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Time to get out of farming for drought-hit Lebanese workers?

Political apathy and poor planning are fuelling a water crisis in Lebanon that experts say will be 'catastrophic' unless stopped
An abandoned Lebanese farm close to the Syrian border (IRIN)

Michel Achkar-Daoud is getting used to dry conditions on his farm near the eastern Lebanese town of Zahle, but says changing weather patterns mean it is probably time to get out of farming altogether.

Normally, about two thirds of his farm is planted with potatoes.

When the drought started he scrapped those plans in favour of vegetables that require less water, such as okra, though such vegetables require more care and fetch far lower prices. 

Achkar-Daoud estimates his profits this year, on a farm that at peak time employs 100 pickers, will be just $6,000-7,000, down from $14,000 in 2013. He says he is ready to sell the land and get out of farming.

The country has been severely affected by drought this winter, with rainfall less than half the previous year according to the Lebanese meteorological authority. 

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Mohammed Qabbani, an MP who heads the Energy and Water Committee in the Lebanese parliament, thinks water shortages will be nationwide in the coming months.

“This year [the effect] is very big and if we have the same conditions for next year it will be catastrophic."

"We will start feeling it [the drought] in July and August and we will have shortages,” he says. “They will be for the whole of Lebanon.”

A few miles down the road, farmer Mohammed Ma’mo also bemoans the freak weather conditions that have decimated his produce.

He mainly grows cherries but the dry winter has hit the crop, and the few rains that have come have been unusually strong, with one freak hailstorm destroying much of his fruit. 

For every 20 trees, he normally gets 600kg of goods for sale, but this year he thinks it could be as low as 200kg. 

A short-term crisis…

While agricultural production has already been badly hit, the effects of the drought on the rest of the Lebanese population are likely to be felt more acutely later in the year.

The fact that the small country is now home to over a million Syrians fleeing the civil war over the border is likely to make the crisis even more severe.

Dr Hassan El Bushra, head of the World Health Organization in Lebanon, recently said the lack of clean water meant outbreaks of communicable diseases such as polio and cholera are now “inevitable."

Qabbani agrees that the potential for a public health crisis is acute.

“We have not seen such a level of rain since 1932 and in that year the population was less than one million."

"Now we are four million, [as well as] more than one million Syrians. They all need to drink,” he adds.

He believes that a series of cutbacks are necessary immediately, with the primary goal being to minimize consumption.

“Any unnecessary use of water such as washing cars and cleaning the streets should be stopped,” he said.

“They should also consider reducing water for vegetable cultivation. We could try to eliminate this and import more vegetables.”

This measure, unsurprisingly, has been unpopular with farmers.

…with long-term causes

While the drought is short-term, the country’s inability to utilise its water resources stretches back decades.

Lebanon has the highest amount of rainfall per capita in the Middle East, with an average of 8 billion cubic metres a year.

Yet leakage - the water that is lost in the system through broken pipes and wastage - is so common that up to half of collected water is lost.

Even in good years, residents of major cities face shortages, while Blue Gold, a new civil society body pushing for reform of the country’s water networks, estimates that just 17 percent of all the country’s rainfall is utilised.

As such, short-term measures such as those Qabbani suggests would only succeed if they were supplemented with longer-term reforms, say analysts.

The Blue Gold scheme, developed by more than 30 experts over the course of a year and launched by President Michel Sleiman in December, aims to transform the country’s water network over the next six years. 

In total, the plan involves a new network of dams and developments which would cost $5 billion to be paid for largely by the private sector. 

Ziad Sayegh, head of the Civic Influence Hub that launched Blue Gold, says he is confident of using the current crisis to push for changes. “Through water, we can unify Lebanese people,” he says, pointing out that the reforms have already been presented to the Lebanese cabinet.

The hope is that while this current water crisis is likely to be bad, future ones can be reduced with better medium-term planning.

Yet Qabbani notes that the commitment of the political classes to even dealing with the short-term crisis is limited.

He says he has consistently urged all sides to take fast action to reduce the effects of the drought, but there has been little interest from the new government.

“We need more urgency from all sides,” he says.

This lack of strategic planning has not escaped the attention of the farmers.

Simaan Najjar, who has only a few acres of land that he farms for cherries and other fruit, thinks the lack of political interest in sustainability and reducing wastage has made Lebanon more susceptible to crises.

His son, Anthony, has emigrated to Germany to work on developing low-emission cars, an irony that has not escaped him.

“In Europe, in America, they are trying to deal with sustainability, but here there is nothing.”

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