A potential seismic hazard is under construction in Lebanon’s Bisri Valley, as the World Bank presses ahead with a dam that will in five years straddle one of the largest fault lines in the Middle East.

The planned reservoir will mean 33 billion gallons of water pressuring the point where an earthquake occurred six decades ago, killing dozens and leveling thousands of homes. With the Bisri Valley located 50 kilometers north of Israel and the same distance from Syria to the east, a major seismic event threatens to impact not only local residents but the surrounding region.

“There is not a worse place for building a dam in Lebanon,” said Tony Nemer, an American University of Beirut professor of geology, who wrote his PhD thesis on the same fault line on which the dam will be located.

“In Lebanon, we are at a tectonic plate boundary. We have the Dead Sea Transform fault, which extends from Aqaba [in Jordan] to southeast Turkey. And when it reaches Lebanon it splays into five different faults,” he said.

The Bisri Valley itself straddles two seismic fault lines, the Roum and the Bisri offshoot, making it the most susceptible point for earthquakes in the entire country. “The Bisri fault and Roum fault are interconnected, so if anything happens on one, it affects the other, and vice versa,” said Nemer.

Scientists and environmentalists opposed to the dam appealed to members of the Lebanese parliament in a meeting earlier this month to cancel the project and consider alternative solutions for clean water.

But the burden of more than $600 million in new loans was not even at the top of the list of concerns for seismologists like Nemer; rather it was the weight of the proposed dam reservoir.

“That area where the dam is proposed hosted the epicenter of the 1956 earthquake,” he said. “That earthquake took place either at the Bisri fault or at the Roum fault or at the intersection between these two faults.”

Either way, the professor said, the fault line should be considered active.

“We know from previous peer-reviewed studies in international journals that the Roum fault generated the earthquake of January 1, 1837 that had a magnitude of 7.1 and it affected the whole region, including Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine.”

The proposed dam will form a lake with an expected volume of 125 million cubic meters covering 4.5 square kilometers. The water height is slated to reach 70 meters high, submerging the valley and threatening to impact the fault line below.

Members of the Lebanese Red Cross assist a volunteer acting as a victim during a disaster response drill simulating an earthquake on March 28, 2015 in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon. Photo: Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP

“There is something in geology called reservoir-triggered seismicity,” explains Nemer. “You have a fault, you impound water above that fault, and the water has weight.”

The water eventually seeps into the subsurface, he said, creating a lubricating effect, which – combined with the weight from above – will change the stresses over the fault line, making the rocks shift below the surface.

“We are dealing with a seismogenic (earthquake inducing) fault, connected to the Bisri fault, and we are building a dam on top,” Nemer said dryly. “This is something we do not want to do.”

Another Lebanese seismologist, Dr Ata Elias, warned in a 2012 paper that any quake in Lebanon could affect the entire country.

“Because the country is of small size compared with the important number and size of the active faults it hosts, potential earthquakes locations can be considered as equally probable over the entire area,” he said. At the time, he noted that researchers from Israel, Palestine, and Jordan all expect the Levant is overdue for a major seismic event.

Drinking from the tap?

At the top and center of the World Bank’s project webpage, children are seen standing in front of a row of water faucets, as if to suggest these taps will be fed with potable water from the Bisri Valley.

That idea is laughable for anyone who has spent any length of time in the country.

For starters, the photo is from Akkar, in the north of Lebanon outside the project’s target area in Beirut. More importantly, the faucets are as ambiguous as the promise of the project – hinting, but not promising, drinking water from the tap.

The fundamental water problem in Lebanon, whose mountain ranges are still snow-capped well into summer, is not a lack of water and wells, but its decrepit distribution network, which the dam and related projects are not designed to address.

Palestinian Najah Awad, who fled Syria’s war with her family, pours bottled water in her kitchen in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital Beirut in January 2017. Photo: Anwar Amro / AFP

Lebanese do not drink water from the tap because varying degrees of seawater, sewage, micro-plastics and metals permeate the water supply along the way. Some Beirut residents, including those with limited means, even refuse to use the water for washing vegetables or boiling pasta. A Syrian refugee woman interviewed by Asia Times last summer said the cost of “water alone” was enough to push her and her family to sign up for a Hezbollah-sanctioned return to the Damascus suburbs.

The World Bank says its project “will use a combination of underground tunnels, pipelines, storage reservoirs, and a large water treatment plant” south of Beirut to deliver drinking water of “international quality standards” to some 1.6 million people. But what about the journey the water makes between the treatment plant and people’s taps?

More than 40% of the water that does flow through the water network is lost to leakage, according to Lebanon’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources. Not only is water lost, but unsanitary matter seeps in.

The World Bank is aware of the problem. In February 2017 the Bank reported that a pilot project to repair water lines in a neighborhood of Beirut had resulted in a 24/7 water supply. Yet despite the dramatic turnaround, which would appear to render a new dam superfluous, a World Bank official declared that the results justified the $617 million project.

Rather than proposing a project to overhaul Beirut’s water infrastructure, the new reservoir will feed into the existing system.

Money in the bank

Grassroots pushback against the Bisri Dam prompted the World Bank’s Inspection Panel to accept a request in August 2018 to review the project.

Three months later, the panel issued a 127-page document which concluded the dam “has been designed to withstand the ground motion that would result from a Maximum Credible Earthquake”.

Responding to questions over the risk of reservoir-triggered seismicity, which scientists suspect was behind an earthquake that killed 80,000 people in China in 2008, the report countered that the Bisri Dam will be shorter in height and hold far less water than 22 other dams believed to have caused quakes.

Survivors make their way up a hill at the Zipingpu Dam after being evacuated from the epicenter of a quake that left 80,000 dead in southwest China’s on May 18, 2008. Photo: AFP

The Bisri Dam project has been ushered through a political landscape which Transparency International ranked one of the most corrupt in the world last year, tied along with Russia and Mexico at 138, the worst being Somalia at 180. The Berlin-based watchdog cited “political corruption and conflict of interest” as the main barriers to improvement.

A smattering of voices in the Lebanese parliament have spoken out against the dam and its risks, as well as the new financial obligations it will bring. Lebanon’s debt-to-GDP ratio is already one of the highest in the world at over 150% and rising.

Moody’s downgraded Lebanon’s credit rating to junk in December over fears the country might default on its debts in the near future. To date, Lebanon has accepted $170 million in World Bank financing, a debt to be paid by future generations.

This is Part I of a series on Lebanon’s controversial water management plan