Last Tuesday, after, wait for it, less than two hours of rain, thousands of Beirut commuters heading to the airport and all stops to the south, found themselves caught in flooding usually reserved for monsoon-drenched Asian countries.
As the water rose, in some cases halfway up car windows, so did impatience with the authorities – there were calls for the minister of public works, Ghazi Aridi, to resign. He had plenty of time to unblock the drains before the annual winter rains but didn’t.
The issue of our shameful water mismanagement could not have come at a better time for the Civic Influence Hub, a non-partisan group that wants to change and develop “economic and social policies through civic influence … under the rule of law and institutions”.
Today it will unveil its Blue Gold for Lebanon initiative, which seeks to create a privatised water company as well as lobby for new legislation to properly husband our considerable water resources. If its plan is adopted, it promises Lebanon can have a 500 million m3 surplus by 2020, rising to 1 billion m3 surplus by 2030.
To achieve this, Blue Gold wants to establish The Water Council of Lebanon, an “apolitical [body that] will ensure good governance of the water sector and will be responsible for the successful implementation of defined strategies”.
Pearls before swine? Probably. In the 22 years since the civil war the Lebanese have had plenty of time to address our shocking electricity situation, an arguably more important priority, and yet, to all intents and purposes, we have so far achieved zilch.
There is still nowhere in the country that receives 24-hour power. Central Beirut gets 21, but one only has to step an inch or two outside Zone 1 and this is reduced to between 12 and 16 hours.
Water is our next biggest concern and despite the fact that rain can bring the whole country to a standstill, nearly drowning hapless commuters, we have woefully little to go around. What makes me sceptical that Blue Gold for Lebanon will get off the ground is that there have been other water initiatives, presented in periods of greater stability, that have since been filed away.
“I wrote one for the ministry of water resources in 2005,” says Nicolas Photiades, an investment banker. “Did you know that Beirut gets more rain in the winter months than Manchester gets all year round and that does not even take into consideration the significant volume of melting snow in the spring, much of which currently runs into the Mediterranean”.
Most Lebanese are painfully aware of this. Before last week’s farce, my street was blocked with water lorries brought in to make up the shortfall, while every year I have to order at least an extra 50,000 litres for my house in the mountains. Now that the population has increased by a mind-blowing 45 per cent in two years, there is even less to go around.
As well as ensuring all households and industrial sectors are supplied with non-stop drinking water, Mr Photiades’ report proposed selling any surplus to neighbouring countries and building dams to generate energy for Lebanon and for the rest of the Levant region. It would, it was calculated, comfortably yield US$2 billion to $3bn a year to the state, as well as creating jobs and having a positive knock-on effect on the rest of the economy.
To do all this, the report recommended that the government award water concessions for a minimum of 25 years to “experienced multinational firms”, a common arrangement in countries such as the Philippines, Australia, Argentina and even the US, with ownership remaining in state hands and net profits going entirely into the state’s coffers.
Speaking in Beirut on Sunday I asked Mr Photiades why his recommendations went unheeded. “The then minister, who was pro markets and privatisation, was replaced by one who wasn’t. Since 2005 and the interim government of Najib Mikati, which was actually quite promising given the short time it was in office, it’s all gone sour.”
In the meantime, we have been told to expect a severe winter.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut