Abundance and scarcity in a fragile balance impacting agriculture and communities.
“There was a river,
And it has two banks,
A heavenly mother nursed it from dripping clouds,
It was a small river running slowly,
Descending from the top of the mountains,
It visits villages and tents as a kind, light guest,
It gets oleander and palm trees to the valley.
It laughs at those who spend the night at his banks:
‘Drink the milk of the clouds,
And water the horses,
And fly to Jerusalem and the Levant.”
These are the first lines of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “A river dies of thirst”, describing a river running slowly from the top of the mountains down to the valleys. In the poem, the poet alludes to the country’s many rivers and lakes, which run along the mountains’ slopes to the Mediterranean Sea. Contrary to many countries in the region, Lebanon has abundant water sources.
Still, Darwish’s poem also alludes to another picture that contrasts the above-mentioned water-abundant geographical diversity: Despite the abundance of water resources, water scarcity has increasingly become a reality in Lebanon, threatening industry, as well as households and nature.
This article is based on training sessions that AMWAJ’s member DIFAF, an environmental solutions provider in Beirut, conducted with farmers within the area of the Al-Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve on techniques of water preservation in agriculture.
“It was a river with two banks,
And a heavenly mother nursed it from dripping clouds,
But they kidnapped its mother,
And it was struck by the silence of the water,
And it died, slowly, of thirst.”
A River Dies of Thirst. Mahmoud Darwish
Water–abundance, scarcity and pollution
Frequent droughts with decreasing rain and snowfall, overexploitation of existing water resources, and severely polluted groundwater and rivers threaten water and food security in Lebanon.
The reasons for these challenges are diverse. The state has never invested in sustainable water management and 90 % of wastewater remains untreated and flows directly into the rivers and the Mediterranean Sea, and public water utilities are in urgent need of maintenance. Existing water resources are overexploited by industry, agriculture, and private consumers who also access water in illegal and damaging ways. Water demand is rising, and the water resources provided by public utilities increasingly do not meet these needs.
The country suffers from uncontrolled disposal of liquid and solid waste into surface and ground waters, especially industrial waste like organic chemicals, heavy metals, and waste oils/petroleum, as well as agricultural waste such as fertilizers and pesticides, which increasingly reach the groundwaters, causing long-lasting risks and damage to the environment and people’s health. Around 50 % of water resources in Lebanon are severely contaminated, while there is hardly any pure water source in the country.
These developments are severely exacerbated by the economic, financial, and political crisis that Lebanon has been going through since the end of 2019. Faced with one of the most severe economic crises in modern history, characterized by hyperinflation, a collapsing banking sector, a stagnant economy, an impoverished population, and dysfunctional state institutions, public services such as water and electricity have become scarce.
Before the crisis, public water supplies amounted to approximately 120 liters per person per day, while today is only about 35 liters. Most of the population currently faces water shortages, especially during the hot summer months. While those who can afford it compensate for this shortage by the purchase of water from private water companies, many people revert to illegal ways of accessing water.
Around 50% of water resources in Lebanon are severely contaminated, while there is hardly any pure water source in the country.
Moreover, reduced electricity supply in the last years has led to even more outage of water provision, and also to the shutdowns of wastewater treatment facilities, exacerbating the already high pollution of rivers through the disposal of untreated waste.
To add to this downward spiral, climate change has taken its toll on weather conditions in Lebanon. The Mediterranean region is a global warming hotspot, belonging to the most threatened areas in Europe, and is already warming 20 % faster than the global average.
The offender and the victim – water demand and water consumption in agriculture
Lebanon’s agricultural sector has faced severe challenges for decades, ranging from state neglect, informality, and little regulations, to limited access to agricultural inputs and markets.
In addition, environmental degradation and health hazards make the lives of farmers in Lebanon increasingly difficult with most of them struggling to make ends meet and keep their production up. Many are forced to take up a second job to secure an income and they often remain dependent on agricultural input suppliers and retailers who exploit their weak position in the value chain.
As a result, agricultural production has been shrinking even more in the last couple of years with farmers unable to afford fertilizers, pesticides, water, electricity, and transportation and to sell their yields in local or international markets.
The agricultural sector in Lebanon is the largest consumer of water in Lebanon using more than two-thirds of the total water demand in the country. On the one hand, the sector is responsible for the increasing water scarcity in the country and adding to its illegal exploitation and pollution, while on the other hand, it is mainly farmers who are increasingly suffering from the lack of water.
“There are various challenges,” explained Georges Gharios, from DIFAF, noting that “these water issues directly affect farmers in several ways. First, the unreliable water supply disrupts crop irrigation schedules, leading to decreased yields and even crop failures. Second, water scarcity forces farmers to prioritize certain crops over others, limiting crop diversity and economic opportunities. Third, the degradation of water quality affects plant health and increases the need for costly water treatment. Overall, Lebanon’s water problem places significant constraints on agricultural productivity and sustainability.”
Lebanon’s water problem places significant constraints on agricultural productivity and sustainability.
In the two past winters of 2020/21 and 2022/23, the country saw comparatively little rain and snowfall and the temperatures were rather high during the winter seasons, affecting crops that rely on rainfall such as olives, pine nuts, grapes, figs, apples, tobacco and cereals – which account for 70 % of total crop products in Lebanon.
Voices from the ground
Ghassan and Nabil are two farmers in Roum, a village in the South of Lebanon. Since there is no official water distribution system for agricultural use in many villages, including Roum, it is difficult to cultivate irrigated crops. Some farmers have dug wells next to their lands to collect rain or groundwater water and use it for irrigation. Others use the water supply designated for households to irrigate their crops.
Ghassan sees water scarcity and weather changes as one of the biggest challenges in the last few years. “We used to have a rich olive harvest every year and we could count on the amount we harvest to make oil, soap, and olives, for our yearly use and selling. Today, our land is slowly transforming into a desert,” he explained.
He also lamented that “there is not enough rain, hardly any snow. Winter starts late and then we have these scattered heavy storms in spring that destroy the harvest in its very beginning. In late summer, we have more and more heatwaves, so the land gets dry, and the trees need water that we do not have. This land was cultivated by my grandparents and soon my children will inherit it, but I feel the time of these crops in this region will be over very soon. It is no longer sustainable.”
Zahra, a farmer in Mresty, a village within the Al-Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve, cultivates apples, cherries, figs, and grapes on her land for 30 years. She attends the training on water preservation of DIFAF to learn to deal with water scarcity in the future.
“The main challenges related to water were in the summer of 2021. There had been little rainfall in the winter that year, and the municipality did not have fuel for the generators to pump the water to our households and fields. I could not gather enough rainwater and did not have access to the state’s water. This year things were better, because the nature reserve was supporting the municipality with fuel, so we got water more regularly,” she commented.
This land was cultivated by my grandparents and soon my children will inherit it, but I feel the time of these crops in this region will be over very soon. It is no longer sustainable.
For Nabil, in Roum, water scarcity has been less of a challenge than the irregular and heavy rainfall after periods of warm weather. He complained that “every time we had seeded our crops this spring, it rained suddenly and heavily, and the rain destroyed the emerging crops. So, we had to seed again. And then suddenly it becomes very hot, and half of my vegetables go bad from the heat. I used to sell quite a lot but this year it was hardly enough for myself and my family.”
The area with the highest concentration of agricultural production is the Bekaa Valley, next to the Syrian border, an area that accounts for many large-scale farmers that own rather sizeable farmland often connected with agrifood businesses focusing on export to the Gulf States.
Water demands for their crops are naturally high, and many farmers rely on groundwater supplies, however, groundwater depletion in Lebanon remains uncontrolled and unregulated. Moreover, pollution of surface water poses a big challenge in the Bekaa region.
Legality is just detail in Lebanon
Hassan, a farmer in Chmestar, a little town close to the Bekaa Valley, knows many farmers who are facing the problem of highly polluted water. He said that the problem is that “the polluted water leads to the degradation of the soil and the land, and in the end, the destruction of the agricultural products and the farmer loses his business.”
“This year”, he continued, “some farmers had potatoes that were all black from the inside as a result of the polluted water.”
For his own agricultural production, however, water pollution is not a big problem. He told AMWAJ that “we are on an altitude of 1200 meters and I inspect my water regularly. I access groundwater through wells I dig next to the land. All in all, I have land of 20 hectares, and I have built four wells to collect groundwater. I hardly ever face a problem with water.”
Asked about the legality of his four wells, he adds: “I have a permit from the Ministry of Energy for my wells of course, but now my neighbor got one as well and he built a well next to mine, so of course water became less. He also has a permit, God knows, how he got it. This is how things go here, nothing is 100 % legal but we always find a way around it, we have to.”
‘Finding a way around’ seems like a common strategy of many farmers in Lebanon when it comes to dealing with water scarcity. In the absence of any improved water management or government/financial support, farmers find creative ways to continue their agricultural production. While many of these ways indirectly support the sustainable management of water resources, such as the use of drip irrigation, the rotating of crops, or the collection of rainwater, others lead to the overexploitation of resources, the degradation of soil, and the pollution of the water.
The future of agriculture in Lebanon can only lie in a revival of sustainable agriculture ‘within a holistic approach that considers environmental, economic, and social aspects.’
The increasing water stress in combination with the economic crisis, making it more challenging for farmers to access expensive agricultural inputs, also leads to the rediscovery of water conservation practices of the past.
“These water conservation practices are unfortunately being forgotten by the Lebanese farmers. In the 1950s, when the introduction of diesel pumping disrupted all the agricultural practices, farmers started to disregard the ancestral methods in favor of modern pumping and irrigation,” Gharios explained.
He added that, “luckily, in some remote areas of the country, we are witnessing a revival of these techniques thanks to the oral history and memory of older generations of farmers. And here we are at the training, reminding them of these old techniques.”
For him, the future of agriculture in Lebanon can only lie in a revival of a sustainable agriculture “within a holistic approach that considers environmental, economic, and social aspects.” This includes, he sentenced, “improved water management, a promotion of agroecological practices, more research on agricultural practices, climate adaptation and water management, more policy interventions and financial support and increased collaboration and knowledge-sharing among farmers, scientists, policymakers and NGOs.”