Water is universally acknowledged as a basic and fundamental human right. UN resolution 64/292 acknowledges the human right to water and sanitation and considers access to water to be a stepping stone to other human rights. Moreover, article 2 of the Lebanese law 77 stipulates that all individuals have the right to water for their needs, as it provides the standard for a decent life
While international and national legal frameworks are clear on this matter, it remains that access to water in Lebanon is a rather complicated issue and thus for many reasons.
The main issues surrounding water mismanagement in Lebanon are mainly due to natural causes such as irregular annual rainfall and complex geographical dispositions, but also conflicts between urban and rural needs for water, lack of waste and sewage systems, and lack of data for further research.
Moreover, a big part of the Lebanese infrastructure was destroyed in the 2006 Israeli war and was never rebuilt properly in the years following. In light of this situation, an underground informal sector for water distribution has emerged in Lebanon. In fact, only 100,000 Tripoli residents are officially registered to the national water network, in a city that houses over half a million individuals and a large refugee population. This is one example of many. Informal water distribution has filled some gaps in public water supplies.
Is this a reason to privatize the water sector in Lebanon?
The privatization of essential resources is controversial. More so, it can be considered dangerous to turn a public need and basic human right into an economic good. But, in cases like Lebanon, where the Government fails to insure basic needs to its residents and where corruption roams freely, options are limited and privatization is marketed as the only solution. Decision-makers and politicians always kneel for this solution, as they’re mostly businessmen who profit from privatization decisions.
In 2011, the European Union Water Initiative (EUWI MED) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a framework for Private Sector Participation in Water Infrastructure in Lebanon. A national workshop on private sector participation in water infrastructure in Lebanon was organized on March 2010 by the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW) – Directorate General of Hydraulic and Electrical Resources- and the Global Water Partnership - Mediterranean (GWP-Med) in cooperation with the Mediterranean Network of Basin Organisations (MENBO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Central Bank of Lebanon. A joint activity was launched between some partners in order to evaluate the Lebanese context related to private sector participation in the water sector.
In the decree 144/1925, Lebanon considers water resources as public domain, even though the government hasn’t worked on producing a policy or legislation regulating the management of water resources.
Exposing the dangers of privatization of natural resources is an important first step in the elaboration of a suitable policy. While privatization could accelerate the process of modernization and optimization of infrastructure, opening the water sector and its management to corporate actors would jeopardize the conceptual understanding of water as a human right. Processes of commodification entail deepening inequalities and this could be catastrophic from a humanitarian perspective, as it would further limit access to resources for low-income households.
From a policy perspective, the Lebanese government should adopt a people-centered approach to decision making, and encourage a consultative policy-building process. This is the only solution to prevent illegal underground networks and private corporations from monopolizing water.