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    Lebanon’s Water Threatened by Climate Change

    While driving through Beirut on one of the city’s rainy days, it may seem Lebanon has too much water for its own good. Run-off water flows rapidly down curved hillsides, cars and trucks are forced to drive at a snail’s pace on the already-congested streets, and daring meanderers replace their heels with rain boots. But if Lebanon and the world don’t act quickly, the sight of seemingly too much water could become a fond memory.

    “If we keep managing our water resources as we are doing right now, forget climate change,” Nadim Farajalla, associate professor of Hydrology and Water Resources at the American University of Beirut, said. “By 2020 or even 2025 at the latest, available water will not be sufficient for us.”

    And if water availability is severely threatened, Lebanon’s population, economy and security situation will all face the repercussions.

    In addition to mismanagement, Farajalla attributes the looming danger of insufficient amounts of water to a variety of factors that range from wasteful water use to illegal pumping of the country’s rivers, uncontrolled drilling of wells and even pollution. “What’s happening is water quality always affects quantity,” he said. “We are polluting some of the water resources that we have, and what’s happening in return is people are unable to use the water.”

    Decreased amounts of usable water combined with Lebanon’s projected 0.7% annual population growth, according to a recent study conducted by Saint Joseph University in Lebanon, will put increased demand on sources that just aren’t available. Add climate change to the mix, and the result creates a cocktail of concern. “Scientific models show that climate change will reduce water resources in the Middle East,” said Wael Hmaidon, executive director of environmental NGO IndyAct. “If we do not do anything to stop climate change very fast, there will not be enough water in Lebanon and the region to satisfy basic needs.”

    From now until around 2080, global temperatures are expected to increase between 1 and 4 degrees Celsius, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization that assesses scientific, technical and socio-economic issues related to human-induced global warming. If this occurs, Lebanon is expected to see a 20% decrease in precipitation due in part to decreased amounts of snow in its mountain ranges, thus reducing the country’s water supply. This could also potentially put the country’s national symbol, the majestic cedar tree, at risk, Hmaidon said.

    And it isn’t just the cedar tree that faces risk. Increased demand for water affects aspects of life ranging from the economy to stability, to human survival itself. “[The impacts of climate change] on agriculture will affect about 130,000 people because they are going to lose productivity of their land,” Farajalla said. This could not only cause people to move to Lebanon’s major cities for jobs, but it is expected to contribute to the increased costs of food as demand rises, he said.

    Moreover, climate change will affect energy costs as the demand for home cooling increases with rising temperatures. More water will also need to be pumped more frequently, and costs of fuel will rise. “It’s going to create chaos,” Farajalla said.

    It is clear, Hmaidon said, that the Lebanese government needs to step up and start managing the country’s water resources better, noting that the consequences of not doing so will not only impact the economy, but also the security situation.

    Three of Lebanon’s rivers could become sources of foreign political contention, Farajalla said, potentially affecting stability in the region.

    The Hasbani River, which makes up four kilometers of the Lebanese-Israeli border, has already proved to be a point of political contention with Lebanon’s southern neighbor, displayed most recently last week by President Michel Sleiman’s condemnation of Israel for its attempts to steal Lebanese water. There’s also the Assi-Orontes River, which rises near Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley and flows through Syria and Turkey, as well as the Nahr al-Kabir River, located at the northern end of the Lebanese-Syrian border – both of which could be the subject of water wars should resources become scarce.

    And Lebanon isn’t the only country in the Middle East at risk for increasing political tension due to dwindling water resources. If climate change progresses as anticipated, water shortage, drought and desertification could turn into severe threats for other parts of the driest region in the world. According to a 2009 report released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Yemen is “facing a water crisis.” The country has fewer than 200 cubic meters of water per person per year, compared with the worldwide average of 7,000 cubic meters per person per year, according to a report released by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

    The once-fertile Mesopotamia also continues to suffer serious drought, as it hasn’t rained in Iraq for more than two years. In addition to agriculture struggles, half of the country’s major power turbines located on the Euphrates River were unable to operate due to low water levels several months ago, limiting the country’s electrical supply, the BBC reported in September.

    Even the former UN Secretary General Butros Butros Ghali famously said “the next war in the Middle East will be fought not for oil but for water.”

    Water and conflict have been linked for centuries. Indeed, the English word ‘rivalry,’ derived from the Latin, ‘rivalis’, means “one who uses the same stream.” “Only if the world stops emissions from coal and oil fast will the region have a chance to save some of its water resources,” Hmaidon said – if not just for the population and economy, but to stem another conflict in a region already strapped by political strife.

    Sarah LYNCH & Daisy LEITCH
    NOW Lebanon

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