Now that summer is on its way, Lebanon is bracing itself for a severe drought that will negatively impact food and water security. A few factors combined will likely create severe problems this summer, as temperatures start to rise. First, Lebanon has had a record dry winter. As the country relies on wet winters for most of its precipitation, this is a real problem. The average precipitation from December to March is around 812 mm, while this season only 413 mm has fallen, almost half of the average. Not only has the rain stayed away, but a significant influx of Syrian refugees into the country is increasing demand for water and food. There are now over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which equals one quarter of the resident population (specifically, there are 220 Syrian refugees for every 1,000 Lebanese residents).
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that Lebanon is ‘stretched to its limits’ in many areas because of the high refugee influx, including concerning its water resources and supply. In this context, UNHCR has called on the international community to assist the country in managing the problem. More refugees also mean more people to feed, and this is a problem when farmland cannot be irrigated. Usually, Lebanese farmers operate irrigation systems that utilize river-water. However, these rivers have a record low water level because of the unexpected dry winter. Consequently, farmers are tapping into precious groundwater, thus depleting valuable renewable resources. The Lebanese government’s capacity limitations in terms of water resource management worsens the expected water crisis; much water is lost because of poor infrastructure and leakage, and from damage that occurred during previous wars. With more and more refugees crossing the border every day, a dry winter and the upcoming summer, Lebanon is facing severe problems in providing its citizens with enough water. This can cause food and water shortages, health problems caused by bad hygiene, and can have a negative economic impact. Oxfam is setting up water & sanitation programs in refugee camps and the Lebanese Energy and Water Ministry calls on citizens to limit usage of water. Despite these measures, the coming summer is expected to cause serious shortage problems with severe consequences.
What is causing these dry winters and lack of water this spring season? Many scientists link these developments to climate change. The Mediterranean region is especially vulnerable to this rise in temperature and has been recognized as a climate change ‘hot spot’[i]. All climate studies[ii] for the regionindicate a trend toward higher temperatures and a general decline in precipitation in the area. In fact, annual precipitation in the Mediterranean basin has been decreasing since the 1950’s[iii]. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the region has experienced 10 of the 12 driest winter seasons since 1902 in just the last 20 years, with increased drought frequency[iv] after 1970. This is partly caused by the global warming of the oceans, which in turn changes weather patterns in Europe[v], displacing moisture-bearing storms northward into the European continent and thus away from the Mediterranean region. This change in weather patterns makes for dry winters and low precipitation in the Mediterranean. These developments are consistent with the climate predictions of the IPCC, which has warned for increased greenhouse gas in the atmosphere leading to changing weather patterns in Europe.
General freshwater availability in the Mediterranean basin, on which the border of Lebanon lies, is scarce and mainly dependent on[vi] runoff from mountain areas. These mountain areas from which most water originates are especially vulnerable to climate change. First of all, climate scenarios project a greater temperature rise on higher altitudes than at lower elevations, thus impacting mountains most. Second, snow and ice from which mountain water originates respond rapidly to even slight variation[vii] in precipitation and temperature. Temperature rise is thus also particularly impactful in Lebanon because it is significantly dependent on its mountains to supply water. As snowfall is decreasing and becoming less stable, dry winters such as this year´s are likely to become more frequent[viii]. Models attempting to predict the future climate circumstances in the region are generally showing higher temperatures and less annual precipitation. The intensity of the precipitation that does fall is expected to increase, with longer dry periods combined with more extreme weather events[ix]. For Lebanon, this would be an especially dangerous development since the country does not possess a good water infrastructure able to manage this extreme variability.
Scientists note that Lebanon is especially vulnerable to rising temperatures and decreased precipitation, as this will likely severely affect snow accumulation and melting processes in the mountains and exhaust[x] the country’s water reserves long before summer. This will also lead to lower river levels and changing river flows. Furthermore, low water periods are expected to last longer under predicted future climatic scenarios[xi]. These developments are exacerbated by water demand, caused by industrialization, increased agriculture, urbanization and population growth – including Syrian refugees – all putting pressure[xii] on available water sources. Since Lebanon lacks a well-developed water infrastructure, groundwater and surface water resources are not effectively replenished. This will make it more and more difficult to meet the county’s demand for fresh water. Predicted climate and land use changes[xiii] are forecasting an increasingly severe problem, and scientists have been calling for intensive water management and planning combined with regional cooperation to reduce regional and national tensions[xiv] over water resources.
Lebanon finds itself in a severe situation caused by various factors. A dry winter, a high influx of refugees, and poor water management has brought the country to the brink of a potential resource crisis. Climate change is acting as a multiplier of these stresses, increasingly affecting water resources in the Mediterranean region, including in Lebanon. With summer and rising temperatures on the way, tensions over water resources in Lebanon may increase. Proactive adaptation to these problems is needed to prevent escalation.
[i] Abouabdillah et al. MODELING THE IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE IN A MEDITERRANEAN CATCHMENT, 2010: 2334
[ii] García-Ruiz et al. Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario, 2011: 123
[iii] García-Ruiz et al. Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario, 2011: 124
[iv]Hoerling et al. On the Increased Frequency of Mediterranean Drought, 2011: 2146
[v] Hoerling et al. On the Increased Frequency of Mediterranean Drought, 2011: 2158
[vi] García-Ruiz et al. Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario, 2011: 122
[vii] García-Ruiz et al. Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario, 2011: 122
[viii] García-Ruiz et al. Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario, 2011: 124
[ix] García-Ruiz et al. Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario, 2011: 130
[x] García-Ruiz et al. Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario, 2011: 130
[xi] Abouabdillah et al. MODELING THE IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE IN A MEDITERRANEAN CATCHMENT, 2010: 2345
[xii] García-Ruiz et al. Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario, 2011: 127-132
[xiii] García-Ruiz et al. Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario, 2011: 127-134
[xiv] García-Ruiz et al. Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario, 2011: 127-134
García-Ruiz, J.M., J.I. López-Moreno, S.M. Vicente-Serrano, T. Lasanta-Martínez, and S. Beguería, 2011: Mediterranean water resources in a global change scenario. Earth-Science Reviews, 105(3-4), 121-139.
Hoerling, H. , Eischeid, J. , Perlwitx, J., Quan, X., Zhang, T. and Pegion, P., 2011:
On the Increased Frequency of Mediterranean Drought. Journal of Climate (25), 2146-2161.
Abouabdillah, A., Oueslati, O., De Girolamo, A.M. and Lo Porto, A., 2010: MODELING THE IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE IN A MEDITERRANEAN CATCHMENT (MERGUELLIL, TUNISIA). Fresenius Environmental Bulletin (10a), 2334-2347