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Escape from Lebanon

Fall 2006 Vol. V, No. 1

Feature articles: Engineering Sustainable Development

May Farah

Lebanon has been trying to rebuild its water and wastewater infrastructure since 1992 and yet, practically no facilities for the treatment of urban wastewater exist today. Projects get started, and are then stopped, or are completed but never become operational. AUB is now involved with a new EU project that might change all that.

There is one wastewater treatment facility in Lebanon: it is a major treatment plant outside Beirut, near the Chadir River, which has been operational since 1997 but operates only at a basic level of treatment. There are also new plants in Baalbek, built five years ago but not operational, and the Jbeil-Batroun area, which has been under construction for the last year. George Ayoub, of the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture (FEA), notes that international donors, who generally help fund treatment plants and set conditions for that funding, are now pressuring the Lebanese government. "Lebanon is required to build the plant, which it does, and then funding is granted for the operation of that plant only if specific guidelines are followed."

What usually ends up happening is that the government builds the plant but fails to follow through on setting guidelines for treatment, so the funding doesn't come through, and the plant never becomes operational. Or the plant is built, but there is no network through which the water can reach the plant. Or the network exists, but there is no plant. In short, there is a lack of coordination and commitment.

So when Ayoub, a professor of environmental engineering who has been at AUB since 1970, got a call from the European Union asking him to get involved with a project that might help kick start water treatment in Lebanon, he didn't miss a beat in signing on. "We were contacted by Greece and Spain, who are the EU leaders and coordinators for the project, and asked if we were interested in getting involved," Ayoub says.

Today, Ayoub and his FEA team, which includes two other faculty members and three graduate students, have joined seven other countries - Morocco, Palestine, Turkey, Cyprus, Jordan and, of course, Greece and Spain - in the Euro-Mediterranean Regional Program for Local Water Management. The project's primary objective is to develop tools and guidelines that will promote sustainable urban wastewater treatment and reuse in agriculture in Mediterranean countries. Urban wastewater is water that comes from a number of sources: domestic use (from households), storm water, industrial and commercial uses, and from infiltration and inflow (such as water that comes out of manholes from a broken pipe), or a combination of all these sources.

"This project aims to look at existing conditions in each country and at projects, both in the region and international, that have been successful at treating such wastewater," he explains. Functioning plants in Spain, Greece, Italy, Palestine, Tunisia, Australia, and in the United States (California) are just a few examples of successful projects that are being studied. Although it would be desirable to treat 100 percent of all wastewater, no country has achieved that level. Ayoub says that countries that are achieving about 50 percent wastewater treatment are considered successful.

Because agriculture generally accounts for 60-70 percent of water consumption, reused water earmarked for agriculture is especially important. "At present, only three to four percent of Lebanon's wastewater is being treated," says Ayoub, who admits this figure is far too low. "The Chadir Plant needs to move past the preliminary stage" which, he explains, involves removing large objects from the water like nonorganic and suspended solids. At the next, or primary stage, there is further treatment to remove the settable organic suspended solids-particles that are in suspended in water and not dissolved. At this stage, the treated water is still not useable. After the secondary stage, when the water is treated for nonsettlable and dissolved organic solids, it can

then be discharged into another body of water and, depending on a country's standards, could be used to irrigate trees, but not other plants.

"The secondary-level treated water could be used for agriculture, but it depends on the type of plant and the standards for each type of agriculture," says Ayoub. In some countries, like parts of South Africa, treated water is used for drinking. There is no list of how countries rank in treating wastewater but if there were, says Ayoub, Lebanon would no doubt be near the bottom, particularly when compared to other countries in the region. "Our neighbors - Syria, Jordan, Israel - have better treatment plants. We're basically the only country in the region that doesn't have an operational treatment plant. It's an issue of priorities; everything here is politicized. The government wants to do things that people can see."

To date, the work completed by Lebanon and the other participating countries involves the gathering and submission of information for each of the eight tasks required by the project (see side bar).

"We've now finalized the seventh task and are beginning the eighth and final task," Ayoub tells me, pointing to a series of hefty binders, each holding the substantial paper work required for one task. "The project leaders will ultimately develop certain software that can be used to assess water safety."

The 42-month project, which began in 2003, is expected to wrap up by the end of the year. Then, says Ayoub, a series of training workshops, conferences, and pilot studies, and other activities will be organized to disseminate the information gathered, transfer know-how, and raise awareness. "Ultimately, what we are putting together are guidelines as to what types of treatments can be used," he explains. "What is the quality of water that can be used in agriculture and the treatment that needs to be achieved to comply with these standards?"

According to Ayoub, farmers have no problems using treated water, as long as this source becomes reliable and consistent, and is not more expensive then the water they are using now. "To date, water in Lebanon has been a problem when it is most needed, in the summer," he says. "So if we can provide a continuous flow throughout the year that is not more expensive, then they will be happy." The bottom line: Lebanon has plenty of water. The problem has more to do with administration. "Lebanon doesn't have a scarcity of water. The problem is the management of resources," says Ayoub. "With good management, we wouldn't have any problems."

Measuring progress: task by task

Task 1: Each country submits a country profile with information on climate, population, water use and agriculture, water policy, and institutional framework.

Task 2: The operation of urban wastewater treatment plants and disposal practices, with emphasis on reuse in agricultural production including reporting on the number and location of plants, the population served, technology used, effluent quantity and quality, final disposal, wastewater reuse in agriculture, and impact on environment and public health is assessed.

Task 3: Best practices in wastewater treatment and reuse are analyzed.

Task 4: Specifications for innovative urban wastewater treatment technologies and systems are identified.

Task 5: Specifications for urban wastewater utilization.

Task 6: Methodology and database to control and monitor urban wastewater treatment plants are developed.

Task 7: Multi-criteria/guiding support software tool for the assessment and valuation of safe wastewater agricultural reuse is designed.

Task 8: Information is disseminated.

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