A Looming Water Crisis Threatens Lebanon’s Waning Stability

On July 23, UNICEF announced that Lebanon’s water system is on the verge of collapse. They estimate that water pumping will gradually decrease and potentially even cease over the next four to six weeks. According to UNICEF, 71% of Lebanon’s population is at risk of losing safe drinking water, which amounts to four million people, including one million refugees. The loss of access to clean water for such a large portion of Lebanon’s population would endanger individual health, as well as the public health system, and would throw a wrench into the country’s declining stability.

The threat to Lebanon’s water system is a result of various shortages in fuel, funding and essential supplies, including chlorine and spare parts. Recent fuel shortages on a broader scale have already halted parts of Lebanon’s economy and are now threatening the basic necessity of safe water as well. Lebanon has also experienced outages and irregular power supply, which have interrupted the treatment, pumping and distribution of water.

Yukie Mokuo, UNICEF’s Representative in Lebanon, explained that “Lebanon’s public water system is on life support and could collapse at any moment.” This threat falls in the middle of the country’s summer and amid rising COVID-19 cases due to the Delta variant. Lebanon’s health sector has already faced major challenges from various waves of COVID-19 cases, resulting in a weakened infrastructure. The impact of a water system collapse on Lebanon’s already struggling healthcare system would be immense, and essential facilities like hospitals and schools could not function in the event of a sudden loss of access to drinking water. UNICEF explains that there would be an increase in disease from both the lack of safe water and the subsequent challenges for healthcare infrastructure.

In addition to the broader public health implications, many individuals and families would be put at greater risk. Four million people would be desperate for new sources of water and forced to choose from extremely costly and unsanitary options. The risk to hygiene and personal health would grow substantially, particularly for women and adolescent girls, who would face even more challenges in safeguarding their health and well-being.

Mokuo emphasized the impact of Lebanon’s struggling economy, saying “the water sector is being squeezed to destruction by the current economic crisis in Lebanon.” Since 2020, the prices of private sector water supplies have increased by 35%. Public water suppliers are also struggling to afford the essential parts and resources necessary to maintain the system. If the public water supply collapsed, UNICEF estimates that water costs could increase by 200% a month from having to turn to alternative suppliers. Such an increase would be completely unmanageable for most households, especially for particularly vulnerable populations such as refugees.

The unstable water system is a reflection of Lebanon’s broader economic as well as political instability. The Beirut port explosion in August 2020 was a devastating event, killing over 200 people and injuring thousands more and is a clear example of both the government’s neglect and the country’s instability. The World Bank has described Lebanon’s financial crisis as one of the worst economic disasters since the mid-19th century. Its currency has been dropping since October 2019, losing over 95% of its value in that time, and it is likely that more than half of Lebanon’s population has fallen below the poverty line. In Fall 2020, the World Bank described the crisis as a “deliberate depression,” a phrase targeting Lebanon’s leaders who have done little to relieve the financial struggle. Politically, Lebanon has recently been pushed into further uncertainty as well. In July, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri stopped his bid to rescue the administration, leaving Lebanon in a continuing political limbo. As political instability rises, the economic crisis also worsens, making the potential collapse of the water system even more concerning.

It costs UNICEF 40 million USD a year to continue providing water to over four million people across Lebanon. Mokuo said UNICEF remains committed to supporting communities with all available resources, “but this alarming situation requires immediate and sustained funding.” Without a supportive government and a strong economy to rectify the issue, Lebanon could face extreme consequences with the potential collapse of its public water system. Losing the right and necessity of access to clean water would be devastating, particularly as the pandemic continues during a major economic struggle.