Dams or no dams? The answer lies in a National Water Security Strategy

Case in point is the State of California in the USA, which relies heavily on nearly 1,500 reservoirs for managing water supply. With the increasingly variable precipitation and consecutive droughts California depends on dams for survival.
by Rana El-Hajj

25 March 2019 | 12:49

Source: by Issam Fares Institute

  • by Rana El-Hajj
  • Source: Issam Fares Institute
  • Last update: 25 March 2019 | 12:49

Dams are only part of a comprehensive water strategy for Lebanon, which faces water scarcity every summer. (Issam Fares)

BEIRUT: The construction of dams as a solution for water supply problems has always been controversial due to the associated impacts and risks, not only on the environment, but also on local communities.

With the issuance of the 2010 National Water Strategy (NWSS) by the Ministry of Energy and Water (MOEW) this controversy was brought to the forefront in Lebanon. Now that the government seems to be moving forward with the implementation of a number of the planned dams, in locations some consider as sensitive, the public debate between the Ministry from one side, and environmental groups and advocates from the other, has significantly escalated. 

In the NWSS’ roadmap around 18 dams are foreseen within 10 years’ timeline (until 2020), while 46 sites in total were identified as “suitable” for surface water storage. This makes surface water storage as the strategy’s key pillar especially when looking at the estimated capital investment.

The strategy nevertheless did consider, but to a lesser extent, other options such as groundwater recharge, demand-side management, improving technical losses, and non–revenue water.

In the reality of climate change and changes in demography, surface water storage in the form of dams is, and will remain, a necessity as part of managing supply. Accordingly, Lebanon would still, strategically, need surface water storage in the form of dams.

Case in point is the State of California in the USA, which relies heavily on nearly 1,500 reservoirs for managing water supply. With the increasingly variable precipitation and consecutive droughts California predominantly depends on dams for survival. However, California still struggles to maintain a status of water security.

The current view of water security is that it is a multi-faceted approach that goes beyond simply balancing supply and demand to incorporate dimensions such as environmental water security, governance, infrastructure, and economic productivity. Like energy security, water security planning necessitates close attention to the diversification of resources with careful consideration to a “water mix” that ensures a secure status for the country while respecting the different dimensions that make up water security.

Regarding supply management, the options are endless such as subterranean dams; groundwater recharge; re-use of treated wastewater (a completely untapped resource in Lebanon); water harvesting especially in urban settings; local water storage at all levels from household, municipal to regional; restoration of degraded lands in watersheds; and protecting and increasing green cover areas key for enhancing and protecting groundwater recharge zones.

Furthermore, integrated watershed management must be followed in managing the water sector by incorporating measures for more efficient use of water in agriculture and energy, as well as other demand-side management options, which are instrumental within any forward-looking water security strategy.

Although the current NWSS does touch on some of the aforementioned options to meet demand sustainably, they remain complimentary actions to surface water storage option, as opposed to being legitimate options with equal weight that would allow us to limit the country’s dependency on dams.

The United Arab Emirates understands this well, with a Water Security Strategy towards 2036 that seeks to reduce average consumption per capita by half and focuses mainly on sustainable practices with increasing the reuse of treated water to 95 percent as one of its key aims.

Therefore, within the ongoing heated debate in Lebanon the attention should be reoriented towards the general strategic approach that Lebanon should follow. The right question to be asked would be: Is Lebanon thinking and planning towards a “Water Security Strategy” or are we fixated on a silo sectoral approach which is based predominantly on supply and demand?

Lebanon, having already dropped below the level of water scarcity (with per capita levels below the 1000 cubic meter/year benchmark) and with the impending impacts of climate change, population growth, and economic development, needs a radical transformation in its approach to water resources planning and management.

With the MoEW currently planning to review the NWSS 2010, the opportunity presents itself for Lebanon to have a progressive and integrated “Water Security Strategy” that respects the principles of sustainable development and that mainstreams climate change considerations.

This requires two critical steps: (i) Depoliticizing the issue of water on the national level and (ii) a constructive dialogue between all stakeholders based on knowledge and proper evaluation of tradeoffs among all possible options.

In parallel, and since water is such a central resource for sustainable development and given its many interlinkages, key stakeholders (such as the Ministry of Water and Energy, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Industry and Ministry of Trade) are required to develop a common vision for their sectors that is based on the principles of a water, energy, and food nexus approach that allows for the alignment of the strategies of these sectors.

Granted the task is complicated and requires a lot of collaboration and coordination among the stakeholders but if Lebanon is to seriously consider water as a trading hand within the regional context, as insinuated lately, then first it must fortify its National Water Security by shifting mindsets.

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World Water Day was March 22.

Rana El-Hajj is the Manager of the Climate Change and Environment Program, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut.


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