Climate change and corruption endanger an ancient valley in Lebanon

Nabih Bulos, Marcus Yam
·13 min read
BISRI VILLAGE, LEBANON -- OCTOBER 1, 2020: Imad Baaini stretches and workout at his enclave on a cliff, at Bisri Village, Lebanon, Thursday Oct. 1, 2020. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Imad Baaini stretches at his enclave on a cliff at Bisri Village, Lebanon, Thursday Oct. 1, 2020. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

On a remote cliff about 20 miles south of Beirut, a late morning sun roused Imad Beainy. He got out of bed, slipped on a pair of shorts and walked to the cliff's edge, lighting a joint as he looked over the fruit groves and wild meadows of the Bisri Valley.

Hewed between two mountain ranges, the valley extends some six miles along a tributary of the Awali river. In the distance, Beainy glimpsed the sun shining off the cream-colored tiles of the 300-year-old Mar Moussa church. Closer to the cliff, sprinkled around a 15th century Mamluk-Ottoman bridge and the ruins of a Roman temple, lay some 50 other archaeological sites.

Imad Beainy
Imad Beainy collects water to use for watering plants at his home. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Beainy, 51, spoke of them as if they were his own; that this land was not just a home but a way of life. Yet for the last seven years, the valley and its history have been in jeopardy.

Bisri is to be the site of Lebanon’s second-largest dam, a proposed mega-project to bring water to Beirut’s ever-ballooning neighborhoods. The pressure of such growth underscores an existential threat to the region as governments already on the brink contend with a future in which they can no longer support some of the world's fastest-growing populations.

Water scarcity, climate change and erratic weather systems are likely to further imperil stability across the Middle East. No fewer than 12 countries in the region make the list of the world's most water-stressed nations; already-scorching summer temperatures are expected to rise twice as fast as the average global warming, according to the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. The World Bank predicts the Middle East will become the most economically damaged place on Earth due to climate-related water scarcity.

For Lebanon, Bisri would be the price for limiting those dangers. The valley would vanish: Seven million square yards of agricultural fields, forests and wild lands; and the livelihood of farm owners, workers and the 36,000 people in adjacent villages would be submerged under more than 160 million cubic yards of water.

But more than climate change has come into play. Supporters insist the dam is vital to the nation's survival, but for Beainy, and a dedicated band of activists, it embodies another disturbing fact of life for the Lebanese: the country’s cannibalization by politicians interested only in enriching themselves and their cronies, and whose corruption and mismanagement have railroaded Lebanon toward financial implosion.

In their bid to stop the dam's construction, activists have marshaled the revolutionary fervor gripping the Lebanese since 2019, when politicians failed to stop the collapse of the currency as the country tumbled into its worst crisis since the 1980s civil war. The bonds between the government and its people have ruptured, and in no place is that more evident than in Bisri's tale of greed, sectarian politics, survival, and the passions of environmentalists and a dope-scented pseudo-hippie movement.

At first glance, Lebanon doesn't appear like a land with water problems. Sea on one side, snow-blanched mountains on the other. The perennial brag here is that you can ski and swim on the same day. The country seems suffused with streams and tributaries coursing past quaint villages down to the Mediterranean coast.

A small patch of crop in the Bisri Valley.
A small patch of crop grows in tilled soil in the Bisri Valley. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The reality is grimmer: Lebanon stores only 6% of fresh water in reservoirs, far below the regional average. That’s perhaps a good thing, because most natural water sources are bacterially contaminated, a result of some 400 million cubic yards of wastewater dumped into its aquifers or the Mediterranean with little or no treatment, according to the government’s Capital Investment Program. (A study by the American University of Beirut found fecal coliform bacteria in 80% of tap water.)

Creaking water infrastructure — leakage in pipes averages 48% nationally, according to one estimate — means most people drill illegal wells, with 20,000 such boreholes in Greater Beirut alone. That over-exploitation means that what comes out of faucets in coast-side neighborhoods like Beirut’s Hamra is brackish, when it comes at all.

Little wonder then that most are forced to pay to truck water in for washing or prohibitively expensive bottled water for drinking.

The Bisri dam was supposed to solve all that. It was proposed in 1953 by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation; the World Bank approved an updated version of the plans in 2014 as part of the Water Supply Augmentation Project. It gave a $474-million loan to finance the project — the bank’s largest-ever investment in Lebanon, with a total cost of $617 million.

Overseeing the project was the Council for Development and Reconstruction, or CDR, an uber-state agency that issues the bulk of Lebanon’s public tenders. It appropriated 966 plots for the dam from residents and owners in what was presented as a fait accompli.

Amani Beainy in front of bridge
Amani Beainy stands in front of the 15th century Mamluk-Ottoman bridge and the ruins of a Roman temple in Bisri Valley. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“My father was part of the municipal council and refused the government’s offer," said Amani Beainy (no relation to Imad), a 31-year-old resident-turned-activist in the area. "But there were enormous pressures on municipalities. Only one said no.”

Described in a U.S. Embassy cable published by WikiLeaks as “the epitome of patronage,” CDR, critics say, disburses funding for public projects to enrich Lebanon’s sectarian leaders. A recent analysis by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies found that two-thirds of the council's contracts were granted to 10 politically connected companies.

"The aim is to share the spoils. The top contractors are an extension of the corrupt authority,” Amani said. Contractors would be expected to give something — jobs, funds, aid — the leader could dole out to his constituents to build support.

“Each Zaim [sectarian leader] is tied to a contractor," Amani said. “They’re just a facade.”

Ruins of a Roman temple
A view of the ruins of a Roman temple and other archaeological sites in the Bisri Valley. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

And Bisri would have many spoils: The dam’s construction would fall to Khoury Contracting, a company whose owner is close to the Christian party of President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil. A firm owned by the brother of Lebanon's Internal Security Force, a Sunni Muslim, got the contract for Bisri’s sand, activists assert. Everyone down to the security guards who put up a barricade to prevent people from entering the valley was picked under the sectarian horse-trading formula.

Despite those powerful forces, resistance took hold. Landowners complained they hadn’t been compensated fairly. Farmers barred from entering Bisri were angered that they would lose their livelihood.

“This is our water. Is their aim to put us all in Beirut?” said Karim Kanaan, a Jezzine resident and activist. “Beirut is overcrowded. Do you then want to push us to there instead of developing the area here?”

He and others coalesced around Imad Beainy, seeing in him an almost talismanic figure, a true son of Bisri.

Imad Beainy and Nadia Safa
Imad Beainy and Nadia Safa prepare a meal at home in Bisri village. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Beainy had been a fighter loyal to Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader who ruled the Chouf area. In the early 2000s, Beainy left for the United Arab Emirates to work but returned a few years later. Disillusioned with politics, in 2009 he hauled his trailer to the cliff he dubbed Imad’s Rock. It was the nucleus of a shack that now encompassed a kitchen, an outhouse, a divan-style seating area and several places for tents and hanging out.

It became a sort of hippie commune. Hikers, unemployed 20- to 30-year-olds seeking purpose, and older, rich professionals turning away from their past came — and often stayed — for Beainy’s pastiche of quasi-religious utterances and aphorisms on life and how to live it.

Activists camp out
Activists camp out in Bisri village, Lebanon. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“You have to give up to rise,” he would intone. “Give up societal ideas; those that are canned and detached.”

In his doctrine, Bisri was a mythical place, its grounds possessing an energy that could rejuvenate the soul of his disciples. He turned the wayward into believers and they returned home as evangelists for Bisri.

Amani Beainy too was organizing. She started a Facebook page in 2015 highlighting local opposition to the dam, which also attracted environmental activist Roland Nassour. He and others in the Lebanon Eco Movement, an umbrella of environmental groups, worked with Amani to protest Bisri's fate. Her page became part of a countrywide movement, The National Campaign to Protect the Bisri Valley, which held sit-ins every week in front of government institutions or at the valley’s entrance.

“In the beginning, people didn't even know how to pronounce the valley’s name," Amani said. "Then it became a recognizable issue.”

Amani Beainy at waterfall
Amani Beainy sits over a waterfall on the Awali river, in the Bisri Valley. Beainy started a Facebook page in 2015 highlighting local opposition to the dam. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The campaign challenged the World Bank’s viability studies. Engineers said the prospective dam’s site was built on a seismic fault and could possibly spur an earthquake. Others said Bisri’s ground is karstic, meaning porous, and would require grouting, or constant injections of cement to make it hold water, driving up costs. Rehabilitating the water grid and better use of groundwater were proposed as more viable, less destructive solutions.

One environmentalist estimated that anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 trees would be cut down, a move he called a genocide. Another expert said that the Awali river did not have enough flow and that climate change would degrade it further. Besides, before reaching Beirut, the water would pass through another reservoir downstream that was contaminated.

Archaeologists questioned the bank’s plan to move the Mar Moussa church. Nassour told bank officials that similar dams in the country had been a failure. But it seemed to matter little. The bank and the council countered with their own experts, insisting that a dam was the best solution.

The unity among anti-dam activists began to fray — as many things do in Lebanon — when sectarian loyalties flared. Imad Beainy’s renewed fealty to Jumblatt caused a falling-out with Nassour and Amani. Beainy was imprisoned twice for a few months for beating Nassour in 2019 and Amani in 2020. (He was released after they dropped charges.)

A family picnic along the Awali river in Bisri Valley, Lebanon.
Tarek Kawaz, from left, Abdullah Kawaz, Tala Kawaz, Lamis Abou Dohez, Nagham Abou Dohez and Mohamad Abou Dohez set up a family picnic along the Awali river in the Bisri Valley. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The nation was sliding into its own turmoil as the graft and incompetence of the government was laid bare. On Oct. 17, 2019, a protest in Beirut against a proposed tax on the messaging group WhatsApp morphed into a months-long tsunami of anger at a political class unable to provide even the most basic services. At its height, more than a million people took to the streets.

Resentment spread and Bisri was swept up in the protest as the embodiment of the corruption driving Lebanon’s ruin. When a contractor began to cut down trees in Bisri in early November 2019, the campaign rallied some 1,400 demonstrators, who smashed through the barricades and tied themselves to trees. They brought tents, vowing to thwart any work on the site.

The political winds shifted and those behind the dam recalculated. Around April 2020, Jumblatt, recognizing growing anger against the project, withdrew his support, along with that of the Chouf municipalities in the area. Other sectarian leaders saw an opening to score points against the president and his son-in-law. They excoriated the project as corrupt at a time when the government had proved its ineptitude.

The bank also buckled. It suspended the loan in June, conditioning its release on the government addressing community fears and "reaching an agreement on the operation and maintenance of the dam with the concerned parties."

Then came a national tragedy. In August, one month after 2,500 tons of ammonium nitrate and other materials exploded, killing hundreds and leveling wide swaths of Beirut, the bank had enough of the controversy and opposition around the dam. It canceled what remained of the loan with the aim of redirecting it toward disaster aid.

It was a major victory, Nassour said, one that had wielded politics against the politicians.

Local residents in Bisri Valley, Lebanon.
Local residents walk through the farmlands in the Bisri Valley. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

“We can’t separate our success from the revolution. Our position in general was in line with the political feelings in the country,” he said.

But the dam project remains on the government’s books; it needs a parliamentary decision to rescind it, meaning it could be revived if funding can be found. It seemed as if it was heading that way. This month, CDR issued a tender for $80 million to continue work on a water-conveying tunnel meant to link up to the proposed Bisri reservoir.

Asked about this tender and other projects, council head Elie Mousalli refused to comment, saying there was "nothing to talk about."

In the meantime, the World Bank predicts the project's cancellation means no reliable access to clean water for more than 1.6 million people living in Beirut and its environs, including 460,000 people who live on less than $4 a day. Despite the furor around the Bisri dam, the bank insists it remains the best option.

But Amani and other activists keep their vigil. They have a community of people tilling what is now public land, living off its bounty as their forebears had for hundreds of years, she said.

On the cliffs above was Imad Beainy. The revolution had brought him more adherents. He was now concerned with greater change, maybe turn Bisri into a reserve, educate people not just to recycle but to stop producing so much trash in the first place.

“Knowledge is one thing,” he said. “Knowing is another.”

He went to the edge of the cliff, no safety gear in sight. He clambered down to a tiny ledge. Standing on one leg, he stretched his arms out to the sky, then looked down. He seemed younger.

A road alongside the Bisri Valley, Lebanon.
A car travels down a road in the Bisri Valley. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

(This is the first in a series of occasional articles about how climate change and water scarcity are affecting the politics and landscape of the Middle East.)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.