Summary and Country Overview
The Republic of Lebanon is one of the smallest countries in the world, with a land area of just under 10,500km2. It is bordered by both Syria to the north and east, and Israel, to the south. Lebanon is split into four distinct geographic regions (Khalaf et al, 2022), one of these being the Bekaa valley region, which is the focus of this report. Figure 1 shows the other regions include the coastal plains, Lebanon mountain range, and Anti-Lebanon mountain range.
The coastal plains in the west consist of rocky beaches, outcroppings and sandy bays, are composed mainly of marine and fluvial sediments (Ghsoub et al, 2020), and 96% of this region has a moderate or higher vulnerability to future climate change issues (Ghoussein et al, 2018). The Lebanon mountain range runs NNE-SSW through the center of the country, parallel to the coastline, and its many springs that provide Lebanese drinking water are under threat from aquifer shrinkage as they are relied on more heavily (Shaban, 2020). The Anti-Lebanon mountain range runs parallel to the Lebanon mountains, on the eastern side of the country, creating a natural border with Syria, and it is considered critical for a variety of crop production and fresh water for over 60,000 people at its base in the Bekaa Valley (Arnold et al, 2015). More information on these regions can be found in Appendix A.
Figure 1: A map to show Lebanese rivers, Lake Qaraoun and major cities and towns in Lebanon. Physiographic regions are also named in light blue.
Source: Fanack & Farajalla, 2015, retrieved from: https://water.fanack.com/lebanon/maps-and-figures/
Lebanon has 17 perennial rivers within its borders, the estimated average annual discharge is 2,800 million cubic meters (MCM) combined. The central Lebanese mountain range is the source of the majority (i.e. 14) of Lebanon’s rivers, which flow west into the ocean. The other rivers include one source in the anti-Lebanon mountain range, which flows south as a tributary to the Jordan River, and two sources in the Lebanese hinterlands, flowing through the Bekaa Valley (Fanack & Farajalla, 2015).
Three of Lebanon’s rivers flow across country boundaries. The Al-Assi river, also known as the Orontes, and the El Kebir river are shared with Syria, and the Hasbani river is shared with Israel. An agreement made with Syria in 1994 states that Lebanon will receive the lesser of 20% or 80 MCM of the 400 MCM river, and no new wells are to be drilled in the Orontes basin (M.O.W.R, 1994). The Hasbani river flows south into Israel. While no treaties for river usage exist, Israel reportedly threatened war when part of the river was diverted to a Lebanese village (Sengupta, 2002).
An analysis was done in 2010 as part of Lebanon’s 2012 National Water Strategy, which estimated that 1,589 MCM of the 2,800 MCM was captured yearly, meaning 43% of the available discharge was not captured for human use. Root issues for water loss included unforgiving terrain, the steep mountains of Lebanon and soft rock makes for higher energy flow, and implementation of water control establishments from 2000 was still underway. About 40% of the capture was through groundwater, ~40% through rivers and ~20% through dams. The demand for water in 2010 was calculated to be between 1,473 and 1,530 MCM; 10% was dedicated to industry, 30-35% was used for domestic water and the remaining 55-60% was for agriculture (UNESCWA, 2012). The amount captured has decreased significantly over the last decade. Due to infrastructure, governance and management issues, about 75% of this discharge is currently untapped (as of 2021) for human use as it drains into the Mediterranean sea (Shaban, 2021).
Geography and agriculture
The Bekaa Valley region encompases more than 4,400 km2 (Sacca, 2020), with the valley the region is named after being 180 km (112 mi) long and 10 to 26 km (6 to 16 mi) wide, around 900 km2 (Lateef, 2007). The region is a part of the Great Valley Rift System (GVRS), and sits between the central Lebanese mountain range and its anticline in the east. The GVRS is a divergent tectonic boundary that stretches from Mozambique to the Middle East, and it is geologically active, with respect to volcanoes and earthquakes (Razvalyayev, 1972). The most frequent geohazards experienced in the area are landslides, sometimes spanning multiple kilometers in length, and this is due to the steep mountain sides and relatively soft rock and soil, with shifting shear stress levels and a lack of vegetation (Nini, 2015).
The soils in the Bekaa Valley differ from most other soils in Lebanon, as the valley floor and river networks provide a fertile environment for crop growth. Elsewhere, soil is characterized as fragile, shallow and with poor nutritional consistency (Arnold et al, 2015). A prime example is the expansive history of Lebanese wine, most of which is produced in the Bekaa valley, 70% of it specifically at Chateau Ksara. Roots of Lebanese wine can be traced back to 7,000 years ago, a significant portion of which is dominated by Phonecian influence, for around 3,000 years. Modern wineries were born in 1857 when Jesuit Christians brought over French vines to kickstart the industry, and most Lebanese wine still holds strong French influence (Pickard, 2021). Chateau Musar is known globally today as a top tier producer of Lebanese wine.
The Bekaa Valley supports the 145 km long (90 mi) Litani river, the longest river in Lebanon, also known as the Leontes. The Litani rises in the Bekaa Valley to the east of Zahle, flowing south and then westward around the mountains, it contributes to the Mediterranean Sea north of Tyre, a city in southern Lebanon (Shaban, 2018). With a width of 16km (10 mi), the Litani has an area of 2,110 km2. The other river in the Bekaa is the 51 km (32 mi) long Al-Assi river, at 31km (19 mi) wide, the area of this river is 1,930 km2 (Shaban, 2021), and it flows north and north-east from outside the Laboueh village towards the Syrian border. Totaling over 4,000 km2 of flowing water, these two rivers are greater in volume than the other 15 rivers in Lebanon combined.
There is only one lake in Lebanon, and it is human-made. Due to steep mountain inclines and relatively soft rock material, many of the country’s rivers cut through the land without expending enough energy to deposit large amounts of sediment (Beydoun, 1977). Lake Qaraoun, also known as Karaoun Reservoir, was constructed in 1965, 86 km upstream from the Litani-Mediterranean river mouth. With a surface area of over 12 km2, it holds approximately 230 km3 of water, and is the most significant water storage site in the country (Yazbek et al. 2019). Located in the southern region of the Bekaa Valley, this multipurpose reservoir is used to generate over 600 GWh via hydro-electric power, some of which is diverted to providing the Kassmieh irrigation project with fresh water during the dry season (Brooks, 2000). Over the course of a year, just over 180 km3 of the 230 km3 are used for irrigation, hydro-electric power generation and industry, providing water to 390 km2 of farmland (Yazbek et al. 2019).
The Litani river and Lake Qaraoun are home to over 250 species of birds, a lot of which can be found in the Ammiq Wetland of the Bekaa, the largest freshwater wetland in Lebanon. In 2005, UNESCO helped designate about 5% of Lebanon’s total landmass (over 500 km2) on the western slopes of the Bekaa Valley as the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, making it the largest natural reserve in Lebanon (UNESCO, SBR, 2005). This area also hosts 32 kinds of wild mammals and over 500 species of plants. Lake Qaraoun itself has been seen to host over 20,000 birds.
Drinking water network connection in the Bekaa Valley is rated at 62%, though this excludes unregistered refugee camps. Most others draw water from wells, pulling from the groundwater provided by the Litani and Orontes rivers as well as rainfall from the valley sides (Fanack & Farajalla, 2015).
Governance and politics
The Bekaa governorate comprises three major regions in the valley: Rashaya in the far south, West Bekaa in the south-west and west, and Zahle, the northern third. Together, this governing body presides over 87 municipalities. Areas in the region that are outside of the Bekaa governorate’s jurisdiction are governed by the Baalbek/Hermel governorate, which comprise two major districts: the Baalbek and Hermel, which preside over 74 municipalities (Sacca, 2020).
In the Bekaa valley, under the Bekaa governorate, religious diversity is split between Christianity, Islam (both Shi’ite and Sunni) and Druze. Under the Baalbek governorate, Shi’ite is the dominant religion with pockets of Sunni muslims and Maronite Christians (OCHA, 2016). Lebanon has had a tumultuous religious history due to its youth and foreign influence over the past few millennia (Wessels, 1985). Lebanese-origin religions exist in places throughout the world due to its considerable diaspora and also its location in the Middle East which positions the country well for trade and cultural exchange (Khalaf et al. 2022).
Currently, Lebanon is hosting the most refugees across the globe, the majority of which are escaping from the Syrian civil war. It is estimated that 1.5 million refugees are seeking asylum in Lebanon, most of them spread across thousands of informal camps in the Bekaa Valley, totalling almost 30,000 unregistered tents (Kassem, 2020. LCRP, 2022). The resident population of Lebanon is only 6 million people, and thus, the added refugee population is a stressor, overwhelming local sanitation, water access, food and energy facilities (Jaafar, 2020).
Potential and existing disruptions to regional water security
In comparison to other countries in the Middle East, Lebanon has bountiful fresh water resources, but the country experiences water and scarcity issues, regardless. The United Nations thresholds of water stress and scarcity are: a country with less than 1,700 m3 per capita is under water stress, a country with less than 1,000 m3 per capita has water scarcity, and a country with less than 500 m3 per capita is experiencing absolute scarcity (UNDESA, 2014). Lebanon has exceeded the threshold for the most severe level of water scarcity.
Reasons for Lebanon’s water stress include significant deficiencies in its water transport, capture infrastructure, and sanitation (Daher et al. 2022). Lebanon’s water stress issues are perpetuated/exacerbated by the dire state of governmental economic health, structure and influence. On 17th October 2019, a mass civil demonstration protesting increasing taxes on necessities quickly expanded into a nationwide condemnation of the government, this is now known as the 17th October Revolution (Rakickaja, 2020). The revolution was the inciting incident of the financial crisis now being faced in Lebanon, which greatly affects water, energy and food production and access.
Water management and storage
Water management for the Bekaa Valley is centered on the regional water establishment office in Zahle, established in 2000 by the Lebanon Water Law, which is ostensibly responsible for irrigation and wastewater management (FAO, 2000). The water office is experiencing serious understaffing issues thanks to the hiring freeze imposed by the government during the current economic and political crisis, and with little funding, there are many issues left unsolved. For example, it is estimated that 50% of the potable water that passes through infrastructure maintained by this office is lost due to damage and lack of maintenance (Balsom, 2021).
The official domestic water usage estimate per person, per day in Lebanon is around 180L, which translates to 0.18 m3 per capita per day, and around 65.7 m3 per capita per year (Jaafar et al. 2020). Due to a lack of federal water access, civilians have taken to digging and maintaining unlicensed wells, drawing around 176 MCM/yr of unfiltered groundwater to store in gallon jugs, bottles and tankers (Khalaf et al. 2022). During the dry season, Lebanon’s water storage is relied upon heavily to continue providing for irrigation, potable water and industry; however, storage strategies in Lebanon are limited to Lake Qaraoun and various springs distributed throughout the country. In the Bekaa Valley, water supply peaks during the winter, but demand peaks during the summer, especially for agricultural use; this mismatch and lack of storage presents water rationing as the only viable solution for maintaining water access (Daher et al. 2022).
Waste and Wastewater
Water available for domestic and agricultural use in the Bekaa Valley is some of the cleanest in the country. However, about a quarter of the regional populations avoids using communal water sources due to pollution from insufficient sanitation services, unpleasant taste, and a lack of water treatment systems (Kassem, 2020). Privatization of sanitation facilities that are operating over-capacity has left the country with few options for addressing sanitation issues.
Landfills reaching 16 meters in height (as of 2020) produce highly unpleasant odours that impact miles of residential space, while leaking an estimated 120,000 tonnes of hazardous materials into water sources that eventually drain into the Mediterranean (Lewis, 2020). Garbage piles up on streets while waiting for available transportation and space in landfills, which contributes to metal and nutrient pollutants in freshwater systems and Lake Qaraoun. Such pollution spurs rapid growth and blooms of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) in the lake, which is toxic and potentially lethal to wildlife, livestock, pets and humans through ingestion. The issue also occurs elsewhere, as sewage and wastewater is dumped into the Litani River (the lake’s main input).
Freshwater systems in Lebanon are highly vulnerable to a variety of different types of uncontrolled waste discharge, examples including runoff from hospitals, paper mills, sugar beet factories, motor oil and pesticides (Karam et al. 2013. Yazbek et al. 2019). According to a 1998 study by the National Council of Scientific Research of Lebanon (1998) prepared for UNICEF, estimated that 60–70% percent of all natural sources were affected by bacterial contamination, and such issues persist today. In the Bekaa Valley, only 11% of wastewater is treated (according to 2018 figures), while 86% of usable water was devoted to agricultural purposes, threatening food security by potentially polluting agricultural land and crops (El Amine et al. 2018).
Food and agriculture
Agriculture takes priority when it comes to water, as irrigation is required to support the cultivation of domestic foods and export crops. Two of the country’s largest foreign grain suppliers are Ukraine and Russia, and the current conflict in Europe has reduced the amount of grain imports available to Lebanon, further increasing stress on agricultural activities in the Bekaa Valley (HRW, 2022). The Valley is the bread basket of Lebanon; however, averaging a water scarcity of 30-40% has forced farmers to try new methods and explore new crop types to maintain operations and ensure economically-viable yields. An increase in fertilizer and pesticides to increase yield and protect crops has increased heavy metal pollution in soils, affecting 10-15% of crop production. Many farmers also opt for crops better adapted to dryer conditions, which carry seed and startup costs and increase farmers’ seed and material expenses by up to 100% (Shaban, 2019).
Approximately 89% of households in the Bekaa Valley are considered to be mild to moderately food insecure, with only 7.5% of households were ranked secure according to Household Food Insecurity Access Scale (HFIAS) scores (Al Dirani et al. 2021). Such food insecurity is expected to increase due to significant agricultural vulnerability to climate change in the region. During the dry season, temperatures in the Bekaa Valley can exceed 35℃. Typically, the high temperature evaporates what little rainfall there is in the valley, as the high mountain ridges block cooling air vapor from the coast, causing the valley to bake (Karam, 2002). This heat tunnel effect forces increased draw from irrigation reservoirs, requiring a substantial amount of yearly water as noted above at 86%.
Current initiatives and efforts
Global Relief Efforts
- UNICEF provided humanitarian aid after the 2020 port explosion in Beirut, extending into 2021, they have helped provide US$464,000 worth of supplies such as; water tanks, building repairs, hygiene kits, baby kits, personal protection equipment and more. Critical humanitarian aid also includes temporary housing and sanitation facilities, as well as water infrastructure repairs. Furthermore, they have been helping maintain and fund the four water establishment offices based throughout Lebanon.
- The World Bank stepped in after the Beirut port explosion for a Rapid Damage and Needs (RDNA) assessment, establishing a recovery strategy in the Lebanon Reform, Recovery and Reconstruction Framework (3RF). The Lebanon Financing Facility (LFF) is a multi-donor trust fund, created shortly after to help channel financial aid into Lebanon.
- The Lebanon Crisis Response Plan was set in place in 2011 to help protect and provide for Syrian and Palestinian refugees seeking asylum in Lebanon. Now in 2022, the plan continues to grow and expand, aiming to support all 1.5 million refugees living across Lebanon with foreign aid funding. The hope is that with increased welfare packages, taxation on natural resources will be lessened, providing relief for other issues in the country.
The Kassmieh irrigation project is an experiment on the western shores of Lebanon to test ground fertility by the ocean, an area normally foregone in water designations (Amery, 2000).
Imperatives for the Bekaa Valley region and (broadly) Lebanon include improving availability and accessibility of clean water for drinking and irrigation. In addition, effective watershed management is needed to improve the health of freshwater systems and the ecosystems services they support. To this end, Lebanon has a series of future plans and priorities:
Expansion of Lake Qaraoun to an upper reservoir based in the mountains. This second reservoir is relied upon to be a battery for supplementation of resources to the water-energy-food nexus of Lebanon during the dry season. The purpose of the second reservoir’s altitude is to provide a low demand water flow during the dry season, but requiring higher input during the wet season with diversion of water from the original reservoir (Geadah, 2009).
The Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) has formulated an agricultural improvement plan to irrigate an additional 36,000-50,000 hectares of farmland in south Bekaa and southern Lebanon over the next 30 years. The main source of irrigation water will be Lake Qaraoun via a new canal proposed for the project.
The National Water Sector Strategy was designed to update the 2012 Water and Wastewater strategy in 5 new volumes. Creation of this update required;
- Definition of requirements and goals with context to advancing issues.
- Analysis of the current water infrastructure and institutional framework.
- Analysis of the water economy and water tariffs.
- Inventory of water and wastewater resources and review of management strategies.
- Tallying of water demand, water balance and available capacity of infrastructure.
- Proposition of projects with cost estimates to solve all issues based on priority.
The purpose of this update was to provide a roadmap for more consistent water infrastructure and institutions, as well as goals for future water quality and access.
Desalination is not currently a widespread potable water acquisition method in Lebanon, though it has shown great success to the south in Israel, providing 20% of the country’s households with drinking water (Talbot, 2015). However, the microplastic presence in local seafood shows concerns for desalination efficiency.
Appendix A. Regions of Lebanon (excluding the Bekaa Valley)
Coastal plains – The coastal plains in the west, alternating between rocky beaches, outcroppings and sandy bays, are composed mainly of marine and fluvial sediments (Ghsoub et al, 2020). The coastal region stretches intermittently from the north, where it forms the Akkar plain, to the southern border at Ras al-Naqoura. 96% of this coastal region has a moderate or higher vulnerability to future climate change issues (Ghoussein et al, 2018), and an investigation into ocean microplastic content showed that two culturally important seafood species, the European Anchovy and the Spiny Oyster, were shown to have high levels of microplastic pollution (Kazour et al, 2019).
The Lebanon mountain range – This region runs NNE-SSW through the center of the country, parallel to the coastline. The mountains in Lebanon are composed mainly of sandstone and limestone, owing to its varied width, from 10km (6 mi) to 56km (35 mi) and height, from 3,088 meters (10,131 ft) at the Qurnat as Sawda’ peak and 2,695 meters (8,842 ft) at the Mount Sannine peak (Beydoun, 1977). Many of the springs that provide a portion of Lebanese drinking water are under threat from aquifer shrinkage as they are relied on more heavily (Shaban, 2020), and the central Lebanese mountain range is a significant portion of the watershed that helps to replenish groundwater reserves, especially with snowmelt water (Fayad, 2020. ElGhawi et al, 2021). This mountain range is also home to the culturally significant Cedars of God, a hardy old growth cedar reserve. They are the national emblem of the country, and are preserved in scattered groves across the mountains (Sattout, 2008). Once extensive in its coverage, deforestation has reduced cedar mass significantly, and wildfire threatens the final 17km2 that rest in preserves (Barnard, 2018).
The Anti-Lebanon mountain range – This region runs parallel to the Lebanon mountains, on the eastern side of the country, creating a natural border with Syria. Their highest peak is in Mount Hermon at 2,814 meters (9,232 ft), and this mountain range is considered critical for a variety of crop production and fresh water for over 60,000 people at its base in the Bekaa Valley (Arnold et al, 2015).