New dam in Lebanon to be built in an earthquake zone

Government and the World Bank say the Bisri dam is desperately needed to address water shortages afflicting greater Beirut’s 1.6 million inhabitants, but residents insist it won't be safe.

The Bisri Valley in Lebanon, where the Lebanese government plans to build a dam to supply Beirut with much-needed water. But the location is on a seismic fault line. Joseph Eid / AFP
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BISRI, LEBANON // It may be vital to tackle chronic water shortages but the dam which the Lebanese government plans to build in a valley near Beirut is also on a seismic fault line. And this makes the local population very anxious.

“How can you build a dam in an earthquake zone? We don’t even have houses that are earthquake-proof,” said Amer Meshmushi, who lives in the Bisri Valley, 35 kilometres south of Beirut.

Now 50, he remembers his parents talking about the last major earthquake on the Roum fault, in 1956, which killed 135 people and damaged thousands of houses including his family home in Basaba village. His brother, an infant at the time, had to be dragged from the rubble.

Lebanon’s government and the World Bank say the Bisri dam is desperately needed to address water shortages afflicting greater Beirut’s 1.6 million inhabitants. They insist the structure will be safe and say measures will be taken to mitigate seismic risks.

But local activists are unconvinced. “When we look at the region’s history and geography, we see that all of its valleys are the result of the fact that it is a seismic zone,” said Raja Noujaim, head of the Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage. Other activists say the dam structure and its reservoir would put pressure on the fault line and increase seismic activity, earthquake could cause the dam to burst.

The World Bank and Lebanon’s Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), a government agency that supervises major infrastructure projects, identified the valley as a prime location for a dam thanks to its abundant water, wide basin and proximity to Beirut.

In a report, the World Bank said a panel of four “internationally recognised experts” recruited by the CDR had reviewed safety studies, concluding that the dam’s design was “consistent with international best practice”.

Tests showed the dam had “a resistance to shocks above the one provoked by the 1956 earthquake,” which measured six on the Richter scale. The earthquakes that devastated central Italy last year were of similar strength.

Eli Mussali, the CDR engineer overseeing the project, said the dam could “withstand earthquakes up to eight on the Richter scale, which is a very high degree.”

He also downplayed the possibility of the structure provoking seismic activity, saying there was no evidence for such a phenomenon, and pointed out that the country’s largest dam, in the eastern region of Qaraoun, sits on top of the major Yammouneh fault line.

“It is geologically normal for faults to run between mountains, where rivers run and dams are built,” he said.

At present, Lebanon stores just six per cent of its water in reservoirs. Many people rely on illegally drilled wells that are increasingly over-exploited and produce water of dubious quality.

Construction of the Bisri dam is expected to begin later this year with a $617-million (Dh2.3 billion) price tag, mostly covered by a World Bank loan.

It will take nine years to finish and will be the country’s second-largest dam, with a capacity of 125 million cubic metres in a reservoir covering 450 hectares.

The facility will swallow up land belonging to 15 villages, including Mr Meshmushi’s fields.

“Does it serve Beirut’s interests to wipe out farmers?” he asked. “These lands are the source of our livelihoods. They allowed me and my brother to get an education.”

The Bisri Valley is covered in a patchwork of farms growing everything from lemons and pine trees to strawberries and pomegranates, mostly tended by seasonally hired Lebanese labourers and Syrian refugees.

The CDR plan includes a fund to compensate owners of the 869 plots of land that will be expropriated, but it remains unclear if the farmers will also be compensated for the loss of their jobs.

Fifty-year-old Abu Salem has cultivated beans in the village of Marj Bisri for 25 years. “I’m a farmer, not a civil servant. I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said. ”I taught my children how to farm. If we leave here, where will we go?”

Locals also fear archaeological sites will disappear under the water. They include the Mar Musa church in Marj Bisri, a tiny stone edifice locals say is hundreds of years old and has become a shrine for residents of all faiths. Authorities proposed to dismantle the church and rebuild it elsewhere, but villagers rejected the offer.

Further downstream are five columns, four of them standing, that are believed to date back to Roman times and could indicate the existence of a larger archaeological site. That area will one day be at the bottom of the reservoir.

The CDR’s Mussali said there are plans for the Antiquities Department to excavate the site and decide if it is worth saving. But residents say the dam project should be scrapped entirely.

“We shouldn’t be thinking about building anything in the area, whether a dam or anything else,” said Noujaim. “It’s dangerous. This project mustn’t be done.”

* Agence France-Presse