Reduced rain window threatens water crunch

Lebanon faces great changes if average temperatures rise 2-4 degrees Celsius over the next 100 years, as most climate change models forecast.

According to Wael Hmaidan, executive director of IndyACT, The League of Independent Activists, climate change in the Middle East will affect Lebanon first. “The distribution of rain has changed; the snow density is decreasing and forest fires are spreading,” he said.

Lebanon’s average annual rainfall exceeds 800 million cubic metres (mcm), helping to sustain more than 2,000 springs during the seven-month dry season, the envy of more arid regional countries such as Iraq and Jordan.

But this is changing. “Twenty years ago we used to reckon on 80-90 rainy days a year in Lebanon. Today we forecast 70 rainy days,” said Bassem Jaber, an expert on water from the Implementation of Technical Tools for Water Management (MOTGE) at the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water.

It is not the amount of rain that is changing, said Jaber, but the period in which it falls: “With the same amount of rain, but in a shorter period of time, it cannot seep into the soil. Instead it runs along the ground and washes into the ocean where it is lost. On its way it causes soil erosion, landslides and flash floods. This eventually leads to desertification.”

This change in Lebanon’s weather could, according to IndyACT’s Hmaidan, spell disaster for the country: “Lebanon’s only natural resources are its fair weather, forests and water. The country’s economy is based on tourism, which depends on these resources. If they go, so will Lebanon’s economy.”

Snowfall is also predicted to decrease with climate change. Lebanon receives 65 percent of its water from rainfall and 35 percent from snow. Winter rainfall is supplemented by water from melting snow from April to July, ensuring rivers keep flowing throughout summer.

Photo: Annasofie Flamand/IRIN
Lebanon’s snow-covered mountains could become a rare sight if temperatures rise due to climate change

Bleak outlook

Surveys by Wajdi Najem, director of the Regional Water and Environment (ESIB) in Lebanon, predict that water from snow will decrease from 1,200 mcm under current conditions to 700 mcm with a two degree rise in temperature, and reduce further to 350 mcm with a rise of four degrees.

The snowline that is today at 1500m will creep up to 1,700m with a two degree increase, and 1,900m with a four degree increase, ESIB predicts, reducing the country’s lucrative ski season from three months to just one week by the end of the century.

Snow is also vital to the survival of Lebanon’s ancient cedar trees, the national symbol, which are now listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "Red List" as a "heavily threatened" species.

Urban drought

With less melt water from snow, the dry season is set to begin a month earlier. While disrupting some farming, particularly in the south and east where agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, environmentalists warn it will be urban areas which face the most serious water shortages over the next five years.

“It is not the agricultural areas that will feel the greatest impact - they’ll start their growing season earlier - but we worry about the urban centres,” said Jaber. “The problem is that they will run out of fresh water before the dry season is over.”

Photo: Annasofie Flamand/IRIN
Lebanon’s cedar trees, many of which are over 2,000 years old, are now in danger of extinction due to climate change

Of Lebanon’s roughly four million people, including around 400,000 Palestinian refugees, over 80 percent live in urban areas, with 1.5 million living in Beirut.

Two man-made factors add to Lebanon’s water shortage problems. Half of rainfall is currently lost through run-off, evaporation or ground seepage every year, while much of the plumbing and irrigation systems are still in disarray from the civil war and the 2006 July War.

Currently, low water pressure in the late summer and autumn forces the government to ration supplies, leaving nearly half of households in some regions below the sufficiency threshold.

The average household receives less than 50 litres per day - 20 litres less than sufficiency as defined by the World Health Organization. This gap is set to widen with an earlier and longer dry season.

Plans for dams

The government has plans to build up to 28 surface and subsurface dams over the next 10 years, aiming to capture up to 900 mcm of fresh water.

At an estimated cost of US$2.5bn to $3bn, the plan has been criticized by some activists as too costly and damaging to wildlife. IndyAct is working on an alternative plan focused on better use of current resources.

But Fadi Comair, director-general of Hydraulic and Electric Resources at the Ministry of Energy and Water, insists dams may be the only answer to Lebanon’s climate change problem.

“With the situation as it is, it is not a question of money - we have no choice,” he said.