In Lebanon, a dam sparks an environmental backlash

The government pushes ahead with the controversial construction of a reservoir in the historic Adonis Valley to ease water shortages.

It’s a familiar tradeoff: A region in need of water and power turns to a dam project to create a reservoir and generate electricity. But environmentalists raise concerns that the dam will destroy a pristine environment that is an important tourist attraction.

This time, an historic landscape in Lebanon is the scene of the debate.

Construction of a dam in Lebanon’s Adonis Valley is well under way, with completion expected in 2020. Already, bulldozers have razed the forest and removed more than 5,500 cedar trees.

But environmentalists and local residents say they will continue to fight the project.

The Adonis valley is a natural and cultural landmark in Lebanon, stretching through a narrow river gorge from the 6,000-year-old city of Byblos on the Mediterranean Coast to the springs of Afqa more than 1,000 yards above the valley.

The region’s temperate climate, abundant rainfall and pristine environment have fostered exceptional biodiversity. The valley also figures in the mythology of early Phoenician inhabitants and is designated a world heritage site.

Paradise lost?

Ironically, opponents note, the dam is called Janneh, which means “paradise” in Arabic.

Lebanon is building the dam in the face of severe water shortages. According to the government, supplies are 25 percent less than what the country needs. Demand is growing with an expansion of agriculture and an influx of refugees from conflicts in the region.

In response to the problem, the Lebanese government has embarked on a program to build 30 dams and hill lakes in the region at a cost of $250 million, according to Kahtib Alami, the firm supervising construction of the project. In all, the lakes will store and supply up to 800 million cubic meters of drinking and irrigation water.

The company said Janneh Dam is part of this program and involves management of more than 90 million square meters of water, more than 10 percent of the total yield. The hope is that the dam will provide enough water and electricity to supply Beirut and Byblos.

Third year of shortages

Ziad Zakhour, an official with the Ministry of Energy and Water, said over-use of the country’s wells for extended period have brought on the water crisis. Lebanon’s more than 75,000 wells, many of them illegal, have not been allowed time to replenish, he said.

Lebanon is facing its third straight year of less-than-average rainfall, which also contributes to the water crisis along with rising summer temperatures and poor water management.

While dams are generally “not the best solution,” the state of the wells is forcing the country to turn from underground sources to surface water, Zakhour said.

Opponents cite environmental, earthquake risks

But opponents say the project poses myriad problems, not the least of which is the destruction of a fragile natural eco-system that draws tourists.

Paul Abi Rached, of the Lebanon Eco Movement, told Al-Jazeera that the project threatens the biodiversity of the region as well as its draw as a valued tourist attraction. “They are destroying it for nothing,” Rached said.

According to one environmental report, the site is home to more than 400 plant species, 700 species of invertebrates, six amphibians, 23 reptiles, 30 mammals and 140 birds.

The 2015 report emphasized the cultural and historical importance of the site of “as it witnessed the crossing of civilizations” in the larger region and was a “holy land for the Phoenicians,” who were ancient traders and navigators in the area.

Opponents also say the soil in the area is less than ideal for a reservoir as it will absorb the water. They also warn that the dam will be built atop two fault lines.

Government proponents of the project, meanwhile, said the danger of earthquake is minimal and forest areas will be replanted once work is completed.

However, an environmental impact study cited serious potential impacts on biodiversity and cultural heritage as well as the risk of leakage and possible collapse. It called the selection of the site an “error.”

That report prompted calls to halt construction, but work has continued.

Even if protests are successful, local residents are not convinced the damage can be undone.

“They’re destroying it for the sake of profiting from it,” resident Khalid Zouein said.

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