Water crisis: High & Dry | Executive Magazine

Debris and filth litter the camp’s water supplies

[Published originally here]

In an informal tented settlement just outside of Zahle, dozens of Syrian refugee women and girls crowd around faucets pumping water out of a large plastic tank. The “UN truck,” as they call it, has just filled their settlement’s communal tank with thousands of liters of water, and they rush to collect their share before it’s gone. After filling their buckets and bottles, they return, water sloshing, to their tents to drink, cook and clean.

But barely 100 meters down the dirt road is a drastically different story. In a settlement of the same size, refugees are experiencing the full brunt of Lebanon’s water crisis. No ‘UN trucks’ come by to deliver potable water here — instead, refugees buy their drinking water from costly private companies. Mothers keep their children inside, in the shade of their tents, for fear of dehydration were they to play in the sun. The water they use to cook and clean is pumped out of a small well behind their settlement, depending on whether state electricity is on long enough to fill their tanks.

This difference in resources is representative of the difficulty in access to resources for refugees. Although Lebanon’s water crisis is a national one, some communities have been hit harder than others. And as one of the most vulnerable populations in Lebanon, Syrian refugees living in informal housing are some of the most severely affected.

Lebanon’s water crisis

The news that Lebanon has a water shortage will not be a surprise to anyone who has lived through another long, hot and dry summer here. Water cuts have been common in Beirut and elsewhere. Last winter, Lebanon had less than half the normal annual rainfall and, crucially, very little snow, which is important as snowmelt is a major contributor to the aquifer recharge rate. This has left the water table much diminished and most wells, springs and rivers well below their usual level. Indeed many of the country’s main sources of water have dropped by upwards of 50–60 percent. This is already a less than ideal situation for Lebanon to be in, but once you add the additional population of well over a million Syrian refugees, the already scarce resources are stretched to the breaking point.

The private trucks which have become a common sight in many communities are filling the gap — for a price. While lack of water is an issue that has affected everybody in Lebanon, according to Chad Walker, one of NGO CARE International’s water specialists, refugees are among those hardest hit. “The reason for the big impact on the refugee population over other communities is simply that they’re at the bottom in terms of the resources they can provide,” Walker said. “So when prices go up they are the ones most affected.” The precarious situation that many of Lebanon’s refugees live with on a daily basis prevents them from making long term provisions for issues like paying for water and so, without assistance from the likes of Care International, many have to go without.

However, there are two sides to Lebanon’s water crisis. The majority of water comes from groundwater, so low precipitation means shortages. But management of the resource is also key. “It needs to be emphasized that Lebanon, in one sense, is blessed because it has more water resources than many of its neighbors. But because they have quite a bit of water, it is managed quite poorly,” says John Stiefel, a water, sanitation and hygiene specialist for international NGO World Vision. It is generally estimated by many NGOs working in Lebanon’s water sector, and the government, that the aging infrastructure leads to a loss of between 50–70 percent between the extraction of water and its arrival at the end user. This is mostly through broken piping.  “Most of the issues we’re seeing are actually due to poor management of water resources, water supply and use. The influx of the refugees from Syria is just making a pre-existing problem worse and bringing it to the surface,” continues Stiefel.

Vulnerable communities in informal housing

As costs of living in urban areas get higher, an increasing number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are moving to informal shelters, like unfinished and abandoned buildings or tented settlements such as those in the Bekaa valley. Here, they become the most vulnerable to water and sanitation issues. A July 2014 UN report showed that, especially in informal settlements concentrated in the north and the Bekaa, water scarcity is considered high and the populations are the most vulnerable.

One such informal settlement is the water-scarce one described above, just outside of Zahle in Fayda. Local camp leader Yehya Madhalla described a dire situation. The settlement’s 500 families, who have rented land from a local farmer to set up their camp, pump water out of a small well behind their tents to individual household tanks — whenever the power is on long enough. Since the water has a strange taste, Madhalla says families are forced to buy drinking water in gallons, while using the well water to cook and clean. The pipes transporting the water from the ground run through piles of debris, and an old well sits half-covered in a mound of trash and dirt. Because of the water shortage, some families are still forced to wash in water from this old well, which they say has brought on strange skin diseases. Layali, a five year old girl covered in white spots, hugs her mother’s leg. “We’re showering in water from the well,” her mother said. “Her whole body was like this and she’s itching.”

Without a proper waste management system, families are forced to live in close quarters with their own waste, creating dangerous health risks. “We’re worried that the tanks will be affected by contaminated water,” Madhalla said. “There are families living here, right where the sewage comes out.”

While access to water for consumption is difficult, it’s only part of the issue. “We are saying water, but sanitation, hygiene and public health are all linked to that, so water is [just] the key word. But food, health, wealth, productivity and stabilization are all linked,” says CARE’s Walker. A lack of clean water resources in these settlements creates significant health risks, according to the UN’s Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) Working Group, the coordination group for all agencies providing water related aid to Syrian refugees. In a February 2014 report, it admitted that testing done so far indicated a “high level of contamination” in many of the water supplies to which refugees have access — as much as 10 times the accepted chemical amounts set out by the World Health Organization. Because of the extensive agricultural use of the Bekaa valley, high nitrate levels and other contaminants can be found in the surface water there. When testing water quality at some of the camps they work in, CARE also found worrying biological contamination and fecal coliform. While Walker stressed that this didn’t necessarily mean that there were pathogens in the water, it did indicate that there was a direct path into the water for waste and represented a significant public health risk.

This water is then run through systems that are not always clean — including water trucks that haven’t been properly disinfected or chlorinated, storage tanks that have been used for unclean water, and pipes or containers that have been contaminated by rats or other animals.

Many of the biggest health risks stem from inadequate waste management containers. As of June 2014, at least 29 percent of refugees registered with UNHCR needed improved sanitation facilities like latrines and solid waste facilities. In one case handled by World Vision, a group of refugees living in a building in the south of Lebanon had covered a hole leading to the septic tank in their shelter with a raggedy mattress. “It’s to keep the rats in,” the head of the family told World Vision staff. In Madhalla’s settlement in Fayda, refugees who spoke to Executive frequently mentioned improper waste management as one of their biggest health concerns.

Some of these health issues are already manifesting themselves. The WASH Working Group’s February report noted that a full 25 percent of refugee children had reported cases of diarrhea within the two weeks that the report had been written. Last year, the World Health Organization noted a “high risk for most water-borne diseases” in Lebanon, including shigella, typhoid, and hepatitis A and E.

Besides health implications, the water crisis has also imposed significant costs on refugees in tented settlements. Executive spoke to Madhalla in the middle of September, as Lebanon’s blazing summer was coming to a close. His settlement had experienced a particularly difficult few months: in June, the camp’s only well had dried up, leaving the 500 families there without a steady source of water. Families began to fill their water tanks with ‘unclean’ water for LBP 8,000 ($5.33) from water trucks, but it “wouldn’t last them two days,” Madhalla said. Since then, the landowner has built a new well for the refugees — but again, they had to cover the costs. “He took $20 from each family … There’s no work, so we can’t pay for more,” Madhalla added.

“We can safely say that the Syrian refugee community has less resilience,” said World Vision’s Stiefel. “Most Lebanese, if they’re not getting water from the grid, can generally afford water trucking. With Syrian refugees, that’s not the case.” As funding for NGO projects are short lived, there are often gaps between the end of one project cycle and the beginning of another. Between projects, refugees are left on their own to pay relatively exorbitant costs for water.

An emergency response

To address the immediate water needs of refugee populations in informal tent settlements, WASH actors are providing water tanks, pumps, filters and water itself to vulnerable refugee populations in informal settlements. Many NGOs have also relied on regular water deliveries to some of the most vulnerable areas.

But as with Madhalla’s settlement, not all tented communities have access to the same resources. Madhalla’s camp was provided with a large communal tank, individual 1,000 liter tanks and portable filters for each family. But since that initial delivery, Madhalla says his settlement has received no further support. “They brought us tanks and filters, but no clean water. Even after we filter it, we don’t drink it,” he says. “Sometimes we go buy water from the other camp, even though they get it for free.”

The ‘other camp’ near Madhalla’s is run by Talal Majalla, a Syrian farmer from Homs. Majalla’s camp gets water deliveries every two days from humanitarian organizations. Still, even the well that his settlement uses is starting to dry up and become unusable. With refugees increasingly relying on the water deliveries, Majalla says that problems typically associated with shortages are beginning to crop up. “If you can get there fast enough to get more water, you get more,” Majalla said. This first-come-first-served method has sparked several fights at the pump, which Majalla says he’s had to break apart.

Seeking sustainable solutions

With growing provision problems, WASH actors are turning towards more sustainable solutions. To do so, they’re seeking to link informal settlements to existing municipal systems, while adhering to the Lebanese government’s insistence that all structures remain temporary. WASH actors are linking settlements to municipal grids by thin blue pipes laid above ground and metering this water so that municipalities can recoup the cost of provision.

This is part of a comprehensive move by Lebanon’s WASH actors to support host communities as a whole, as the water crisis has affected resident and refugee alike. As part of that move, these NGOs are targeting general infrastructural programs that will increase the amount of water available to the whole system by rehabilitating disused pumping stations and installing larger pumps capable of pulling more water out of the ground. By ensuring that whole towns have access to more water, these groups say, they are also granting more access to refugees. CARE and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have developed strong links with municipalities, and almost all their projects now have a community-wide component. “When we come in and say we’re willing to work with you and mitigate that stress on that system for the whole community, then this becomes a much greater advantage for us in terms of working,” says CARE’s Walker.

But infrastructural projects can only go so far. NGOs have lamented the Lebanese government’s focus on ‘temporary’ structures, which limits their development options. Thomas Batardy, in charge of ICRC’s water and habitat programs in Lebanon, also commented on the interrelatedness of the country’s infrastructure problems: “The first problem with water is electricity. They’re pumping 12 hours a day because, in the best case, you have electricity for 12 hours,” he says. “You double that capacity, you double the water.”

As well as making more water available, NGOs are making sure people pay for it. According to Walker, many Lebanese are simply not paying for the water they receive which means that the service providers don’t have the resources or incentive to maintain or improve the infrastructure, leading to huge waste. Walker says that in the Bekaa valley three years ago, only 17 percent of registered subscribers actually paid their water bill. But since then, a large capacity-building investment program by the US government has raised that number to around 34 percent. Both CARE and World Vision are working to educate Lebanese communities about how their role in water management could help build a more robust system.

“Lebanon is at a crossroads … No one would have asked for the conflict in Syria — not the Lebanese, not the Syrians,” Stiefel says. “But how can Lebanon use this as a blessing?”

As refugees try to recover from a blistering summer, and as NGOs focus on sustainable, resilient solutions, everyone’s asking the same thing: what will happen this winter?

Citing a report by the Ministry of Energy and Water, World Vision’s Stiefel said that, in the past 100 years in Lebanon, rainfall patterns have usually lasted two to three years — so if history is anything to go by, another winter of below average rainfall wouldn’t be unlikely.

“The long and short of it is that water gets more expensive. Every time you have to pull water from deeper in the earth and transport it farther then the water gets more expensive,” says Walker.

For Lebanon’s weary Syrian refugees, these costs may be getting unbearable. “We pay for the electricity, for the water, for the generator and our other expenses — but the most important thing is the water,” Madhallah says. “It’s too much, but water is life.”

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