Lebanon has managed to stave off a total collapse of its water infrastructure, but water supply systems remain on the brink, putting the health of millions of people, particularly children, at risk, UNICEF has warned.
In a new report – Struggling to keep the taps on – UNICEF warns that prospects for a solution will remain bleak while the power crisis continues, as electricity shortages make it impossible to pump sufficient water, and in some cases cause pumping operations to shut down completely.
The report looks at developments since UNICEF warned one year ago that Lebanon's water system was at breaking point.
“While a total collapse of public water supply networks has so far been averted, the crisis has not been resolved and millions of people are affected by the limited availability of clean and safe water," said Edouard Beigbeder, UNICEF Representative in Lebanon. "Addressing the issue is of utmost importance for the health of children and families in Lebanon.”
Rising global oil prices further worsened an economic meltdown that was already compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut explosions, severely affecting critical infrastructure.
Public sector providers have been unable to provide sufficient water to their customers, largely as a result of the power crisis, but also because they are unable to afford parts, repairs and diesel, amid spiralling inflation. Since the beginning of the crisis, water supplies from the four Water Establishments have decreased dramatically, often falling short of the 35 litres per capita per day considered the minimum acceptable quantity.
Many households rely on costly water trucking and private providers with no guarantees about water quality.
The average cost for 1,000 litres of trucked water reached 145,000 Lebanese pounds (LBP) in April 2022, an increase of almost 50 per cent compared with the same month in 2021, and an almost sixfold increase compared with 2019.
In addition, most Lebanese households depend on bottled water for their drinking needs, in part because of concerns over the quality of tap water. In April 2022, the price of bottled water was three to five times what it was a year earlier. A family of five, drinking a total of 10 litres a day, would need to spend about LBP6.5 million (US$261) a year, in addition to the cost of water they use to meet their cooking and hygiene needs.
Critically, the water crisis affects hospitals and other health centres, as well as schools.
Inadequate supplies of safe water pose a huge risk to infants and young children, who are particularly vulnerable to water- and sanitation-related diseases, one of the leading causes of death for children under age 5.
UNICEF stressed that water supply through public operators remains the best and most affordable solution. Measures should be taken immediately to solve the power crisis and support services, while significant investments are urgently needed so the public supply networks can return to viable operations.
As the Government works to resolve the crisis, it is critical that it ensures every family, especially the most vulnerable, can afford water. “Access to water is not only a basic need, it is a fundamental right. Having sufficient, affordable and safe water saves lives and keeps children healthy,” said Beigbeder.
UNICEF has significantly increased support to water services in Lebanon since the onset of the crisis, including the provision of supplies, consumables and rapid response repairs, to ensure everyone in the country has access to safe water.
UNICEF needs US$75 million a year to keep critical systems operational and the water flowing to over four million people across the country and safeguard access and operation of the public water systems.