Lebanon: Left out of discussion, issues to come

by Hampton Stall

Lebanon is currently facing a plethora of issues, from al-Nusra Front and ISIS operations in the east (including their capture of 23 hostages plus a few beheadings) to an executive branch without a president for over 3 months to tensions in the north between Lebanese armed forces, Hezbollah, residents, and refugees. While the world looks to ISIS and the crises in Ukraine, Lebanon seems to be slipping under the radar.

Google Trends reveals that people tend to be looking for information on ISIS more than any topic relating to Lebanon (in the last 90 days). Of these issues, ISIS seems to have taken the forefront of Google users’ thoughts.


What is quickly becoming a large problem for Lebanon (and many of its neighbors) is a lack of a resource so many take for granted: water. Groundwater is drying up-this year saw less rain and snow than last year, and a water crisis has been declared in Lebanon.

This issue will become increasingly pertinent as water woes aggravate an already tense Lebanon. A water crisis only serves to exacerbate existing political conflicts, raising the country’s tensions further. It is likely that water tensions will cause current conflicts over confessional representation, regional differences, and political allegiances across the border into Syria (which some attribute falsely to “spillover effects” as a sole cause for violence) to become more ugly or to cause new conflicts to pop up across Lebanon. In fact, part of the conflict between Lebanese residents and Syrian refugees has been at least subconsciously motivated by water.

In December of 2013, a refugee camp in the eastern part of the Bekaa valley in Lebanon was violently attacked by Lebanese residents of a nearby village. This incident was attributed to the rape of a mentally-disabled Lebanese man at the hands of Syrian refugees of the targeted camp. However, a doctor confirmed that there was no evidence of an attack (bruises, blood, cuts) upon the Lebanese man and it appears that the alleged crime was an excuse to drive the Syrian refugees from the camp. A Lebanese family owned the land the camp was on and wanted to regain control of the land they owned.

While there is not enough data to confirm that this instance is explicitly linked to water and water woes, the causal mechanisms explaining this process are definitely in place. Land rights and water rights are linked together, as conflict over farmable land often increases in times of drought, and Lebanon has been suffering a bad drought. A region sensitive to drought would see an uptick in conflict over land or water as the drought sets in. This past winter was a record poor season for snow and rain in Lebanon, and the December incident was only the beginning of a season marked by weak precipitation. Pollution has increasingly become an issue in the Bekaa Valley, especially in the rivers of Baalbek (in Bekaa). This is due to not only poor waste disposal infrastructure forcing many to dump their waste directly into the rivers, but also due to lowered rainfall (meaning a smaller pool of water to dilute the waste). This situation is further compounded due to the governmental neglect many farmers and villagers feel across Lebanon, including in Bekaa (a very rural region of Lebanon).

The December camp was an unofficial refugee camp that had previously been used by Syrian migrant workers. Neither the UNHCR nor the Lebanese government were providing aid to sustain the camp, and many villagers felt as if the camp residents were feeding off of the same resources the villagers needed to sustain themselves. Many Lebanese focus on competition in the job market between citizens of Lebanon and resident refugees. In practice, many Lebanese residents in the Bekaa Valley view Syrian refugees as threats and support discriminatory policies against the increasingly permanent residents from Syria. 94.5% of Lebanese in the Bekaa Valley view Syrian refugees as symbolic threats against the perceived uniqueness of Lebanese culture (in the same study, 71% of those surveyed saw Syrian refugees as an economic threat).

The UNHCR is increasing activity in Lebanon, given that the refugee presence in Lebanon has grown exponentially from 75,000 to 500,000 to over 1,000,000 each year since 2012. Early on, refugees in Lebanon depended upon personal networks to find shelter in their new host country, but increasingly huge amounts of aid dollars have been poured into Lebanon to combat this massive exodus. The UNHCR, however, has continuously found major shortfalls in requests for aid dollars to conduct their proposed projects. In fact, only 43% of the UNHCR’s funding appeal (for Syrian refugee response) has been completed for 2014.


All of this is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better, as drought in some of the most sensitive regions will strain economic networks even further. Lebanese citizens will examine what has recently changed in their lives that could possibly correlate with their newfound economic and social woes. Many times this assessment will draw links between nearby refugees and these Lebanese problems, but it could increasingly be towards their Lebanese brethren, whether due to confessional identity or allegiance to Bashar al-Assad or the Free Syrian Army in Syria, or perhaps along lines which may be more blurred than these cut-and-dry explanations of Lebanese division.

The conflict and political forecast for these regions in Lebanon looks more bleak than the weather forecast, and observers will soon see new cracks in Lebanese society break as water resources dry up. (Although the weather forecast looks pretty sunny in Bekaa for the coming week.)



Feature image via: Getty Images/AFP/Stringer

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