are the other aid organizations? Where is the Ministry for the Affairs of the Displaced and the Ministry of Social Affairs?”. On his desk in the LRA, Alawieh lays out the letters he sent to the UNHCR and all the ministries concerned asking them to distance the camps of “displaced persons” from the Litani pursuant to the roadmap that the National Plan for Litani River Remediation included following Parliament’s adoption of Law no. 63 of 2016.
According to Alawieh, the UNHCR never responded to these letters, nor did the Ministry for the Affairs of the Displaced or the Ministry of Social Affairs: “Why are you blaming the LRA for the tragedy of the Syrians on the Litani River and its tributaries? Visit these camps and see the lives of their people and their inhumane living, health, and environmental conditions. They’re drowning in pollution and waste from the lavatories, as well as the Litani. Is this humane?”
Alawieh mentions the loss of three Syrian children during this winter alone: “Let them spend the money in the right place and move the Syrians to safe camps that don’t pollute the river. Our job as an authority is to remove the causes of pollution from the Litani and its buffers. This is what we do with the industrialists by going to the judiciary and then closing down [the place]…, and with Lebanese residents, the latest of whom were the residents of the Arsh neighborhood in Aadloun. We warned them to stop throwing their sewage in the Litani. When they didn’t comply, on the morning of 22 February 2019, the LRA’s teams, with security support, removed the entire sewerage network of the houses in the neighborhood, which was pouring into the channel. We cannot slack off. If we did, we’d make no progress cleaning the Litani and derelict our core function: protecting the river and the people dying because of pollution”.
In a letter sent to the UNHCR on 9 October 2018, the LRA wished that “the environmental conditions in which the displaced persons live were taken into consideration”, holding it responsible for the deterioration of the environmental crisis in the Litani’s two basins due to the drainage of liquid and solid waste from refugee settlements and the diversion of sewage from some of the buildings that refugees occupy.
The LRA also explained that these “catastrophic circumstances negatively impact the ‘displaced persons’ too” and pointed out that “contractors commissioned by the UNHCR are transporting sewage water via tankers and emptying it into the river or its basin instead of into the recycling plants”.
Consequently, the LRAA reported “its disapproval of the erection of any settlements for displaced persons on the riverbanks and charged the UNHCR with responsibility for addressing these perverse circumstances as quickly as possible”, according to Alawieh.
The UNHCR: We Did Not Establish Camps
UNHCR media spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled tells The Legal Agenda that the international humanitarian organizations working in Lebanon “didn’t establish any official camps for the Syrian refugees in Lebanon”. These “unofficial camps were established as a result of private arrangements between the landowners and refugees in a personal capacity”. She explains that “the refugees pay rent directly to the landowners for the properties where they erect their tents. The UN agencies have strived and are still striving, in coordination with the central and local authorities responsible (including the LRA), to establish preliminary sewerage facilities to curb the impact of these camps on the environment”.
Abou Khaled states that, “Currently, the sewage water coming from the unofficial refugee camps is emptied into licensed treatment plants. The UN’s latest assessments in Beqaa have also shown that some of the lavatories in 14 of 84 unofficial camps located near the Litani River lack the minimum basic humane standards, and they do not meet the standards needed to conserve the environment”. She mentions that “the UN’s humanitarian agencies persevere in addressing this gap by providing solutions and funding”.
Regarding the poor living conditions of the refugees in the camps on the banks of the Litani, the UNHCR states, “The living conditions in the unofficial camps are dire. During the floods caused by the latest storms, the UNHCR worked with its partners and the authorities to temporarily move approximately 500 families (2,751 refugees) after their tents were severely damaged or inundated by the floods”.
Abou Khaled mentions that “the UNHCR, with help from its partners, works continuously with the authorities to determine alternative locations for the camps in constant danger from floods. However, it doesn’t have the authority to move the refugees to other locations in Lebanon. Hence, it continues to work with local and security authorities to obtain the permissions needed when necessary”. She added, “The important thing at the moment is that all the active parties work together and combine efforts to achieve the shared goal, namely to protect the most vulnerable groups during harsh weather, while making all efforts to conserve the environment in Lebanon”.
What is the Situation on the Ground?
The Legal Agenda has monitored the Litani River issue and the efforts to clean it and bring the plan to address it to fruition for the sake of the river, its people, and saving Lebanon’s most important water resource from destruction caused by more than 30 years of government neglect. However, it is also committed to protecting the rights of refugees, their lives, and the lives of their children. Hence, The Legal Agenda’s team toured a number of the refugee camps in the upper basin in Beqaa and the lower basin in South Lebanon, including the Dabbana Station camp removed by the LRA. We also visited some of the families who slept outside in the banana groves in Zahrani.
According to the LRA’s latest tally, there are 974 Syrian refugee camps with sewers pouring into the Litani. In these locations, there are 11,466 tents inhabited by 68,645 “displaced” Syrians. The LRA estimates the volume of wastewater from these camps to be 5,766 square meters per day, or 2,104,655 square meters per year, which equates to 1% of the Lake Qaraoun reservoir.
It is true that the humanitarian organizations have established lavatories near the camps on the banks of the Litani, as The Legal Agenda observed. However, they are fragile and overflow every five to seven days, whereas the tankers commissioned by the UNHCR or other international organizations collect them once a month, as the refugees told us. Some of these lavatories overflow not only toward the Litani but also inside the tents. They also overflow onto the riverbank’s agriculture lands, which is where the refugees’ tents are usually erected.
Juriyya, a Syrian woman living in a camp on the banks of the Ghzayel River, says that her seven children have developed chronic chest diseases, and she constantly gives her five-year-old son asthma spray. Juriyya’s lavatory occasionally overflows inside her tent. On other occasions, the river floods onto her children and the tent’s furniture. “We’re living between two floods, and in both cases, it’s all filth and dirtiness”, says the widow, who lost her husband in the Syrian war and supports her seven children alone.
On the Ghazyel itself, specifically on the road from Majdal Anjar toward Nuqtat al-Masna al-Hududiyya, you find approximately twenty refugee tents submerged in the middle of the river. No paths lead to these tents. There are no less than 150 tents located here along the river. Half are inundated in water, their inhabitants having abandoned them for an unknown location. The rest are still inhabited by refugees who cannot find alternative shelter.
Here in the camps of Beqaa, there are multiple means of survival in Faida in Zahlé, just as in Marj, Bar Elias, Qab Elias, and other camps located on the banks of the Litani and its tributaries. After losing three children, mothers now watch over the children at night (“One eye sleeps as another awakens”) for fear that a flood from the river will wash them away while they sleep. The refugees pile up cork boards and wooden boxes to serve as beds, raising their children above the water that settles in their tents at a height usually no less than 10 to 20 centimeters. Electric shock is deadly when it flows through the water into the semi-naked bodies (rarely do you see a child wearing shoes, nor even woolen or nylon socks).
At the heart of this tragedy in Beqaa and South Lebanon – where the camps are surrounded by pools of stagnant water overflowing from the so-called lavatories into the tents, the Litani, and the surrounding agricultural lands – you find a team from an international organization sitting on the ground delivering recreational or psychological activities and lessons to some of the camp’s children. “We thank their efforts”, says Hamid, who resides in the Aqibiyya camp in South Lebanon, “but we’re drowning in the Litani’s pollution and the threat that our camp will be washed away in a moment, with no alternative provided for us”.
Qasim al-Hayik from the Follow-Up and Accountability Committee in Bar Elias narrates the events of one of the floods from the Litani and its tributaries in Beqaa: “The water overran the Litani River’s common lands and the LRA’s properties where some influential people rent land to refugees for US$100 to LL100,000 [US$66] a month per tent”.
When the river flooded, “The young people of the area called for help to rescue the refugees in the river camps from the flood. Hence, we – dozens of young people – volunteered from 7:00PM to move the women and children to the schools and clubs and some houses belonging to people in Bar Elias, Marj, and the region. The sight of the refugees was painful. The children were semi-naked and barefoot in a temperature of zero degrees or lower. Some families made use of cork boards, while others used wooden pallets. But the result was the same: all were inundated and the stench from the sewers and river combined was deadly and unbearable”.
Worse, many of the refugees refuse to leave their tents: “If we leave them, they might tear them down, and we won’t be able to find a place to shelter”.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.
Keywords: Lebanon, Litani River, Syrian Refugees, Flood, Pollution, Sewer