06 December 2022
Setting the ground rules for water reuse in Lebanon
Published online 4 October 2022
Reusing wastewater for agricultural production can relieve some of the pressure from Lebanon’s freshwater supplies if certain challenges are addressed.
Informal water reuse is becoming more common in Lebanon as water shortages become more frequent. In the dry summer months, reusing treated or untreated wastewater has helped farmers compensate for their irrigation needs and alleviate pressure on freshwater. But, left unorganized, reuse can threaten public health, generate conflict and yield limited economic benefit.
To help Lebanon expand its safe water reuse, ReWater MENA and its partners are helping to lay the foundations for developing national plans and regulations and establishing pilot reuse projects. Given the country’s financial crisis and prolonged governance issues, this comes with challenges.
Lebanon has plenty of freshwater compared to its neighbours, but most of its river basins are overexploited. The agricultural sector alone consumes 60–70% of all annual freshwater diversions, with rivers and spring water providing half and groundwater sources providing the rest. Since the 1960s, freshwater irrigation developed with limited state intervention, but years of uncontrolled extraction and poor management have led to its overexploitation. In parallel, the delay in implementing wastewater treatment plants and their poor performance has led to acute pollution in many river basins.
Since the 2019 financial crisis, the state and communities have found it difficult to pay for the fuel needed to sustain the operation of water networks and wastewater treatment plants. The situation in Lebanon is critical. The Roadmap to Recovery of the Water Sector in Lebanon issued by the Ministry of Energy and Water in May 2022 stresses that deep reforms are needed for the government to be able to ensure just access to water and sanitation services. So how can water reuse contribute to that and what are the limits?
The ReWater MENA project has carried out several activities since 2019, in close consultation with a National Steering Committee, revealing useful insights.
For example, the National Analysis of Water Reuse Potential in Irrigation, published in September 2022 and undertaken as part of the ReWater MENA project, provides a comprehensive assessment of the quantities of treated water available for safe reuse in irrigation, and identifies the wastewater treatment plants with the highest potential for that purpose. The analysis found that, with the existing volumes of wastewater treated at the time of the study, 48 wastewater treatment plants would have a reasonably high reuse potential, while if existing wastewater treatment plants were fully functional and operated at full capacity, as many as 82 would be in the same bracket. However, structural shortcomings in the wastewater sector combined with governance challenges and the lack of a regulatory framework for reuse management impede this potential.
The analysis recommended empowering local actors and involving irrigation committees in planning and managing future reuse systems.
Engaging local stakeholders for better planning
The Ablah and Zahleh Water Reuse Plants provide good examples of this co-design process.
They are situated on the east bank of the Litani River, Lebanon's largest, over-allocated and extremely polluted river. They were identified by the National Analysis of Water Reuse Potential in Irrigation as two of 18 plants with the highest reuse potential. The ReWater MENA project spearheaded the design of two water reuse systems and their management plans through a participative approach that engaged relevant stakeholders.
The Ablah Wastewater Treatment Plant is a small domestic, trickling filter-based treatment plant (2,000 cubic meters per day) managed and funded by the municipality of Ablah town. A complete irrigation system was installed in 2015 for the reuse of the treated sewage effluent to reduce groundwater extraction from a depleted aquifer. The reuse system initially supplied irrigation water to 20 hectares of land. ReWater MENA, together with Ablah municipality and the farming community, have now developed a plan to rehabilitate the existing system and extend the network to irrigate ten more hectares.
The Ablah plant has a high potential for wastewater reuse because of the effluent quality, the crop types grown in the area (mainly fruit trees), and the sustainable management and governance of the treatment and reuse system. Ablah’s irrigation system would be managed by a farmers’ committee in partnership with the municipality.
The Zahleh plant is a large domestic treatment plant (25,000 m3/day) also located near the Litani River, in the Zahleh agricultural plain bordering the town of Barr Elias. Its treated effluent represents a vital water source to downstream farmers in Barr Elias and upstream farmers from Zahleh. Farmers in this region mainly grow wheat, potatoes and fruit trees, using a variety of irrigation systems of which management lies in the hands of the local community. ReWater MENA has suggested designing a system that would distribute water to Barr Elias in the first irrigation season and to Zahleh in the second half of the summer.
Regulating water reuse will improve irrigation and agriculture
According to Lebanon's National Water Sector Strategy, water reuse might reduce the country’s water problems, but this must be followed with official regulations for water reuse quality. ReWater has worked closely with the Lebanese Standards Institution (LIBNOR), the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI) and several other public administrations to assess the health and environmental risks associated with irrigating fresh vegetables from different water sources of varying quality. The partners carried out two two-year field trials at LARI’s Tel Amara station in central Bekaa, on the right bank of the Litani River.
The first looked at the productivity, quality and risks on health, crops and environment of recycled water from the Ablah wastewater treatment plant, located only a few kilometres away from LARI’s fields, compared to irrigation from a clear groundwater source and the highly polluted Litani river. The experiment showed that crops irrigated with treated water had good nutritional quality. However, given the levels of parasite contamination, several factors remain to be considered, reinforcing the importance of formulating standards for water reuse in agriculture.
The second trial investigated the effect of withholding irrigation before harvest as a simple method to minimize health risk. The recommendation from this experiment was to withhold irrigation two to four days before harvest to reduce contamination with little loss of yield.
Identifying innovative and replicable solutions
The use of recycled water in agriculture is regarded as one of the most sustainable solutions to water shortages in Lebanon. The challenge is that reuse cannot solve water scarcity, but only alleviate it. Institutional reforms and collective efforts are also needed in Lebanon to overcome water stress.
Identifying promising innovations and validated reuse models, such as the Ablah and Zahleh wastewater treatment plants, will support the Lebanese government to design better recycled water policies in the future.
According to Marie-Helene Nassif, researcher and project coordinator of ReWater MENA: “One of our most important learnings is that investing efforts in stakeholder analysis and engagement is crucial to understanding hydrosocial dynamics, conducting grounded research and developing policies and projects adapted to both environmental and social contexts.”
Martina Valls is an international relations graduate student of Ramon Llull University, Spain. She is passionate about the Mediterranean region and geopolitics, with a special interest in how natural resources drive diplomatic relations. She did her exchange program at The American University of Cairo and is currently working at REVOLVE Media while pursuing a postgraduate degree in geopolitics and global governance.
REVOLVE helps ReWATER MENA disseminate research results relating to water issues in the MENA region. This article is part of that initiative.