Lebanon's Bisri Valley. Photo: Alison Tahmizian Meuse

In the heart of the Bisri Valley a little girl and her brothers play amid rows of strawberries, which their parents have planted in its rich, self-irrigating soil to be sold at affordable prices throughout the country.

This small nation on the Eastern Mediterranean is about 50 times smaller than France. And yet, while its former colonial administrator has embarked on multiple major dam removal projects aimed at reviving degenerating river ecosystems, Lebanon seems to be on an irreversible warpath to submerging one of its last swathes of green space in concrete via a $600-million World Bank project.

A Syrian girl stands in front of strawberry greenhouses in Lebanon’s Bisri Valley. Photo: Alison Tahmizian Meuse

The children playing in Bisri on this day are not Lebanese, but Syrians whose parents migrated to Lebanon close to a decade ago for work. This lush valley is the only home they have ever known, and their world is about to turn upside down.

The activist

Lebanese environmental activist Karim Kanaan does not hesitate for a moment when a journalist shows interest in the fate of the Bisri Valley. His demeanor remains jovial, even when he is haranguing fellow residents over WhatsApp messenger to join in protests against the World Bank project.

On a warm day in April, he asked Asia Times to meet him at the picturesque Rif Restaurant on the edge of the valley. Its veranda hangs over a gushing river brimming with fish and ducks, one which will no longer be flowing in a matter of years, should all go according to plan.

The activist has his next-door-neighbor in tow, an 18-year-old readying to join Lebanon’s army – and who Kanaan is also clearly working to recruit to his environmental crusade. In a matter of minutes, Kanaan has also roped in the skeptical restaurant owner Fadi and the elder Bisri village mayor to pack into their cars and give us the local tour of the Bisri Valley.

There is an obstacle from the outset. A security station has been set up to block the entrance to the valley, whose inhabitants and farmers have been ordered to vacate even before its groves of pine nut trees and lush vegetation are massacred to make way for the dam.

In recent months, activists say the guards have prevented protesters, including a human chain, from entering the area for their small, but persistent demonstrations.

“They’re foreign tourists, they want to see the church,” the suave restaurant owner told the guard from the window of his impressive-looking SUV. And with that, we are let through.

Lebanese environmental activist Karim Kanaan (center) speaks to a restaurant owner in the Bisri Valley. Photo: Alison Tahmizian Meuse

We do go to Mar Moussa (Saint Moses) church, a three-centuries-old stone structure, which will also be submerged by the waters of the dam.

Kanaan has been working without apparent success to get the Maronite church on his side, arguing before Patriarch Bechara al-Rai that the sacred site should be protected. “He listened, but didn’t say anything,” he told me wistfully, but not deterred.

The World Bank says it has come up with a plan to relocate the church in its entirety, just as Egypt’s Great Temple of Abu Simbel was moved to make way for the Aswan Dam.

“The parishioners and the Maronite Church authorities agreed that the church, and the nearby remains of the Saint Sophia Monastery, should be disassembled by qualified experts and reconstructed on land to be secured by the Maronite Church authorities,” it states.

In reality, there are no parishioners, as this is a historic site in the middle of a valley – not a functioning church. But like much of the international lender’s literature related to Bisri, there is scarce acknowledgement of objections, only insistence that any potential issue has been addressed and more, always with the purported participation of local stakeholders.

The World Bank’s project lead, Amal Talbi, says that from a wider perspective, the value of the dam is obvious.

“If you look at how much Bisri Valley is in terms of total agriculture [in Lebanon], it’s less than 0.05%. There is an ecosystem compensation plan which is being finalized, and it will relocate different habitats,” Talbi said.

“Any project that provides 1.6 million people with water is a development tradeoff,” she continued, adding that the World Bank has already been working to rehabilitate existing water lines (400 kilometers and counting) in Beirut with the goal of allowing people to drink from the tap.

Engineers and environmentalists opposed to the project say that a re-haul of the water lines and distribution networks should be the priority of the government, not a sideshow to what they argue is an unnecessary megaproject. 

It is hard to argue with the prospect of state-provided water for millions of people who currently purchase trucked-in or bottled water. But will the dam actually accomplish this? And does it truly offset the costs?

Lebanon’s Bisri Valley, slated to be submerged by a World Bank loan-funded dam. Photo: Alison Tahmizian Meuse

The shepherds

On this warm April day, there is a group of visitors to the valley: dozens of goats. These goats do not live in Bisri, but have been brought all the way from the Beqaa Valley – more than 100 kilometers away. Why?

“Here it is warmer for them, and there is more for them to eat,” explained one of the Bedouin shepherds. 

The idea that they have come that far for this unique habitat makes it difficult to believe this valley can truly be replaced once it is gone.

Asked what they will do if the project comes to fruition, the shepherd shrugs. The boys refuse to have their photo taken. Like most of the people using this valley, they appear to be on the fringes of society and grimly resigned to whatever comes to pass.

Down the hill from the munching goats, an extended family of Syrian farmers is tending to rows of strawberries covered in plastic greenhouses.

One of the men offers to walk us further into the valley, pushing aside full green vegetation to reveal spring after spring and flowing streams around us.

“This land is really unique. It is naturally irrigated. We don’t have to water it at all, and we don’t have to use pesticides,” he said. While neighboring Syria dwarfs Lebanon in size, he says there is no farmland he has seen back home that compares.

Back at the strawberry rows, the three children are imitating the howls of coyotes, just one of the animals they hear through the night in their unique world.

The farmer said, “We have so many different kinds of animals here: hyenas, foxes, wild pigs…”

“We are people, we can move. But what about these animals? Where will they go?” he asked earnestly, with a sincere concern despite his own family’s precarious situation as Syrians who came to Lebanon for economic opportunity – and are now faced with imminent forced removal.

The businessman

The owner of Al-Rif (“The countryside”) restaurant is a gruff, proud man. We return from the valley to break bread with him and learn the opinion of local business owners about the dam.

“Look behind me,” he gestures from his seat on the river’s edge. “When the dam is done, you won’t see anything – you’ll see a 70-meter-high wall,” he said angrily.

He is confident his restaurant business, like the river, will dry up. If the dam project goes through, and he believes it will, he says he’ll be forced to go from being a business owner in his hometown to seeking work in Beirut – like so many thousands of others – or abroad.

“I was planning to build my children’s houses right there,” he points to a plot of verdant land between the restaurant and the future dam site. “Now there is no way. All it would take is one Israeli air strike and we’re all under water. Even if it’s a 1% risk I won’t do it.”

Lebanon’s Bisri Valley, where construction of a controversial dam that promises to provide the capital with clean drinking water is underway. Photo: Alison Tahmizian Meuse

This established, proud man seems like he could cry. Talbi of the World Bank would not directly address a question about whether the dam could withstand an act of war, or whether such a scenario was taken into consideration during the planning stages.  

“We lived through the civil war, the 2006 war, we stayed on our land, and now we’re going to be forced to migrate.” As a Maronite Catholic, he reserves his most damning critique for politicians meant to stand up for him in Lebanon’s confessional system. “They tell us we have to protect the Christianity of the region. But they’re driving us out.”

In recent months, local municipal officials, along with concerned scientists, engineers, and environmental experts have traveled to Beirut to meet with a parliamentary committee set up to review the dam project.

But already work is proceeding and the private security firm we drove by is keeping the public at bay, calling into question the seriousness of the review.

“People forget that the World Bank is not a development organization, it’s not a humanitarian organization – it’s a bank. And a bank needs to keep giving loans. Or else it ceases to exist,” said an individual in the sector familiar with the institution.

To pull the plug on a project is a highly undesirable scenario. 

Water water everywhere

As it stands, residents of Beirut purchase most of their water, which is trucked into the city from elsewhere in the country. 

Lebanese do not drink water from the tap because varying degrees of seawater, sewage, micro-plastics and metals permeate the supply along the way. Some Beirut residents, including those with limited means, even refuse to use the water for washing vegetables or boiling pasta.

What environmentalists and World Bank officials agree on is that the country is water-rich, but is not managing its resources effectively.

But while the World Bank sees this dam, coupled with pipeline repairs, as the solution to Beirut’s problems, locals argue that it will just turn into another source of monetized water.

Drinking water from the fountain? “That will never happen,” says Tony Nemer, an American University of Beirut (AUB) professor of geology.

Nemer wrote his PhD thesis on the seismic fault line on which the Bisri dam and future lake will be located – another major concern covered by the Asia Times. 

“I live here in Beirut next to AUB. I buy water. The questions is – where do we get the water from? Of course, we get it from tanks. So where do we get them from? Not from the port, not some pipelines coming from Cyprus or Turkey. They [the trucks] go a little bit outside Beirut, get it from a well, and bring the water to us. Which means the water is available, but the water distribution is wrong and the management is wrong.

“Once we adjust the management, it’s there. No one is dying from dehydration. So the solution is out there being brought to us by those tanks. All the government has to do is adjust their management and water distribution, and it will be solved with the water that is already present,” Nemer said. 

A handful of Lebanese parliamentarians have come out against the dam, namely the independent Paula Yacoubian, who has made environmental issues affecting Lebanon a top priority, Osama Saad, who is from an obscure Nasserist party, but who represents the South governorate where the dam is to be located, and Elias Hankache of the Christian Kataeb party. But these three are not enough on their own.

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