'Like playing the lottery': Livelihoods of Lebanese farmers at risk due to water scarcity

In eastern Lebanon's Qab Elias, crops live and die by the availability of water from a mountain spring but experts say greater stability is possible

Walid Al Ahmid works his land in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon. Matt Kynaston / The National
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The Middle East and North Africa is one of the most water-scarce regions of the world. Already plagued by a lack of freshwater resources, it also faces climate change, population growth and poor management, which threaten to affect the lives of millions.

The National’s correspondents across the region spoke to the people most affected to understand the extent of the issue and where hope for change may lie.

For the vast majority of farmers in the Lebanese village of Qab Elias, every season is a gamble.

The only source of water they have to maintain their crops comes from the freshwater mountain spring that runs downstream into the village. It is a limited natural resource that effectively controls the quality and quantity of their harvest — and their livelihoods.

Such is the case for farmer and Qab Elias native Walid Al Ahmid, in his 50s. He has no choice but to irrigate his crops with the limited supply of spring water that the municipality, which regulates the spring run-off from the nearby mountain, provides once every nine days.

If it snows and rains enough, melting snow and rainfall will replenish groundwater reservoirs and contribute to the freshwater spring — meaning there may be enough water for a successful agricultural season.

“But we didn’t get the average rainfall this year. And last year there was even less water,” Mr Al Ahmid glumly told The National.

In normal years, by the time the July dry season comes around and groundwater becomes scarce due to high demand and a dry climate, water is allocated every 12 days instead of nine. And with below average snow and rainfall this year, Mr Al Ahmid dreads an even tougher summer than usual.

“Maybe water every 16 days,” he said worriedly.

“I don’t sleep at night. There are too many problems keeping me up."

His water scarcity issues, affected by climate change and high population demand, are further compounded by a financial crisis that has brought Lebanon to the edge of economic collapse.

With the Lebanese currency now worth a mere fraction of its previous value, Mr Al Ahmid must pay the upfront costs of his farm in dollars, while his profit comes in the unstable, fluctuating Lebanese pound. After paying $8,000 to rent his 40 dunams — or four hectares — of land, he has little remaining to purchase the supplies needed for maintaining his farm. These initial costs — fertiliser, pesticide, seeds, and diesel — are typically lent by suppliers, who Mr Al Ahmid must pay back with his profits.

But if a drought affects the bounty of his harvest, he will slide into debt.

“In July, the water comes less often. For example, if I had planted zucchini it would deteriorate without water,” he said.

Less water means a poorer yield, which in turn means less profit.

“Last year, I swear to God not a single lira went into my pocket. We planted and worked and harvested and planted and in the end we broke even,” he told The National. “All just to pay the debt and get people off my back.”

The costs of farming have mounted in large part due to farmers having to compensate for Lebanon's continuing collapse. For example, state electricity is a thing of the past: with its coffers depleted, the state can no longer afford to import fuel for electricity, causing most power plants to shut down.

The lack of electricity exacerbates Lebanon’s water shortage, causing farmers to depend on expensive generators to pump water for irrigation. Mr Al Ahmid fills his plastic-lined dugout pond once every nine days, when the municipality provides him with water. Then he uses a pump, powered by a diesel generator — expensive to maintain — to irrigate.

Mr Al Ahmid comes from generations of farmers. Although agriculture is what he knows and loves, he said he no longer finds the endeavour sustainable, due largely to water shortages.

Why is water so scarce for Lebanon’s farmers?

Lebanon is rich in water resources in comparison to the rest of the Middle East. And yet paradoxically, according to the World Resources Institute, it is the third-most water-stressed nation in the world.

Although Qab Elias — the Bekaa valley’s third-largest village — is one of the most water-threatened areas in the valley, farmers all over Lebanon face mounting threats to their livelihoods.

Even before its economic crisis and despite its relative water abundance, Lebanon suffered for decades from water shortages caused by bad water management, climate change, pollution and population growth, all of which have contributed to scarcity in the country.

Residents have had to adapt to water cuts in homes, especially in the hot summer months, frequently affecting their capacity to cook or wash. Hospitals and schools throughout the country also have limited water supply.

To compensate for the scarcity, many households rely on water delivery services as an additional expense. Such is the case with agriculture, as well, with farmers dependent on expensive deliveries by lorry when public water or ground resources are too low.

However, Mr Al Ahmid says he can’t afford the cost of water being delivered to his farm whenever the mountain spring is depleted.

The paradox of abundant rainfall and a water shortage

Nadim Farajallah, head of the Climate Change and Environment Program at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, explains part of the problem. “We have a relative abundance of rain, which is not stored properly during the rainy season for use in summer. We lose most of what we get because we don't have any substantial storage facility in Lebanon."

According to Mr Farajallah, about 60 per cent of Lebanon’s water goes to agriculture — the third-most productive sector in the country. Yet the economically and environmentally stressed nation is hardly able to support the sector. Farmers in Lebanon are completely unsubsidised, left to fend for themselves or reliant on NGO support, so they incur the cost of the state’s failures.

Global warming has led to less rain and snow, leading to reduced replenishment of groundwater resources, said Mr Farajallah, and the lack of substantial water storage facilities prevent the safeguarding of what groundwater there is.

The onus is on farmers to conserve as much as possible by changing their irrigation methods, he said, which is nearly impossible given the high cost of installing drip irrigation systems and lack of government support.

Farmers such as Mr Al Ahmid, who can afford little more than to rent land and buy supplies, cannot install costly albeit water-saving irrigation methods.

Turning to crops that need less water

This year, Mr Al Ahmid wanted to grow wheat, which requires less water and is in high demand due to the global wheat shortage caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“At least we can sell wheat in dollars,” he told The National — thus ensuring profit.

Many farmers in Qab Elias and the surrounding areas, forced to adapt to the water scarcity, have either switched to planting wheat or plan to do so.

But Mr Al Ahmid couldn’t this year.

“The seeds are expensive,” he said. “After I paid rent and bought supplies, I didn’t have any money left over to buy the seeds this year. By the time I had enough money, the wheat-planting window had passed.”

“Next year,” he grumbled. But with the water shortages foreshadowing a poor harvest and little to no profit, he seemed doubtful.

Nizar Al Khatib, a 51-year-old Syrian who came to Lebanon more than a decade ago, manages 30 dunams for a well-to-do landowner.

The farm, also in Qab Elias, is one of the few with a licensed well, which under normal circumstances would make the water shortage more manageable.

But with state electricity nearly non-existent — “one hour every other day or so”, according to Mr Al Khatib — they rely almost entirely on a diesel generator to pump water out of the well and into the irrigation system.

The generator runs for a maximum of eight hours a day, costing an average of $20 per week in diesel.

It frequently breaks down due to its long hours of operation. In addition to the cost of diesel, it requires regular maintenance and upkeep. And in summer, Mr Al Khatib installs small fans to keep the motor cool. All in all, the cost of generating electricity to pump water adds another $300 a month to the upkeep of the farm.

“We’re actually supposed to pump water for 12 hours a day,” said Mr Al Khatib. “But the generator can’t handle working for so long. So we have to cut the hours back.”

To make up for the limited hours that pumping is possible, the landowner has installed drip irrigation, which regulates the amount of water used by allowing it to slowly soak into the soil throughout the day.

This season, for the first time, he has traded some of his more water-dependent vegetables, such cucumbers and tomatoes, for wheat.

"There wasn’t enough rain this winter, so the wheat didn’t get enough water,” Mr Al Khatib explained. “So we need to pump water even for that, although it doesn’t even need that much.”

Seeking sustainable energy sources

Houssam Kazoun, a member of the family that owns the land Mr Al Khatib manages, said he was studying the idea of switching the farm to solar energy.

“It would save us so much money.”

Still, he admitted, his financial situation allows him to consider such alternatives.

“If we didn’t have a well, like so many other farmers here, our situation would be much worse. Even us, we’re living day-by-day. We’ve had to adapt.”

Adapting to weather changes, water shortages and new technology is part of any farmer’s job.

According to Mr Farajallah of the Issam Fares Institute, “education of farmers is very critical to changing irrigation and agricultural practices”.

But without electricity, government subsidies, or the financial ability to switch irrigation techniques or grow water-resistant crops, farmers are playing a losing game.

“It’s like playing the lottery,” said Mr Al Ahmid, who relies only on the mountain spring for his water. “Either we win or we lose. And right now, we’re losing.”

More from our water scarcity series:

Updated: May 02, 2023, 1:49 PM