Ep. 60: Cascading Effects of Pollution in Lebanon’s Litani River

Welcome to The Undark Podcast. In this episode, join Julia Terradot and this month’s host Lacy Roberts as they discuss the decline of one of Lebanon’s most important waterways — and the impact of shifting blame on efforts to clean it up.

Below is the full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity. You can also subscribe to The Undark Podcast at Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, or Spotify.

Mohammad Yazbik (Translated from Arabic): I remember that we used to go swimming and we would wash the sheep in it … and have a picnic under the trees. [I remember] the greenery and the clean water, and there was fish … we’d catch fish.

Julia Terradot: This is Mohammad Yazbik, he’s deputy mayor of Haouch El Rafqa, a village downstream from the Litani River. The Litani is about 106 miles long and is one of the most important water sources in Lebanon. It produces hydroelectric power and water for drinking and irrigation to the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon’s primary agricultural region.

Mohammad Yazbik (Translated from Arabic): Now it’s open running sewers.

Julia Terradot: Yazbik grew up in the village with his family. He and many other people living along the Litani say the water quality has plummeted dramatically over the last 20 years. They blame the river for various health issues. In Yazbik’s village, there are about 10,000 Lebanese residents, without counting people in the refugee camps nearby. He says there are more than 10 deaths a year and that many people had cancer. And the villagers are getting worried.

Mohammad Yazbik (Translated from Arabic): They told me “We don’t dare to go to the hospital, because we don’t want to be shocked with [a doctor telling us] you have cancer.”

[Intro music]

Lacy Roberts: This is the Undark Podcast. I’m your host, Lacy Roberts. This is a story of anti-refugee sentiment, government inaction, and the cascading environmental and social effects that happen when a once pure river becomes polluted. Julia Terradot has the story.

Nassrallah el-Hajj (Translated from Arabic): The death of fish started suddenly. There was more than one possibility we arrived at, it was either poisoning or due to pollution in the water.

Julia Terradot: This is Nassrallah el-Hajj, who works for the Litani River Authority, or LRA, the public institution that supervises anything that has to do with the Litani River. In April of 2021, el-Hajj and his colleagues found more than 44 tons of dead fish on Lake Qaraoun — that’s Lebanon’s largest artificial lake. It is unclear exactly how the fish died, but el-Hajj suspects many factors that include pollution of the lake. This is not the first time pollution has had such devastating consequences on the Litani’s reservoir.

Back in July 2016, there was another surge of dead fish that surfaced on lake Qaraoun overnight. And three years later, the lake turned bright green when pollution and high temperatures led to an increase in cyanobacteria, an alga that can harm marine life and may be linked with an increased risk of liver cancer.

Maha Daher (Translated from Arabic): We can’t breathe at night, and if you close the windows and turn on the fans, you’d still wake up with an unbearable smell in the house.

Julia Terradot: This is Maha Daher. She was born and raised in Bar Elias, a village in the Beqaa bordering the Litani River. She lives with her husband Ibraheem and her daughter Etab just a few houses away from her family’s home. My colleague Majd Ibraheem and I spoke to Maha about her family’s health issues that the Litani might have caused.

Maha Daher (Translated from Arabic): I have cancer, and my daughter has a disease called bahjat, we’re still trying to treat her. But our life is getting harder and harder. And my husband has diabetes and blood pressure problems [and other diseases,] and the only support we have is God’s.

Julia Terradot: We met Maha through the village mayor in Bar Elias. Discussing cancer can still be taboo in the region, but Maha felt it was important to speak out. She told us she had multiple cancers and surgeries. Her daughter Etab’s disease, Behcet’s syndrome, is a rare condition that causes blood vessel inflammation in the body. It’s very painful.

Maha Daher (Translated from Arabic): My treatment is expensive, and we only have my husband’s income.

Julia Terradot: Maha’s family lives in extreme poverty. They take turns to go to the doctors, whenever they can gather enough money.

Maha Daher (Translated from Arabic): And she says, “My dad needs to be medically treated before me.” And I say, “My daughter needs to be medically treated before me.” And we push it onto each other. But in the end, none of us do, because we don’t have any money.

Julia Terradot: In Lebanon, families like Maha’s are hit the hardest in the economic crisis. The crisis had already started when the global pandemic hit. And then last year, on August 4, 2020, there was an explosion that destroyed parts of its capital, Beirut. Now there are fuel and medicine shortages and terrible inflation — the lira, Lebanon’s currency, keeps decreasing in value. In September 2021, the U.N. estimated that about 74 percent of Lebanese people live below the poverty line. For Maha’s family, it means they can’t afford medicine or pay their bills as their health declines.

Majd Ibraheem (Translated from Arabic): Do you have any idea what the cause is?

Maha Daher (Translated from Arabic): It’s the river.

Julia Terradot: Local residents believe the polluted water is causing a variety of health concerns. But it’s a challenge to prove a causal relationship, and there hasn’t been enough completed research in the region. Dr. Ismail Sukkarieh, a gastroenterologist and former MP living between his practice in the Beqaa and Beirut, is one person who tried to study this.

Ismail Sukkarieh: Every weekend, for 25 years, every weekend, summer and winter, except when I’m outside Lebanon, I go to my village in North Beqaa, it’s not so far, to take clinically of sick patients free of charge.

Julia Terradot: When he was working in Zahlé, Beqaa’s capital and largest city, he started to notice something strange in his patients. In about six or seven months, he saw eight cases of stomach cancers. And the cases kept rising. So in 2001, he decided to start a small study with some students from the Lebanese University. He lost funding, so he started again in 2016 with the American University of Beirut (AUB). Funding stopped again, and he couldn’t conclude his study.

Ismail Sukkarieh: It needs declaring a health emergency in the region!

Julia Terradot: The pollution and the gravity of the situation were undeniable. There was sewage and garbage floating constantly on the river. To explain the pollution, the LRA’s Nassrallah el-Hajj partly blames the same people politicians, and the media, are focusing on.

Nassrallah el-Hajj (Translated from French): They put the refugees just by the river. All of their waste is thrown on the water.

Julia Terradot: This is a common narrative used in Lebanese media and political discourses against Syrian refugees, who are often held responsible for the deterioration of the Litani. Many Syrian refugees work in the fields around the Beqaa and live in makeshift habitations on the Litani’s banks that often don’t have proper sanitation or any organized way to dispose of waste. The settlements also use illegal piping to pump water or dispose of wastewater if there is no NGO oversight.

Nadim Farajalla: This is a growing perception that the Syrian refugees and the Palestinians, to a lesser extent, are taking our water, or they are polluting our water, and they’re competing with us for our water. And this is not a good omen because it is growing, it is not a sentiment that is passing.

Julia Terradot: This is Dr. Nadim Farajalla, the Climate Change and the Environment Program director at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute. Since the Syrian war began in 2011, Lebanon has taken in the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide. There are more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country. The sudden increase in population led to community tensions that politicians exploited. Refugees are often blamed nationwide for the issues the country faces.

Nadim Farajalla: Very few Syrians live in informal settlements — around 17 percent of those who came to Lebanon do that. But then that leaves 83 percent of anywhere between 1 to 2 million who have moved into Lebanon who live amongst homes. And this has increased the demand on water and the discharge of sewage water.

Julia Terradot: Overpopulation is often cited as the main burden in the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Dr. Farajalla wants to focus on Syrians living in housing that is connected to the water systems.

Nadim Farajalla: But these people still need water, they use it, they flush toilets, they are connected to the network. Or if not, they are discharging illegally their sewage which ends up contaminating the sources.

Julia Terradot: According to him, the high demand on water either puts a lot of pressure on water treatment plants, already working overcapacity, or represents a risk of water contamination, because there is no oversight on this type of housing and their connections to the water networks.

Julia Terradot: The issue of water was there before, right?

Nadim Farajalla: Yes, yes, yes, yes, but it’s one more layer and sometimes the layers are thin, this is a thick and heavy layer. It is not inconsequential. … The potential for conflict is there and it is rising. And even between communities.

Julia Terradot: We’re also looking at the narrative against the refugees that live by the banks. It’s the narrative that’s most central when you look into the pollution of the Litani River.

Marie-Hélène Nassif: Yeah, yeah completely, also this is a narrative that is used to justify the incompetence and the fact that the state did not do its job.

Julia Terradot: This is Dr. Marie-Hélène Nassif. She’s a water specialist and project coordinator for the ReWater MENA project at the International Water Management Institute. MENA stands for Middle East and North Africa and the project aims to improve the safety of water reuse in the region. Nassif wrote a paper on groundwater governance in the Beqaa.

Marie-Hélène Nassif: And not only the pollution, also the over-exploitation of the resources. Even if the Syrians were not there, the problem would not have been less serious in my opinion.

Julia Terradot: The discourse against Syrians has real consequences. According to reporting by Al Jazeera in April 2019, the LRA had evicted about 1,500 Syrian refugees from informal settlements on the Litani River banks so far that year, as part of an anti-pollution drive. Sami Alawieh, LRA’s director, as quoted by Al Jazeera, said: “I will remove the Syrians or the Lebanese or anyone polluting the river. I would do it again if I find more refugees.”

According to Nassif, this distracts from the responsibility of other actors.

Nassrallah el-Hajj (Translated from Arabic): On top of all that, all the farms on the riverbanks from Baalbek to here, dairy farms, cheese and yogurt packing plants, livestock farms with all their waste, dead animals, and all other trash are thrown in the river.

Julia Terradot: This is Nassrallah el-Hajj again. In the Beqaa, there are about 1,000 factories, according to Lebanon’s 2016 Official Guide of the Ministry of Industry, although the exact number is unknown because of the many unlicensed industries in the area. They release sewer water directly into the river, along with dead animals and dangerous chemicals.

Nassrallah el-Hajj (Translated from Arabic): Any factory has a budget plan, and there is filters and sedimentation ponds so that these hazardous materials wouldn’t reach the running water of the river.

Julia Terradot: Legally, factories are supposed to treat their own wastewater before dumping it into the environment since a 2012 decree. But there are disagreements between local authorities and the centralized government over the responsibility of checking that they do. On paper, water governance law clearly defines the responsibilities of each government entity’s roles around the protection of the Litani River. And while the country’s four regional water establishments are supposed to be responsible for waste management, they lack the capacity to take on this role fully — calling on third parties, such as municipalities and the Ministry of Energy and Water, to carry out that responsibility.

This is Assaad Zgheib, the mayor of Zahlé.

Assaad Zgheib: The Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Industry, they should have people that are responsible about checking if every factory is going by the law or not.

Julia Terradot: So, they’re not really checked regularly?

Assaad Zgheib: They should be checked regularly.

Julia Terradot: But they are not?

Assaad Zgheib: No, no. No.

Julia Terradot: The Ministry of Energy and Water puts the responsibility on municipalities and other ministries, while local municipalities in the Beqaa consider it a higher-level responsibility. As a result, most factories are not checked on. They are free to discard waste in the Litani with impunity, polluting not only the river but also the groundwater.

Souheil Rouphael: The first solution to treat the pollution in the Litani River is to make a lot of plants.

Julia Terradot: This is Souheil Rouphael, an engineer and head of the wastewater unit at the Beqaa Water Establishment, or BWE. The BWE oversees water treatment plants in the Beqaa. In the area, factories that don’t have their own waste treatment system sometimes redirect the waste to Rouphael’s treatment plants.

Souheil Rouphael: Our plants are designed to treat domestic wastewater and we are receiving industrial wastewater. That’s why you are facing a lot of problems in the process and the treating. We need every industry to make the primary treatment then release the wastewater to plants or in the river.

Julia Terradot: Do they do that?

Souheil Rouphael No. That’s the problem.

Julia Terradot: According to Rouphael, if the factories don’t direct their wastewater towards their plants, it goes in the river. So they take on some of the industrial waste to reduce pollution. Because of the amount of sewage water and their lack of resources, the plants can sometimes only treat up to 70 percent of the wastewater before releasing it to the Litani.

That was back in May of last year. Then in the summer, Rouphael and his colleagues at the plant faced another problem: electricity cuts.

Souheil Rouphael: We are still operating, but day by day, yani [you know]. Til now, the situation is 90 percent good, but we are scared. Yani, we still have a little bit of diesel, are operating on our generators but in the future, what to do. That’s what we don’t know. Because no diesel, no electricity, no money.

Julia Terradot: There hasn’t been consistent electricity in Lebanon since the civil war between 1975 and 1990. Most houses rely on private generators or neighborhood suppliers who charge an extra fee for electricity during the daily power cuts. Last summer, the country’s two major power plants, Deir Ammar and Zahrani, shut down. Private generators became the primary provider of electricity in the entire country. Soon the fuel shortages worsened, forcing suppliers to decide between total blackouts, power rationing, or heavy financial losses.

Julia Terradot: Do you think people realize the impact on the treatment plant?

Souheil Rouphael: I don’t think they know what’s happening now and what we’re facing in the future. They don’t know how wastewater plants work and operate and what the problems we are facing [are]. They don’t know. We need electricity 24 hours. Not one hour or two hours and OK, I can cut. No, I need electricity 24 hours. They don’t know the process.

Julia Terradot: When Majd and I spoke to Rouphael in August last year, he told us the treatment plants he operates in the Beqaa had at best six hours of government electricity per day. They need about 1,000 liters of diesel every day. That summer, that cost about 20 million lira, funded by local taxes. That’s up to $1,175, depending on exchange market rates.

In the long term, Rouphael hopes the plants will be able to run on solar energy. Some treatment plants are already partially equipped. None of them fully work on solar panels at this time.

Souheil Rouphael: You can operate about seven, eight, nine hours on solar panels, and the rest of the day you can use diesel. The plan [is] to work on all the generators when you have electricity cut. If we have diesel in our plants, so we can operate on generators.

Julia Terradot: But if you don’t have diesel?

Souheil Rouphael: (laughs) We have no solution. No electricity, no solar panel, and no diesel. How can we operate?

Julia Terradot: More than a third of the operational costs of all four water establishments in Lebanon go into electricity, according to a 2021 AUB study. This limits their capacity to treat water. It also makes access to water more difficult and expensive.

So far, Rouphael and his colleagues have avoided the total shutdown of the treatment plants in the Beqaa. If the plants stop working, Lebanon is facing an ecological catastrophe. The sewage water will accumulate in the treatment plants until it overflows, contaminating the rivers and the groundwater. And it could make people sick.

But contaminated water is already reaching people’s homes and the food they eat.

According to a report from 2019 by the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute, vegetables in the Beqaa show traces of mercury, arsenic, cadmium, chrome, and lead.

Historically in the Middle East, farmers have used sewage water when clean water wasn’t available. With the current crisis, Lebanon is facing water shortages. Access to treated water is more limited than ever.

Nadim Farajalla: Many, many, many homes rely on bottled water for drinking supply but we all shower, and brush our teeth, and cook and … so imagine if you’re bathing in contaminated water. In the shower you’ll get water in your mouth, you’ll get water in your eyes, in your ears. You might get different sorts of infections.

Julia Terradot: This is Farajalla again. Water pollution is not exclusive to the Beqaa. The Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute also found high levels of nitrate in surface water in the region. Nitrate is a nitrogen compound commonly used in fertilizers and explosives. While it’s found naturally in foods and produced by the human body, exposure to unusually high levels may increase cancer risk. Even if the water is treated when it leaves the plants, it runs through old pipes that could recontaminate it or come in contact with sewer water.

Julia Terradot: With the pollution and the more and more problems of water, how is it going to affect people’s health?

Nadim Farajalla: Availability of medicine being an issue, a simple dysentery which would have been treated by Flagyl, this antibiotic Flagyl, or any other antibiotic, which may not be available, this could be deadly. … hoarding of medicines, hoarding of fuel and making it unavailable to run treatment facilities, all of this. All these are human evil, human behavior.

When no medications are available, hospitals are running low on supplies, they’re running low on electricity, etcetera, then this becomes a major issue.

Julia Terradot: Wow. This is grim.

Nadim Farajalla: Yes, it is. But we try not to think of it too much.

Ismail Sukkarieh: You know, you are asking about the pollution of Litani basically, right? The worst and most dangerous kind of pollution, you know what in Lebanon? Political pollution, political pollution, it is the essence of everything, it controls everything.

Julia Terradot: This is Sukkarieh again, who attempted to prove the link between cancer and river pollution. He believes the link is evident, but that nothing is done because the powers in place don’t care enough.

Ismail Sukkarieh: One of the political powers, yani, was not interested in this. Because we were faced with difficulties, we didn’t, yani, seek seriously to continue. I mentioned it in my own way like I said now. But still you are in Lebanon. Even if you imagine it nothing will happen.

Julia Terradot: During interviews, people laughed or sighed at the idea of change in Lebanon.

Nassrallah El-Hajj (Translated from French): In Lebanon, nothing moves fast. They don’t even move. They don’t move. The Litani can’t wait for the ministries or Lebanese authorities’ action when fish die. It’s not a rock or a plastic bottle. It’s rotten fish. With the smell, the flies, the mosquitoes, the diseases.

Julia Terradot: This is Nassrallah El-Hajj again. He also felt that frustration with the Lebanese government. And then in 2018, Alawieh became the LRA director.

Nassrallah El-Hajj (Translated from Arabic): The method changed. At first, we used to say, “stop polluting.” With this administration, a completely different program is worked on.

Julia Terradot: Alawieh wasn’t afraid of politicians. Under his leadership, the LRA filed legal complaints against hundreds of factories around the river.

In October 2020, the Litani was blocked near Yazbik’s village, Haouch El Rafqa. It was filled with cow manure and dairy waste from the Liban Lait plant, one of Lebanon’s largest factories, also subsidized by the Lebanese government. Alawieh vowed publicly to sue the company and to put back the excrement on the company’s land.

The LRA’s actions were unprecedented. It gave people hope that change could be achieved for the better.

Marie-Hélène Nassif: The guy did a good job in terms of pointing the attention of the media on the Litani, and also he deposited a lot of complaints against industries that have been for years discharging pollutants without any treatment in the different rivers that feed the Litani. But again, in my opinion, this came too late.

Julia Terradot: This is Marie-Hélène Nassif again, questioning Alawieh’s intentions. The Ministry of Energy and Water is affiliated with the Freedom Patriotic Movement, or FPM, the same party as Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun. Alawieh became a director as part of the opponent party, Amal.

The FPM was making new projects and an agreement with the World Bank to build the Bisri Dam, supplied partly by Lake Qaraoun. It was a big project that drew a lot of attention to the FPM and expanded its influence. Even though the Bisri project was later canceled in 2020, Nassif believes that at the time, it was taking attention away from Alawieh’s Amal party. Alawieh wanted to regain the spotlight for his party and that meant seeking the legal responsibility of monitoring water pollution and taking on mediatized projects.

Marie-Hélène Nassif: My reading is they felt threatened, they felt they were losing power, so they used the problem of pollution to promote themselves. And it’s funny that it came at the same time where the others were getting power. So my personal reading is it’s more about competing with the other rather than really wanting to do something.

Julia Terradot: Nassif is from Hammana, a village in the Mount Lebanon region. In 2013, the Ministry of Energy and Water started building the Qaysamani Dam close to the village. Its goal was to store rain and snow water on the Mghiteh plateau to prevent seasonal water shortages. The plateau is in the protected zone of the Chaghour Spring. George Shahin, Hammana’s then-mayor, rounded up the entire village to protest the construction.

George Shahin (Translated from Arabic): Truth is that the dam was built despite our opposition, and no one is suffering the pollution of the groundwater except for people of Hammana. We used to drink from that groundwater and not buy water.

Julia Terradot: The Chaghour Spring provided Hammana with irrigation and drinking water. But the dam is built on porous soil and leaks stagnant water into the spring, polluting the water. It is also a very dangerous infrastructure for Hammana. The area is highly seismic. An earthquake could make the dam collapse and inundate the village.

The village fought against the project. People made posters, organized protests, even created a hashtag, #nodam. They blocked the main road leading to the construction site. Construction was stopped temporarily, but the dam was built anyway. This was a very difficult moment for Shahin.

George Shahin (Translated from Arabic): To us, the people of Hammana, the Chaghour water is like the blood in our veins, and we were very afraid for our water. And maybe I was too emotional about that.

Julia Terradot: During the protests, Shahin started having high blood pressure and heart problems. Two months after the campaign against the dam ended, he needed open-heart surgery.

George Shahin (Translated from Arabic): Unfortunately, we know the situation of Lebanese people today. No one is thinking of anything else other than putting food on the table. Who’s still thinking about water pollution or the destruction of land or agriculture or architecture? Today everyone is looking to make ends meet and no one is thinking of anything else.

Julia Terradot: With the rampant corruption and years of stagnation, people hope that help will come from abroad. Yet for decades, international donors and investors have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into fighting pollution through Lebanon’s Council for Development and Reconstruction, or CDR, with little results. The CDR implemented the Qaysamani Dam project, accepting a $17 million Kuwaiti loan.

According to Nassif, foreign investors invested without considering the local terrain. Whether the sewage treatment facilities were connected to a sewage network or if the municipalities had enough qualified employees and electrical power to operate facilities didn’t matter. The Lebanese government still received loans through the CDR for these projects, with no visible improvement.

Marie-Hélène Nassif: They’re also benefiting from this, the international donors. They are giving loans with interest rates even if it’s low interest rates, but still. They’re making their administration function, they’re hiring people, they’re making money out of all this, they’re promoting themselves as countries, or as institutions, or as international organizations. So everyone had something to gain, to win out of this.

Julia Terradot: Despite these massive investments, the pollution kept getting worse. In July 2016, the same month tons of dead fish surfaced on Lake Qaraoun, the World Bank had approved a $55 million loan for a project to reduce the amount of untreated sewage going into the Litani and to reduce pollution in the lake, supposed to end in June 2023. As of September 2021, the World Bankrated the Overall Implementation Progress as “Moderately Satisfactory.”

Marie-Hélène Nassif: You know, we wouldn’t have reached this point if things were not as badly managed as they are. Nothing can change if the whole political system does not change. It’s a long way. I think that research and information and communicating all this contributes to raising awareness and to bringing awareness of the young generations around these issues. Yani, it’s a small contribution but I think that’s big also.

Majd Ibraheem: It’s essential.

Marie-Hélène Nassif: It’s essential and it’s, yani, small initiatives coming together eventually will bring some progress. Hopefully.

Majd Ibraheem: Hopefully.

[Music, fade out]

Lacy Roberts: Thank you so much for being here, Julia.

Julia Terradot: Thank you for having me.

Lacy Roberts: So how important of a water resource is the Litani River in Lebanon?

Julia Terradot: So the Litani river is the widest and the longest river in Lebanon and it crosses it from the north to the south. And it’s very important for its national economy. Not just for the water needs of people around the basin, but also for social needs, industrial needs, and also energy needs and for the ecosystem. It crosses the Beqaa region of Lebanon, which is the most industrial region in the country. And so just in terms of irrigation, it’s hugely important because most of the vegetables and fruits and grains, and also livestock, is produced there.

So all the irrigation needs, if the Litani River is polluted, that water, that is essentially sewage water, goes into watering livestock and watering crops and the vegetables are then transported all over the country. So, it’s very important and virtually, most of the population in Lebanon, is affected by the Litani River, not just people living around. And also, the Litani River goes into the Mediterranean Sea. So, not just Lebanon, but also countries surrounding Lebanon and the Mediterranean are affected by the river and its pollution.

Lacy Roberts: Wow. So it just, it sounds like it is a crucial link to the ecological chain in Lebanon. Um, you talk a little bit about some local activism in Lebanon, in particular fighting against the Qaysamani Dam. Can you tell us a little bit more about the local activists you met and how they continue despite what they’re up against?

Julia Terradot: Uh, yes. So for the Qaysamani Dam specifically, um, we talked to George Shahin, who’s the former mayor of Hammana and he’s the one who’s behind the campaign to save Hammana and protect safe water. That was to prevent the construction of a dam. And the dam was eventually built, and there hasn’t been much update since 2017, except that pollution did rise in Hammana. And so, when we talked to George about his motivation to start his activism, it was very clear that he cared a lot about the environment and protecting the water and for the quality of life of inhabitants and for them to be able to access clean water. But it was also incredibly stressful and he got a lot of resistance from the government and he told us that the Lebanese Army came to take down posters, for example. And that after the dam was built anyway, he had a serious health issues. And now that talking about activism and Lebanon from his perspective, he doesn’t have a lot of hope in any kind of environmental protection.

But there’s also a different form of activism with young people. I actually talked recently to Amani Beainy. So she’s a legal researcher and a peace and environment activist, and she’s the co-founder of a national campaign to save the Bisri Valley.

So just for context, this was a campaign against the Bisri Dam project in the south governorate of Lebanon. And there was, in 2014, a loan co-financed by the World Bank of $474 million. And the dam was supposed to help with providing water during droughts in the summer. But activists and generally the Lebanese population was really worried about it polluting and destroying biodiversity.

It would have been built on a seismic area and it could have caused more risks for an earthquake, which would be very dangerous for the area. So there was a lot of uproar and demonstration protests and online campaigning and a lot of solidarity. And eventually the funds from the World Bank were frozen in April 2020, and then completely canceled in September 2020.

And so when I talked to Amani and her situation, she felt that it was a continuation of the 2019 protest of revolution in Lebanon. And it was an incredible feeling to have this victory because for her and young activists, the Bisri Dam represented a microcosm of corruption in Lebanon.

And it felt as a duty as a Lebanese citizen to continue her activism and to hope for change.

Lacy Roberts: That’s amazing. No, I’m very curious. What did Amani’s activism look like? What form did it take?

Julia Terradot: Basically she started simply by creating a Facebook group and she organized [an] online campaign and petition. Also something that was really important to her was the sentiment of solidarity. And so she organized with not just other activists, but also people from [the] legal profession and journalists to get a lot of news about the construction of this dam. But it was also at great cost because Amani told me that she put herself physically at risk for her campaigning and that because of her struggle, she eventually lost her job.

Lacy Roberts: Well, thank you so much for your reporting Julia, and thanks for being here.

Julia Terradot: Thank you so much. Bye.


Lacy Roberts: Julia Terradot is a reporter based in Lebanon. She’s interested in politics, society, and investigative journalism. This episode was co-reported and translated by Majd Ibraheem. Our theme music was produced by the Undark Team with additional music in today’s episode from Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Jeff Jabbour, Nasser Saleh, Eva De Boer, Charbel Saadeh, Dr. Michel Afram, Dr. Karim Eid-Sabbagh, Dr. Raed Ezzeddine, Mahdi Wehbi, and Alexandre Mitri. I’m Lacy Roberts. See you next time.