Friday, April 2, 1999
by Fareed Abou-Haidar
Over the last year or two, there have been scattered news accounts about an interest in building new dams in Lebanon to alleviate water shortages. This is understandable, considering the increasing population and the presence of the dry summer season, just when water is needed most. Lebanon already has one large artificial reservoir, Lake Qaroun, which has become an attractive landmark by itself. There are also many small ponds in the higher mountains. A new lake, to supplement an existing one, will be built in the new Shouf Cedars preserve to provide water for the returning wildlife (The Daily Star, March 12, 1999).
However, dam building needs to be approached with caution so as not to repeat the mistakes that have been made in other countries such as Egypt and the U.S. In Egypt, Lake Nasser has trapped sediments that used to nourish agricultural land, the the Nile Delta estuary, and the Mediterranean. In the U.S., ill-conceived "pork-barrel project" dams have cut off salmon migration routes, destroyed habitat, and ruined spectacular canyons. All of them, especially ones in the erosion-prone desert such Glen Canyon Dam, will eventually silt up. There is now a movement to dismantle some of them.
In Lebanon, a lot of natural habitat has already been destroyed by a rampage of urbanization, rock quarries and deforestation, making what's left that much more valuable. Because of the country's small size, every valley is unique and is a part of the heritage. Thus any plan to build dams should be approached with caution. We cannot afford to drown entire valleys by building high dams on the western side of Mount Lebanon. In the Bequa'a, where large areas of fertile agricultural land has already been lost to ill-conceived buildings and roads, the balance between the amount of land lost needs to be compared to the agricultural land gained or served by the project.
Small dams, such as one on the Ibrahim River, do much less damage to their surroundings and do not destroy entire landscapes. Perhaps what Lebanon needs is not a few grandiose dam projects, but numerous small ones serving local areas (Photo G-19). Better yet, there needs to be a way to spread water flow more evenly throughout the year. This can be accomplished by protecting or rehabilitating watersheds. This involves reforesting the mountains and controlling construction so that rain soaks into the water table and is released during the summer rather than immediately flowing on the barren or paved surface and on to the sea.