The debate around the world over the feasibility of dams, especially mega-dams, is intensifying, and some people are going beyond opposing the construction of new ones to calling for demolishing existing ones that have proven a failure over the years or that have come to do more harm than good. Meanwhile, the Lebanese water program features approximately 18 dams, some implemented and some being implemented now. Others are still awaiting funding, which usually occurs via borrowing at interest rates that drown Lebanon in more debt.
Although the construction of dams in Lebanon is witnessing significant opposition armed with science and studies, especially regarding Jannah Dam and Bisri Dam, the authorities seem to be turning a deaf ear to the opponents for the sake of implementing their water schemes. These schemes are based primarily on constructing mega-dams, most of which squander public funds without any actual benefit (such as Brisa Dam). Gebran Bassil launched the “water strategy” – at the heart of which lay the 18 dam projects – in 2010, when he was minister of energy and water. However, the defenders of his plans, which face vast opposition regarding the dams in particular, argue that he didn’t reinvent the wheel, he merely brought old projects out of the drawers to put them on track for implementation. These projects appear to trace back to the 1950s, so we are talking about approximately 70 years during which the world witnessed changes in the means and approaches of water management and failures and successes to learn from. Did the Lebanese government do its duty in this area by reviewing and evaluating the previous experiences and drawing lessons from them? And what are the foundations and strategies of the state’s whole water policy?
By interviewing political economist Dr. Roland Riachi, The Legal Agenda is attempting to link the project to construct Bisri Dam and its enormous pipeline system expected to draw water from Awali to Beirut at a cost exceeding US$1.2 billion, which is currently facing fierce opposition, to Lebanon’s water policy and its historical development all the way to the current project. Riachi is one of the most prominent academics to have joined the open opposition to the dams armed with facts and scientific studies. Following his interview in a documentary in which he presented critical facts about Chabrouh Dam, the president of the American University in Beirut (where he worked as a researcher) received a letter from the Ministry of Energy and Water, signed by Minister Nada Boustani, accusing Riachi of “undermining the nation’s interest and serving the Israeli enemy”. This indicates a dangerous trend toward labeling anyone who dares oppose the ministry’s projects a traitor. (Editor)
Legal Agenda: What are the main features of water policy in Lebanon at the moment? Do you see it as a continuation of the government’s historical performance, or does it have orientations that differ from the past?
Roland Riachi: Historically, the idea of dams was based on the water policy of the colonial French Mandate, whose narrative required that it give the impression of bringing “modernity” to colonial Lebanon. In water policy, the Mandate focused on three basic themes, namely land ownership and the laws pertaining to water, the administrative establishments for water, and water megaprojects. Landownership’s connection to acquired rights to water traces back to the Ottoman era, and it was reinforced legally with the Mandate authorities. The French authorities established a legal framework for this orientation by issuing Law no. 144 of 1925, which guaranteed acquired rights to “public” water, and Decision no. 320 of 1926, which exempted landowners, for example, from having to request a license to dig wells if they were to be less than 150 meters deep and less than 100 cubic meters of water would be extracted – an amount that should not be taken lightly.
Under the banner of megaprojects, the phenomenon of privatization and partnership between the public and private spheres in water policies began. A historical example of this approach is the establishment of the private company responsible for transporting water from Jeita to Beirut in the Ottoman era in 1877 until 1951. Based on this legal orientation, water establishments or administrations began arising in the Lebanese regions via the purchase of acquired rights from landowning citizens amidst the absence of the principle of treating water as “public property”. In 2000, there were 22 of these establishments, on the basis of decentralization and in the various Lebanese regions such as Beirut, Metn, Nabaa et-Tasse, Ain el-Delbeh, and Chamsine.
Law no. 221 of 2000 strengthened the centralization of the water establishments by merging the 22 establishments into just four, namely the Establishment of the Water of Beirut and Mount Lebanon, the Bekaa Water Establishment, the North Lebanon Water Establishment, and the South Lebanon Water Establishment. These establishments did not recognize acquired rights, which causes many problems between them and numerous townships. This turn eliminated the specialization that had developed among these 22 dissolved establishments, such as the Chamsine water establishment’s specialization in agriculture (i.e. irrigation) and the Beirut and Tripoli establishments’ specialization in meeting civil needs. Law no. 221 was a result of pressure from the international financiers to pave the way for privatization similar to that which we are witnessing today with the CEDRE conference. The law was also a means for some zuama [elite political leaders] to extend their control based on the broad landownership either of the zuama themselves or their sects via the vast awqaf [religious endowments]. The law also faced opposition from other zuama, including Walid Jumblatt, and the awqaf [trustee authorities] because of their possession of large lands, the argument being that the law did not enshrine their acquired right.
There is a contradiction and lack of recognition between the establishments and the holders of acquired rights. The four establishments arm themselves with Law no. 221, arguing that it does away with acquired rights outside of their framework, whereas some townships to this day provide water to their residents by themselves on the basis of a historically recognized acquired right. Hence, we have the “acquired rights” on one side and “public right” on the other, and there is confusion about which one has precedence over the other. Although the legal framework for water has not seen much change since the French Mandate, we have witnessed the issuance of new laws that contributed to the creation and consolidation of a legal pluralism governing water. These laws include the 2004 law on water pollution and the amendment to Decision no. 118 in 2010 concerning well management, which did nothing new besides slightly increasing the cost of well licenses and consolidating privatization such that private companies, rather than state institutions, became responsible for many functions. The legal pluralism increased when Water Law no. 77 of 2018 was issued without ending the dominance of the legal framework that has underpinned water policy since the Mandate via the 1925 and 1926 decisions.
The legal pluralism has coincided with institutional fragmentation that becomes apparent when we raise the question, “Who is responsible for groundwater and inspecting the wells?” If we ask the Ministry of Energy and Water, the response is that the ministry is not responsible for the groundwater depletion and that monitoring the wells is the responsibility of the security forces, the Ministry of Interior, and the municipalities. On the other hand, there is an administrative body in the Ministry of Energy and Water called the “Groundwater Department”, and it grants well licenses. It should have approximately 50 employees, but today there are only three. Furthermore, they will soon reach the retirement age, and the intent is not to replace them but to leave these positions empty to pave the way for privatization. And we can observe fragmentation in powers and responsibilities – fragmentation linked to the legal fragmentation, particularly with the issuance of Law no. 221 of 2000.
LA: How and when did the construction of water megaprojects like dams begin in Lebanon?
Riachi: The water projects began appearing with the Mandate, as we mentioned earlier. The authorities at the time began studying projects that could be implemented in Lebanon, such as irrigation projects and dams. However, what helped spread the phenomenon of these megaprojects was the fourth point of US President Harry Truman’s foreign policy of 1948 [the Truman Doctrine], which he followed during the Cold War. This policy was characterized by US initiatives to contain Soviet influence by providing developing countries with funding in exchange for joining the US’ political axis.
After failing to pull Iraq and Egypt from the Soviet embrace in the days of late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the US succeeded in Lebanon during the era of President Camille Chamoun, pledging to provide expertise and assistance to implement megaprojects to manage water. Under the auspices of the US Bureau of Reclamation, the American authorities sent a delegation to the American University in Beirut at the beginning of the 1950s. With it came the idea of establishing the National Litani River Authority (analogous with the Tennessee Valley Authority) and implementing the first World Bank-funded water project, namely Qaraoun Dam and its hydroelectric systems. Deep wells were also dug for the first time in Lebanese history. Here, the American containment approach complemented its Mandate counterpart in terms of bringing “modernity” to the remote, disadvantaged regions by providing them with water, which was no small detail in the lives of the inhabitants of those villages and regions.
The American delegation itself conducted studies for approximately 20 dams. These are the same dams that we are discussing today, with the first study for a dam in Marj Bisri being conducted in 1953. At the time, the inhabitants of Southern Lebanon rejected the notion of drawing the water of Bisri or the Litani to Beirut. They argued that “the south’s water is for the south”, not from a sectarian standpoint but from a class one, and as part of the clash between rural areas and the large cities. After the Lebanese Civil War broke out, all the projects were frozen until it ended in the 1990s. They re-emerged with the reconstruction projects in the Horizon 2000 Plan, then the Paris 1, Paris 2, and Paris 3 conferences, and, finally, the CEDRE conference, which is allocating more than US$4 billion to water projects, including a large sum for constructing dams.
The dam projects were also revived in the 10-year plan with General Director of the Ministry of Energy and Water Fadi Comair in 2000, and in Gebran Bassil’s 2010 plan. These are the same dam projects proposed in the 1950s based on the American delegation’s recommendation.
However, with the changes and developments that occurred during the past decades, today these projects no longer provide any benefit, especially as their danger has been established. The opposition to the dams took a new turn with the eruption of the campaign against Janna Dam in late 2014, which shed more light on the notion that these dams are infeasible and dangerous. Some academics, experts, and journalists tried to oppose these projects in the 1990s, but they were silenced. The German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) declared the Janna Dam infeasible, but its construction began anyway.
LA: Can Janna Dam be compared with Bisri Dam?
Riachi: Janna Dam and Bisri Dam are twins governed by the same thought and facing the same problems. Bisri Dam is larger than Janna Dam, but the government’s narrative about the goal behind constructing them, namely to draw water to Beirut, is the same. Janna Dam was financed domestically, whereas most other dams, such as Bisri Dam, are financed from abroad. Here, we must note that the company contracted for the Janna project was Consolidated Engineering & Trading (CET), which was headed by Jean Gebran. Gebran later became, in 2018, the general director of the Establishment of the Water of Beirut and Mount Lebanon and raised the water bill by LL50,000 [US$33], arguing that it was needed to fund the dams. This shows a conflict of interest.
LA: What are the biggest problems of the Bisri Dam project that should be highlighted?
Riachi: Regarding Bisri Dam, the government intentionally left some things unclear while also concealing certain facts. For example, the environmental impact study conducted by Dar Al-Handasah determined the cost of the environmental degradation to be approximately US$148,000, a trivial figure compared to the true damage that will be done to the area. Similarly, the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) is marketing the idea that the Bisri Dam project is less expensive than the other projects because it draws water to Beirut via gravity, which is a huge lie as the project needs many large pumps in many locations. The cost of purchasing, operating, and maintaining these pumps was not factored into the project’s total cost to deliver the water to Beirut.
The government is also intentionally separating the cost of the Bisri Dam project from the project to draw water from Awali River to Beirut. A private company will probably be contracted to operate the dam and draw and pump the water. The CDR acknowledges the dam’s problems, such as the leakage, which necessitate the use of grouting and curtains to prevent the water from leaking into the ground, a technique whose failure we are witnessing today in the construction of Balaa Dam, for example. The cost of these techniques could reach and exceed the proposed cost of the dam. These unacknowledged costs, on top of the high interest that the World Bank earns on the loan and the cost of additional acquisitions, will cause the Bisri Dam project’s cost to spike.
LA: In a previous interview with The Legal Agenda, you mentioned that Lebanon consists mainly of karistic rocks – i.e. disintegrated rock that, by nature, stores a lot of water – and that this geological character is the reason for both the significance of Lebanon’s underground wealth and the infeasibility of building dams on ground penetrable by water. Does this geological character and its implications apply to Marj Bisri?
LA: How will these costs reflect on Lebanese citizens in light of the country’s current economic situation?
Riachi: According to those in charge of the project, every Lebanese family could afford US$500 each year for drinking water and service (the amount citizens already pay should be enough to provide these things, but currently they are not being provided). Hence, by their logic, the cost to the citizen must be increased to the maximum to fund the construction of dams. Even so, the water that reaches homes (if it reaches) cannot be fit for drinking without planning and updating the infrastructures. From another angle, since the end of the war, the state has spent at least US$5 billion on water projects, and the cost of Bisri Dam and other failed dams will pose a financial problem that escalates over time.
Recent UN studies on water recommend returning to natural solutions and abandoning dams and the idea that they are profitable. Dams are unsustainable projects that will inevitably face the problem of sedimentation and the resulting pollution, as evidenced by Qaraoun Dam, which has become a lake of unmanageable stagnant water. The failure of the dams is merely the result of a political-economic history based on neoliberal thought that enshrines concessions for private interests in the water sector. The dam projects, including Bisri, become worthless as the context and circumstance change. Even without these changes, the scientific, health, economic, and environmental facts remain firm concerning Bisri Dam, and the dangers of constructing it still stand today. Hence, what’s most important at present is to protect Marj Bisri and defend it as a nature reserve that activists reclaimed during the October 17 Uprising.
Keywords: Lebanon, Dams, Acquired right, Water policy