Beirut: Lebanon’s Bisri Valley lies on a green fertile bed, a spot that has cradled civilizations dating as far back as the Bronze Age. Its expansive lands of pine, citrus trees and ancient ruins are threatened with being submerged by a controversial mega dam funded by the World Bank.
For years, activists and locals have voiced their opposition to it, describing it as an environmental crime and a project that mirrors Lebanon’s patronage system and bad governance.
The devastating explosion that rocked Beirut last month, killing more than 190 people and injuring thousands, has highlighted endemic corruption in Lebanon.
It has also revived calls for investigations into mega-infrastructure projects proposed by politicians whose corruption and negligence the public blames for the disaster.
The August 4 explosion was caused by the igniting of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, poorly stored for years at the capital’s port. It is not clear what caused the chemicals to detonate, but it has fueled public outrage against the entire ruling elite.
The Bisri dam project was approved by Lebanon’s government and parliament in 2015 and is funded through a USD 474 million loan by the World Bank, with a total cost of USD 617 million.
It is supposed to store 125 million cubic meters of water, providing a solution for chronic water shortages to 1.6 million Lebanese living in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, according to the World Bank website.
But those opposed to the project, some 35 kilometres (22 miles) south of the capital, say the dam is fraught with technical and corruption issues.
Lebanon’s politicians are notorious for using projects to pass out lucrative positions to their supporters to skim off cash or otherwise profit.
“It represents everything we have been fighting against, it is a model of the confessional patronage system that has led to Lebanon’s demise,” says Roland Nassour, co-founder of the Save the Bisri Valley Campaign.
In a recent letter to the World Bank, the campaign organizers reiterated their call to cancel the project, drawing a parallel between failed dam projects in Lebanon and the explosion, describing both “as a major lack of integrity in the public sector.”
“This is one of the few projects left that the politicians and companies they hire can capitalise on and make money from,” said Elias Hankash, a parliament member who resigned after the blast and has opposed the project from the beginning.
“Is it possible that today, a bankrupt country like Lebanon takes a multi-million-dollar loan to build a dam?” he said.
Lebanon is mired in an unprecedented economic crisis, with a collapsing currency, increasing inflation and hundreds of thousands thrown into poverty.
The government defaulted on its foreign bonds commitment for the first time earlier this spring.
Activists have also voiced concerns that Bisri is on an active seismic fault line.
Geologist Mohammed Khawlie says the dam won’t store the expected amounts of water.
“The rocks are very porous, they absorb the water, the land is karstic,” he explains, referring to a terrain that is formed of soluble rocks and limestone.
“If you want to solve this problem by injecting cement into the dam structure, then you are incurring hundreds of millions of dollars in additional cost.” Other recently built dams in Lebanon have failed for similar reasons, Khawlie said.