A success story for environmental activism in Lebanon

One of the few peaceful getaway spots close to Beirut, Bisri is a village in South Lebanon defined by picturesque fields and waterfalls, historic Roman ruins and churches dating back centuries. But recently it gained international attention for another reason – after the Lebanese Government decided to go ahead with the building of the controversial Bisri Dam.

Curious to know more about the controversy, I joined a group of activists on a long hiking trip through the Bisri Valley. “nehna sadd b wejj l sadd”, which translates to “we are the barrier against the dam”, chanted activists as we passed through. Their voice was in parallel with protests organized by Lebanese ex-pats all over the world, including in front of the World Bank in various European cities after it had agreed to lend the Lebanese Government $474 million to build the dam.

My friend and I during the hiking trip to the Bisri Valley. Photo: Rayan Kassem

The Bisri Dam project was part of the infamous National Water Sector Strategy endorsed in 2012 by the Council of Ministers and developed by the then Minister of Water and Energy, Gebran Bassil, with the plan to build 42 dams across Lebanon. The Lebanese government and the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), which was in charge of implementing the project, argued that the project is the most optimal solution to water shortages in the Greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon (GBML) area. Nevertheless, opponents of the Bisri Dam insist that this is another way for the government and ruling class to financially benefit from illegal deals, while carelessly increasing Lebanon’s public debt. Furthermore the contractor in charge of executing the dam has been linked to Minister Bassil and has worked on other projects that have infuriated environmental experts across the country. The Bisri dam is not only an environmental emergency but the story of giving people false hope to hide corruption – something not new to Lebanese citizens.

Leading the fight

Efforts to stop the construction of the dam were mainly led by The National Campaign to Protect the Bisri Valley, which organized protests, petitions, social media campaigns, and hundreds of media interviews to mobilize the public against the dam. The campaign also called upon the international community to act and filled all media outlets with facts contradicting the arguments used by the dam’s supporters. For instance, the World Bank’s website states that the team working on the Bisri Dam project had developed an Environmental Impact Assessment study (which had expired in 2016), an Emergency Preparedness Plan, and Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) to ensure that the dam’s negative impacts are mitigated and any potential threat, such as an earthquake, is properly dealt with. However, since the Lebanese government has had its fair share of corruption scandals and no other dam project in Lebanon has appropriately considered environmental mitigation measures after its execution, people were not convinced. Some activists even risked their lives and were physically attacked by the dam’s supporters. They were the true definition of tree huggers as they attached themselves to trees in the Bisri Valley refusing to leave before the project is dropped. The Bisri Dam grabbed national and international attention more than any other dam project in Lebanon and neighboring municipalities started backing off their support for the project.

Activists protesting against the Bisri dam. Photo: The National Campaign to Protect the Bisri Valley

Why the protest?

Contrary to what the CDR and dam supporters were marketing, experts argue that the water coming from the Awali River and Qaroun Lake, two of the main water sources that would fill the dam, are heavily contaminated with wastewater and industrial waste. Moreover, the 26-kilometer underground water pipes that would transport water to Beirut would have become contaminated with leachate from the Naameh landfill (what is now an open dumpsite) on its way to the capital. Plus, the Bisri Dam would have put Lebanese citizens under huge public debt and $128 million provided by the Lebanese Government would have gone to building the structure instead of funding jobs and other necessary needs that people have been demanding. That is not to mention that the project would have eradicated 6 million square meters of natural areas and agricultural lands, and 50 historical sites including a roman sanctuary. Most importantly, the dam would have fallen over an active seismic fault and while it was expected to store 125 million cubic meters of water, reports show that the Bisri River’s annual flow is much less than 100 million cubic meters (81 million cubic meters on average per year between 2009 and 2019).

Sustainable ways that the GBML area can get freshwater have been suggested. These alternatives include rehabilitating the water infrastructure in Greater Beirut where 40% of the water is wasted in channels. Another alternative is benefiting from Lebanon’s underground water reserves. Due to Lebanon’s calcareous rocks, around 53% of the country’s rainwater is stored underwater and a long-term plan could ensure the proper extraction of this important water source. Finally, collecting rainwater (that can reach 825.5 cubic meters per year in Greater Beirut) is another freshwater source to the area.

Aerial view of the Bisri Valley. Photo: The National Campaign to Protect the Bisri Valley

One chapter ends, another begins

After years of protests, “Bisri activists” received good news in April 2020 when the World Bank announced that it would freeze the loan and re-direct the funds towards helping the Lebanese people suffering from the economic crisis hitting Lebanon. On 5 September 2020, the loan got officially canceled by the World Bank “due to non-completion of the tasks that are preconditions to the commencement of construction of the Bisri Dam”. The required tasks included that the Lebanese Government finalizes an Ecological Compensation Plan and operation and maintenance arrangements, and most importantly that the contractor is on-site ready to work no later than 4 September. Although activists started celebrating midnight on 4 September, many say that the cancelation of the project is a result of the government not being able to provide required documents on time. Were environmental activists able to influence decisionmakers? Or is this the result of the government’s lack of competence and commitment to its project?

The fight continues for the Lebanese

Less than 10 days after the cancelation of the project, fires erupted in the Bisri Valley. Witnesses claim that the fire was an arson attack started by an unknown car that drove by the area. This does not come as a surprise to activists who have previously mentioned that they even expect officials to stop directing water to residents of Beirut on purpose to prove their point that the dam was the only way people could have gotten a reliable water source.

Only time will tell if water scarcity in Beirut will lead to much bigger problems or even violence. Many residents of the capital are already leaving their homes and heading towards the suburbs because of water and electricity shortages, especially during the summer months. This was all before the Beirut port explosion on 4 August 2020. The destruction caused by the blast has forced people from their homes and many will have to find long term alternatives.

But if the port disaster proved anything, it is that the Lebanese will find a way to survive whatever challenge comes their way. The Bisri story shows that when there is a battle to be fought, be it in the face of corruption and mismanagement, or the rebuilding of a city, Lebanon has what it takes to affect change.

Yara Acaf is an Environmental Scientist and Activist from Lebanon and a Communications Assistant at REVOLVE. She holds a Master’s Degree in Environmental Policy from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and is passionate about bridging the gap between scientists and policymakers.

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