Monday, August 18, 2008

Beirut tummy

"At least 200 million people around the world risk their health daily by eating food grown using untreated waste water, some of which may be contaminated with heavy metals and raw sewage, according to major study of 53 world cities.

Urban farmers in 80% of the cities surveyed were found to be using untreated waste water, but the study said they also provided vital food for burgeoning cities at a time of unprecedented water scarcity and the worst food crisis in 30 years." (Thanks Anna)

Now that's a subject I can relate to...You may (or not) know that wastewater treatment is virtually inexistent in Lebanon. There are 2 ways to deal with waste water in my beautiful country, the land of milk and honey: 1. by digging permeable tanks under the houses (in the mountain) or 2. by linking to the primitive wastewater grid which discharges in the valleys (rivers), in irrigation canals, or in the sea. There have been attempts financed by international development monies (especially USAID) to install small scale wastewater treatment facilities, but there are very few success stories. In any case, and because of economies of scale, small, in this particular case, is rather smelly.

As a result, the sea is polluted in most locations around urban concentrations and most, if not all of the rivers are polluted. The Litani and the Qaraoun dam are the best known examples, but other rivers are also very bad. Moreover, studies by UNICEF 18 years ago have shown that most village springs were polluted with domestic wastewater due to seepage originating from the underground tanks (these tanks often overflow in the streets and when neighbors complain, a tanker is called, and the man comes (it is always a man) and he empties the tank in his vehicle and then dumps it into the nearest valley). I think have just unveiled the secret of the fabulous taste of `ayn al day`a (the village spring) water.

Because most rivers are dry during summer, the concentration of waste water increases at the same time as crops are more intensively irrigated. The end results is that fruits and vegetables, the pride of Lebanon, can often get their food and water from the same source. This reduces the fertilizers needs of crops. Farmers are very aware of that, and defend their right to use polluted water: nearly 20 years ago I was trying to install a natural wastewater treatment system (constructed wetlands) in the poor village of Bebnine in `Akkar. The project, for which I had been promised international funding, collapsed as local farmers complained loudly when they learned that the waste water would be diverted into a treatment facility. This, in their opinion, would deprive them from water and nutrients, and increase their fertilizer bill. The project was shelved.

But the question as the government-which is reticent to invest in public services- probably poses it is: so what? In spite of all we know about water pollution and the use of waste water at various concentrations in the irrigation of crops, there are few cases of epidemics directly attributable to the consumption of fruits and vegetables irrigated with dirty water in Lebanon. The cases of diarrhea increase in most locations during summer, but it is difficult to attribute this unequivocally to irrigation with wastewater. Most people think it is "the heat". Every Sunday thousand of poor people swim at the Beirut Public Beach in Ramlet el Baida, which is located between 2 enormous sewage outlets. Most of them can't swim and ingest large quantities of tainted brine, but large scale outbreaks of water-borne diseases have yet to be reported. But then again, they are poor, and most of their ills go unreported. Many people (but especially the poor) drink water that is bottled, but potentially unclean as there exists no quality inspection in the country. And of course, most foreign visitors get the runs (termed Beirut tummy) at one time or another during their stay but it is unclear whether this is due to consuming unwashed vegetables or to the always volatile security situation.

Clearly, there is no need to do anything about waste water in Lebanon.


Leila said...

You're making me feel very confident about my upcoming visit :(
However I'd already resolved to boil all water I drink, and only eat cooked vegetables.
Perhaps the whole mechanism of modern wastewater treatment needs to be questioned? Why treat nutrient-rich sewage at great expense in order to dump it into our drinking and fishing water?

OK I understand that in a karstic landscape, septic tanks will pollute drinking water sources.

What about above ground composting systems? This isn't great for urban areas but any village with enough ground for a sewage system could implement individual - by house - manure compost systems.

I don't know what to say about urban manure. People in the States are composting their nightsoil in cities - the few nutty environmentalists, you know. See No Impact Man, who composts his family's wastes in a 9th floor apartment in Manhattan. If a few can do it, why can't a lot do it? Then the compost can be trucked to the farms or urban gardens.

I like the Humanure handbook on this topic. Looks like you have been working on it for years. Can the farmers somehow get plugged into the natural water treatment loop so they get the water and the nutrients?

Leila said...

Forgive my amateur questions and opinions on this subject, by the way. I know I don't have any experience in these matters. I am simply interested - and troubled.

Dumping sewage into the Mediterranean has to hurt the sea's ecosystem.

jke said...

Yeah, what about Urine Diversion Dry Toilets and then composting the faeces, using the diluted urine as fertilizers and using those constructed wetlands for the greywater only?

(came here via that GlobalVoices article)

jke said...

@Leila: you may also be interested in the publications available on the website of the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (