Seeking for water in the Levant (the story of a course)

Torstaina, 3. kesäkuuta 2010     0 kommentti(a)
Mari Luomi
Kansainvälinen ympäristö- ja luonnonvarapolitiikka -tutkimusohjelma
A postcard blog from a training course trip to Syria and Lebanon

This spring, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, together with the Finnish Institute in Damascus, organised a training course for Finnish professionals on the topics of water, climate change and security in the Middle East. The course culminated in a one-week trip to Damascus and Beirut where the participants met with local stakeholders and visited water projects in the vicinity of the two cities. The course had two main aims: to introduce the participants to the negative consequences of climate change in the resource scarce countries of the Middle East and to establish contacts and chart possibilities for cooperation with Lebanese and Syrian counterparts. During the trip, the main substantial focus was on three interlinked areas that cause problems to water security in the Levant region, namely: politics, governance and the negative impacts of climate change. During the summer, a group of ten participants will engage in writing a joint publication on these themes, which is slated to be published as a FIIA Report later this year.

While the organisers attempted to make it easier to piece the whole problematique together with a selection of ten articles of relevant pre-reading literature, the abundance of information, misinformation and hidden signals that were received during the 7-day trip will ensure that processing everything will take longer than two weeks.

Here is therefore only a short photo diary including some of the lessons learned during the trip. A more detailed description of the trip will be published later, as an annex of the FIIA Report.

16 May 2010
After a long late night flight and too few hours of sleep, the participants arrive at the beautifully restored Damascian house, home of the Finnish Institute in Damascus. We are given a presentation by a local water consultant who prepares us for a trip to the al-Fijeh spring that provides water for the metropolitan area. We learn that Syria’s water balance is in a deficit and that, as typical for a developing country, agriculture consumes 80% of all water use while it produces only 26% of the GDP, a number that is relatively high compared to many other Middle Eastern countries. Water is heavily subsidised for individual consumers and water use in general is wasteful. In the summer, water distribution into Damascus is severely limited, as the spring dries up.

17 May 2010

A local engineer takes us to a private wastewater treatment plant close by to Damascus. We discover the story of a village where, faced with groundwater depletion caused by overuse and declining precipitation levels, a group of local landowners decided to take the matter into their own hands and set up a small water treatment plant. Eight years later, the plant is still the only private initiative of the kind in the whole country, but the results are impressive: breaking an arid landscape, we see pomegranate and olive trees, and green fields that give food for herds of goats and cows. Wastewater recycling is still a novelty in large parts of the country, but it might be the only choice in the future, if three factors continue to interact, namely population growth, bad management and climate change.

18 May 2010

In a seminar day, organised at the premises of the Finnish Institute in Damascus, we learn from several local experts about the problems relating to water security and quality in Syria. An issue that keeps rising from the presentations is the lack of awareness. A civil society representative notes that often, even when awareness exists, the surrounding conditions do not allow for sustainable choices and practices. On the demand management side, poverty is a limiting factor that prevents raising water tariffs and perhaps even enforcing stricter compliance in the case of illegal wells that perforate the country’s rural areas. A general concern is that while technologies, such as desalination, might offer solutions, their cost is not likely to be affordable for Syria in the near future. Meanwhile, water scarcity is exacerbated.

19 May 2010

We ride over the Anti-Lebanon mountains towards the cosmopolitan city of Beirut. After several hours, including an hour’s live lesson on how to jump the queue at the Lebanese side of the border, we arrive at the green paradise-like campus of the American University of Beirut where we are greeted by the university’s climate change researchers. We hear about the differences between the three Levantine countries, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan: Lebanon still has plenty of water, but the problem is bad management. Large areas in southern Beirut that were formed since the 1980s are still without water infrastructure and wastewater is dumped directly into the Mediterranean sea. Syria is in a near-to-crisis situation, and Jordan is amidst one. According to professor Hamed Assaf, Jordan is ‘an example of how the rest of the region will look like in the future’. We also visit a local NGO, IndyACT, that impresses us with its determination, activeness and belief in a greener Middle East.

20 May 2010

An action-packed day, organised by IndyACT, begins with a visit to the local UNDP office. We hear how climate change has quickly climbed up on the government agenda, and how a high-level climate change coordination unit is currently being established. We discuss politics and governance issues with representatives of the Environment and Water and Energy committees of the Lebanese Parliament. During these visits we get to know people who have a passion for the environment and we learn about the political factors that influence water security and management considerations in the region, mainly interstate conflicts and the inseparable Palestinian refugee issue. We also meet with the Lebanese Environment Minister H.E. Mohammad Rahhal and see his determination to push environmental issues on the government agenda. Finally, two local journalists tell us about their radical green views regarding climate change. The day gives us a glimpse of Lebanese diversity at its best.

21 May 2010

After a morning with wonderful staff from the sustainable development division of the UN-ESCWA and discussions on regional-level water and climate change issues, the group heads to the mountains for a visit at the new Chabrouh dam. Guided by the head of the Water section of the Ministry of Energy and Water, we walk along the bright blue shore of the artificial lake that holds 8 million cubic metres and provides water for nearby villages in the hot and dry summer months. In the next decade, close to 20 new dams are planned for water supply and electricity production purposes around the country. Environmental organisations are against the plan, but then again, local stakeholders present us with little alternative plans.

The Levant is running out of water due to human action, both directly, due to high growing consumption and bad management, and indirectly, because of climate change. Disputes between neighbouring countries and internal politics are not helping in this regard. Sadly enough, there is no affordable technological silver bullet in sight, so it will require hard work, multi-stakeholder engagement and a strong belief in a more sustainable society for things to work out for this region that definitely deserves better.

* * *

Participants on the trip: Zeki Kütük, Piia Moilanen, Laura Wickström, Ville Hulkkonen, Ulla-Maija Mroueh, Anna Savolainen, Taru Savolainen, Kirsti Krogerus, Noora Jussila, Jukka Palmén, Hannu Juusola, Thomas Banafa, Olli Varis (not in the picture) and Mari Luomi (behind the camera).

Kirjoitukset edustavat kirjoittajien henkilökohtaisia näkemyksiä.

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