No life without water: Destruction of water systems complicates return for displaced communities in South Lebanon
The morning of 14 August 2006, on the hour of the deadline set by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for the implementation of Security Council resolution 1701 calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities, thousands of Lebanese displaced during the 34-day war were already on their way home. In what observers have described as an immense show of will and dignity, returnees were eager to live life again in as much of a state of normalcy as they could find at home, whatever the extent of the damage to their villages.
Soon afterwards, the initial excitement began to wear somewhat as villagers returning home found themselves hard hit by the fact that not only had many of their houses been destroyed – but also their villages’ essential electricity and water supply networks. “We are glad to be home, for this is our land. But this is no life. We have no water to drink, we live by candlelight. Aitaroun was so beautiful. Now it is destroyed,” says Maryam Farhat.
During the war, water systems across many urban and rural areas in South Lebanon, the Beqaa Valley and southern suburbs of Beirut were either totally destroyed or partially damaged, causing temporary or full stoppages of water. Rendering recovery more difficult has been the lack of electricity, vital for pumping water.
In Al-Khiam, it took some time for villagers to start receiving water supplies from the local municipality, as it too was suffering from the fallout of the war. “I spent the first three days back going to the municipality, begging for water,” says Nimre Mohamed Ammar. “There was none, they said. But we needed water to drink, to wash our faces, to bathe our children.” The water tank on the rooftop of Ammar’s house was damaged beyond repair during the war.
The Al-Khiam municipality acted as quickly as it could under the circumstances, said its deputy mayor Mohamed Abdullah. The municipality used its own funds to buy new water tanks for homes, while NGOs and agencies started to contribute to the effort to provide returning communities with water and temporary tanks. “Without water, there is no life,” Abdullah says.
In the national and cross-agency effort to tackle the challenge of providing both drinkable and non-drinkable water, UNICEF has taken a leading role. Working in close collaboration with the local water authorities, as well as other UN agencies and NGOs, UNICEF has so far distributed over 1 million litres of bottled water, focusing particularly on the most disadvantaged. Recently, it has launched an awareness campaign aimed at sensitizing the Lebanese on the dangers of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Bottled water is labelled with a UXO awareness message.
Now, with immediate needs for drinkable water being met, UNICEF is working to provide medium-term solutions while reconstruction and repair to damaged networks get underway, thus helping Lebanon to move from the emergency phase into its early recovery. “Access to water is a basic human right, and one of our top priorities,” said UNICEF Representative in Lebanon Roberto Laurenti. In the hot summer, water is ever more crucial to help people keep up community efforts for recovery. The provision of clean water is vital also to ensure water-borne diseases do not spread.
As well as providing technical assistance when needed, UNICEF is responding to calls from villages for tanks and help with repairing damaged systems. It is also providing locally purchased power generators in areas where power cuts have rendered existing water systems dysfunctional.
While there still is a long way to go before needs are fully met in the affected areas, the emergency is already beginning to wane. ”It will take time, however, before the problem is resolved,” Laurenti said. “It is not possible to say quite how long, for it all depends on the extent of the damage. In some areas, it might take weeks, in others months,” he added.
But as their basic need for water is being met, the Lebanese are beginning to feel more hopeful – despite the widespread destruction – that they will be able to work on reconstructing their lives. “Our problem with water is already much better now,” says Ammar. “Now we must look to start rebuilding everything we have lost.”