Unavailable and unsanitary

Hard access to clean water in Lebanon's refugee camps

Urban change
Photo by Habib Battah.

A faded sign put up by a foreign aid organisation at the entrance of Kamed El Loz refugee settlement promises to solve pressing water issues. But residents of the dusty, densely populated camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley say they have been abandoned by international organisations that promised to help, and are forced now to buy unsanitary water from unknown sources. 

“They just come here to take photos,” says camp resident Hussein of foreign aid organisations. Like many in the camp, he refused to give his full name in fear of retribution.

Set up in the wake of the Syrian war in 2011, Kamed El Loz is one out of thousands of settlements across Lebanon, housing over 1 million Syrian refugees. There are some 20,000 tents spread over 2,500 settlements just in the Bekaa Valley, a fertile plain that lies in between the mountains separating Lebanon and Syria. Precarious to the elements, the tents are typically made of disused wood and advertising banners, erected in community clusters amid farm fields. There are no plumbing facilities so water is brought in by truck, stored in plastic tanks outside the tents. 

The families in the camp now collect water from a nearby murky pit used to feed irrigation sprinklers

Camp residents say water had been trucked in and tested by the United Nations for several years up until recent months, when all supply was cut off due to a dispute over a well between two Lebanese villages. As a result, the families in the camp now collect water from a nearby murky pit used to feed irrigation sprinklers. The pit is only filled when a large industrial generator pumps the water out of the ground, creating a high-pitched whining noise that serves as the soundtrack to an already somber situation in the camp.

Throughout the day, a steady stream of women living in the camp kneel down at the muddy banks of the pit which looks similar to a grassy swamp. They fill buckets and lift them over their shoulders or onto their heads, carefully making their way back to their dwellings across the dirt paths that cut through the camp. Under the piercing July sun, the women repeat the process throughout the day to exhaustion. 

“As long as the motor is running, we will be carrying water,” says Hala, 25, knowingly, as she squats on a rock to catch her breath with a handful of other women. 

Patriarchal conditions only add to the strain. The water carrying ritual can go on for several hours and this comes after a long day of cooking, cleaning and farm work most of the women are involved in.

“The men don’t do any work, they just sleep,” Hala exclaims to laughs from the other women. 

Both women, men and young children work daily 4 hour shifts in the surrounding fields picking potatoes, garlic and herbs for around 10,000 Lebanese lira per hour, currently, as a result of the ongoing financial meltdown in the country, the equivalent of around $0.5 US dollars. Many say their salaries are further deducted by the shawish, a camp resident who serves as a kind of informal chief and liaison with state authorities. Hassan and his twin brother Jawad, both 10 years old, say the shawish beats them with a stick if they try to stand up to take a break while kneeling to pick crops.

many residents have been getting sick from the well water, which is only fit for washing, not drinking

Camp elder Abou Youssef, 57, says many residents have been getting sick from the well water, which is only fit for washing, not drinking. Few can afford bottled water, he adds. Just as he is speaking a young boy opens a faucet to one of the plastic cisterns and wraps his mouth around it to drink. 

A 2020 study published in the journal Water International indicated that most surface water surrounding Lebanon’s refugee camps was contaminated with feces. Because the camps generally contain no connection to national water grids, wastewater from outhouses is often discharged untreated into nearby waterways. Some studies found bacterial pathogens in the water supply that can cause urinary, respiratory, eye and wound infections and other life-threatening conditions. There are fears that unsanitary conditions could increase the spread of COVID-19, with camp residents sharing latrines and virtually no availability of masks or social distancing.

Fecal matter has been found in all Lebanese rivers and waterways 

In many ways, refugee life in Lebanon is simply a more intensified reflection of life as a local in the host country. All across Lebanon, sewage treatment is nonexistent and 90 percent of urban water is contaminated, with over half Lebanese having no access to safe water on a regular basis. Fecal matter has been found in all Lebanese rivers and waterways. Open sewers can be found throughout the Bekaa Valley and its only major lake, built as a US government project in the 1970s, is thick with green algae and sewage, emitting a stomach-turning scent for miles. Tons of dead fish washed up on the shores of Lake Qaraoun earlier this year following record levels of industrial and wastewater pollution.

Like the refugee camps, international and charitable organisations have set up across the Bekaa Valley, with dozens of signs displaying Western country flags, promising to improve road infrastructure, water and public health. However, these piecemeal projects scarcely make an impact on the overall picture of persisting dysfunction.

Many of those living in the refugee camps who were interviewed maintained that public services were far better in Syria. 

“We had running water and electricity, it was beautiful,” says Haifa, 20 years old. “I miss it a lot.” While Haifa says she still feels safer in Lebanon, having narrowly escaped the shelling of her home in Raqqa, she now faces unemployment and health threats arising not only from waterborne disease but the general filth of camp conditions—large rats can regularly be seen crawling under tent flaps. Her ambition is to return to Syria and work in a company with healthcare benefits. 

Even for Lebanese such benefits remain elusive with the national healthcare system collapsing under severe medicine and fuel shortages. Lebanon, which has more refugees per capita than any other country is currently facing the worst economic disaster in its history: a debt, banking and currency crisis marked by hyperinflation and an over 90 percent depreciation in the value of the local currency, salaries and savings.

All this has also meant an increased shortage of already insufficient water supplies, with most Lebanese now forced to buy water from trucks as well. This is because severe electricity shortages and 20 hour plus daily blackouts have resulted in an inability for the state to pump water to households. 

Asked if he would be interested in a more permanent settlement in Lebanon outside of refugee camp life, Hussein in Kamed El Loz shrugs. In his late twenties, he has already spent most of his adult life in Lebanon working as a construction worker. But he has only seen the situation deteriorate year after year. 

“Why would I want to? Even the Lebanese don’t want to live here.”


This story is part of a bigger dossier on the topic of “water” which was produced as part of the activities of the Independent Media Network on the Arab World. This regional cooperation brings together Al-Jumhuriya, Assafir Al-Arabi, Mada Masr, Maghreb Emergent, Mashallah News, Nawaat, 7iber and Orient XXI.

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