THE BISRI DAM: Controversy Afoot


Lebanon Law Review | Bisri Dam
The beautiful Marj Bisri.

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Financing the Bisri Dam
III. Bisri Dam by the Numbers
IV. Legal Aspect
V. Possible Alternatives

I. Introduction

Located in the heart of the Bisri valley, the Bisri Dam is a project that is meant to supply water to Iklim Al Kharoub, central and south Beirut, through the Hadath and Hazmieh reservoirs, in addition to reservoirs located in Ashrafieh and Tallet Al Khayat. It will also provide 11.2MW of hydroelectric power.

According to the World Bank, the project’s chief financier, its aim is to “resolve one major problem that Lebanon’s residents have faced since the civil war: severe and chronic water shortages.”

It was first proposed by the US Bureau of Reclamation back in 1953 and was followed up by the Litani Water Bureau in the framework of water and dam projects on the Litani and Awwali rivers (as known as the Bisri River in its upper sections).

The construction is expected to take around 5 years from the signing of the contract.

II. Financing the Bisri Dam

The Bisri dam project receives financing from the World Bank, via two IBRD loans: the $200 million Greater Beirut Water Supply Project (and its $90 million Additional Financing) and the $474 million Lebanon Water Supply Augmentation Project. The Islamic Development Bank is also co-financing the Lebanon Water Supply Augmentation Project, and the Government of Lebanon is contributing domestic resources.

This way of funding has sparked dissatisfaction among a big number of citizens, since the government that decided to go ahead with the Bisri Dam project, is the same government that has just defaulted on its foreign debt, and that couldn’t allocate more than $12M to help poor families, nor has enough liquidity to buy fuel or finance building new power plants, and last but not least, wants to add to its debt a $620M loan from the World Bank.

The current minister of energy says that halting the project will be a waste of public money. He explained in a news conference that an amount of $320 million has been paid to the project so far as the first of a two-part loan payment from the World Bank.

III. Bisri Dam by the Numbers

Let’s talk numbers shall we?

The dam that’s supposed to be built will have a height of 73 meters. Its construction will lead to the formation of an artificial lake of approximately 256 hectares. This artificial lake can go up to 434 hectares in the flood season, which can endanger anyone living near that dam considering that it can flood their houses. In addition to houses, this includes a large group of archaeological and cultural monuments, some of which are more than 2500 years old.

Land belonging to 15 villages will be gobbled up by the facility, including Meshmushi’s field. These lands are the source of livelihood of many citizens. There is a plan in place to compensate owners of the 869 plots of land but it remains unclear if these hardworking farmers will be compensated for losing their jobs. They will dismantle many archeological sites to build the Dam like Mar Musa Church that is hundreds of years old and is a shrine for residents of all faiths. Further downstream are five columns that are believed to be Roman and could be evidence to an even larger archaeological site. The location is on a seismic fault line also known as an earthquake zone. The designers have guaranteed that they have designed it correctly and that the design passed many international safety protocols but that is still a red flag. Note that the studies made date all the way back to 2014.

Around 570 hectares of land will be expropriated and inundated, including 150 hectares of agricultural land, 82 hectares of pine woodland, and 131 hectares of natural vegetation. The coalition campaigning against the dam reports that around 150,000 woodland trees will be cut and that this number might go up to 500,000, besides agricultural orchards, labeling it an environmental genocide.

“We call on the Lebanese public opinion, on our parliamentarians, and on all political parties and political and spiritual leaders. We request that they are informed that the Bisri Dam project is a ticking atomic bomb,” said Dr. Tony Nemer, assistant professor of Geology at the American University of Beirut, at a press conference on June 27. “Lebanon cannot handle the danger of its presence.”

The National Campaign to Protect Bisri Valley, which kicked off in 2017 as a Facebook page by independent activist Roland Nassour, grew out of increasing opposition to big dam projects because of the ecological harm and safety hazards they pose. This has been followed recently by a number of petitions, marches and social media awareness against the Bisri Dam.

On the other hand, a great many people supported this project, considering that it is the biggest project ever to be made in Lebanon by providing water to all of Beirut, Hazmieh and Hadath areas, so there can never be a shortage of water again.

But the question remains, is the water coming all the way from Bisri Dam pure?

Let us walk you through the process. The water will travel through Joun Tunnel, Awardanieh water treatment, to Damour, arriving at Khalde where there is an Operation Room attached to the reservoir of Tallet El Khayyat where the water will be distributed to the capital Beirut.

Around 70 percent of Beirut’s water is provided from the Jeita Spring, but 40 percent of that water goes to waste before even reaching the capital because of poor maintenance and a rotten water pipe network that suffers from uncontrolled leakage. If Lebanon suffers from a water scarcity problem, it’s not because the country lacks resources. Lebanon is a water surplus state in a water-deficit region. It’s because authority figures deplete and mismanage them. So the Dam won’t be needed really if the authorities fix the rotten water pipes.

The lack of reliable statistics, and particularly statistics from local researchers, also points back to a severe mismanagement problem in Lebanon’s water sector. Building more dams, without exploring their impact on the environment and whether they are suitable for the lands they are being built on, is wasteful. Just look at the Brisa Dam, which remains largely empty despite costing millions of dollars.

However, we should mention, that 3 municipalities have recently withdrawn their approval on the dam project, which means that the project cannot begin anymore, at least for the time being.

IV. Legal Aspect

The project violates Resolution No. 131/1 which classifies the Al-Awali River as a natural reserve and Article 4 of the Environmental Protection Law No. 444 and the Paris Convention on Climate Change and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

The article 4 of Law No.444 states the following:

“Subject to the provisions of the applicable laws and regulations, especially Law No. 64/88 of August 12, 1988, it is subject to the import, production, extraction, transfer, marketing, possession, use or destruction of harmful and/or dangerous chemicals, which are due to their composition, nature, and effects, especially toxic or radioactive, or its quantity, constitutes or may pose a threat to public health and safety and the environment in general, to a prior permit granted within conditions defined by a decree taken in the Cabinet on the proposal of the Minister of Environment and the relevant ministers, and to monitor the Ministry of Environment.

The provisions of this Law and its applied texts apply to marketed fixtures made from the materials mentioned in Clause 1 of this Article.

This decree includes:

A- A list of materials whose import, production, extraction, transfer, marketing, possession, use, destruction, or transit through Lebanese territory is prohibited or subject to prior authorization.

B- Conditions, procedures and deadlines for granting the prior permit.

C- The exchange terms and procedures for each group of products.

D- Conditions for production, storage, packaging, classification, transportation, marketing, and recycling of the materials subject of this chapter.

Monitoring measures and measures that can be imposed to ensure environmental protection, especially in emergency situations.

F- The rules of application of the provisions of this chapter to harmful and/or dangerous chemicals present on Lebanese soil at the date of the enforcement of this law.

In order to implement the decree mentioned in Item (1) of this Article, technical directives and standards coordinated at the international level are taken into consideration by specialized institutions.”

Apparently, some unauthorized materials will allegedly be used in the Bisri Dam project.

As for the Paris convention on climate change, its central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Additionally, the agreement aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change. To reach these ambitious goals, appropriate financial flows, a new technology framework, and an enhanced capacity-building framework will be put in place, thus supporting action by developing countries and the most vulnerable countries, in line with their own national objectives.

The project violates the 2030 sustainable development goals, set by the UN, which mainly include: climate action, life on land, responsible consumption and production and affordable & clean energy.

According to Roland Nassour, the Coordinator of the Save Bisri Campaign, this project only serves the interests of the politicians who are dividing the profits among each other. He then adds “The study which was published by the Council of Development and Reconstruction is outdated and has missing information. Hence, they are now working illegally.”

V. Possible Alternatives

Construction of small to medium-sized urban collective storage ponds, filled by monitored springs and groundwater. This would be a much more cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution than the construction of dams. This should be accompanied by increased regulation of groundwater resources, reform of government agencies responsible for the water sector, repair of infrastructure, and a reform of the water tariff system, and better wastewater management. This reform plan should focus on fixing the existing water distribution network which is extremely deteriorated leading to 48% of unaccounted-for water.

Another priority should be to improve the yield of the Jeita Spring that currently supplies 70% of the Greater Beirut Area’s water. The cost was estimated at only 30-50 million USD (BGR, 2014).

By doing that, we will not be violating any laws, saving jobs, saving the environment, participating in limiting climate change and providing pure water to the areas in need.

Bibliography


Lyne Mneimneh
Lyne Mneimneh

Lebanese University – DSP1

Manager at The Lawyard, an independent news outlet.

A love for politics, global economics, and human rights.


Zeinab Halabi
Zeinab Halabi

USJ

Manager at The Lawyard, an independent news outlet.

Interested in geopolitics and Franco-Lebanese public law.