(Photo: Habib Battah)
Despite warnings of earthquakes, leaks, and the destruction of an ecosystem, Lebanon is building a 300-foot-high hydroelectric project in one of the Middle East’s most biodiverse regions...
JANNAH, Lebanon—At the bottom of a lush valley between rocky peaks of Mount Lebanon, strawberry farmer John Abu Akar may be the last man standing in the path of a dam project worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But he has a few tricks up his sleeve.
When a minister’s motorcade of tinted-window SUVs rolled through his village in 2012 to announce the multinational project, Abu Akar sabotaged the signs directing visitors to the location of a press conference so they pointed instead down the gravel path leading to his farm. Around 10 black American-model vehicles soon pulled in; security agents jumped out and confronted Abu Akar. Unaware that they were in the wrong place, they demanded he move his car from where it was parked in front of his house. They told him they worked for Gebran Bassil, one of Lebanon’s most prominent politicians and the dam’s chief proponent. “Who is he? What does he do for a living?” Abu Akar asked them, playing dumb. Sitting on his porch with a beer in hand, the half-shaved 37-year-old recalls the story with a wry smile as the Abraham River rushes behind him. “We made fun of them a little,” he says, laughing.
Four years later, the reality is more sobering. Work on the dam, which will be one of the biggest in the Arab world if completed, began last year, leaving wide swathes of the valley carved out and thousands of trees bulldozed. (A claimed completion date of 2016 seems unlikely to be met.) Most of the farms and homes in Abu Akar’s village, known as Jannah—Arabic for “paradise”—have been leveled. Jannah sits on the upper banks of the Abraham River, which runs beneath snowcapped peaks to the Mediterranean Sea, about 12 miles downstream from Abu Akar’s home. It cuts a winding path through the verdant Adonis Valley, which is lined with waterfalls and natural springs and home to some 700 animal and plant species, making it one of the most biodiverse regions in the Middle East.
Experts warn that blocking the river and building the dam, which will require flattening up to 500 acres of hillside forest, will not only stifle the river flow and destroy natural habitats but endanger a vast underground network of aquifers that feed Beirut’s primary water source, the Jeita spring. The spring, 20 miles southwest of Jannah, produces a subterranean river that courses through the Jeita caverns, a major tourist attraction and a symbol of national pride seen on postcards and currency notes.
Cutting off the flow of the river could significantly drain the Jeita spring, according to the Hannover, Germany–based Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources, which conducted a multiyear study of the project. Thus providing electricity and water to one part of Lebanon may threaten the water supply of its capital. The institute also found that because the dam is to be built on a porous rock formation, most of the 10 billion gallons of water proponents claim it will store will be lost, absorbed by the earth. “In view of the current findings, it is strongly recommended not to go ahead with the construction” planned, the institute concluded in 2012.
But for Lebanon’s politically ambitious Ministry of Energy and Water, the Jannah Dam will be nothing short of a miraculous feat of human over nature, providing much needed water and electricity to surrounding towns. A promotional video by a local contractor bears a strong resemblance to a trailer for an action film, complete with dramatic music, explosions, and title cards bearing phrases such as “They accepted the challenge” and “Failure is not an option.”
Despite the Lebanese state commissioning the German institute to undertake its study, which involved three years of field testing, the Ministry of Energy and Water’s advisers have dismissed the results as “totally wrong” and politically motivated. They have also rejected the complaints of Minister of the Environment Mohammad Machnouk, who said the project failed to provide an adequate environmental impact study and lacked approval from his office.
Yet the digging and razing continues. The Ministry of Energy and Water places the initial budget at around $300 million, which includes the cost of a hydroelectric plant and the 300-foot-high dam.
Activists and environmental experts say the budget is likely to mushroom to closer to $1 billion when factoring the costs of land purchases, annual maintenance, and a tunneling system to deliver the water. The principal contractor, Brazilian conglomerate Andrade Gutierrez, made headlines last year when its chief officers were arrested in São Paulo as part of an alleged corruption scheme to inflate prices on major projects. The firm paid $286 million to settle the charges in a plea deal reached in May. Dam opponents say the company’s track record gels with postwar Lebanon’s notorious record for state corruption and white elephant infrastructure projects.
“Look at all the projects that happen in Lebanon—none have been produced at estimated cost; all of them have been constructed at subpar quality,” says Karim Eid-Sabbagh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of London who studies the political economy of water and natural resources management in Lebanon. Jannah, he believes, “will not ever produce what [government officials] are claiming. It’s just money out the window.”
Aside from wasted funds, experts say the dam will exact a heavy toll on the environment.
“You won’t have any biodiversity. You will have a catastrophic situation: missing trees, more erosion, habitats of species gone,” says Roland Riachi, a water management expert and a researcher and lecturer at the American University of Beirut. “Even sand on the beaches comes from rivers. It’s the destruction of a whole ecosystem.”
Abu Akar, too, thinks about the effect on the valley’s wildlife, which includes populations of wolves, hyenas, boars, hyraxes, and birds: “What will the animals drink when the river runs dry?”
Its human presence dating to antiquity, the Adonis Valley is named after the Phoenician deity, the favorite lover of Aphrodite, whose killing by a wild boar, legend has it, is what turns the river red once every year. (More likely, the hue comes from sediment that pours through at the end of the winter.) All along the banks of the valley’s Abraham River are temples to Adonis and other archaeological sites, including Ottoman-era mills and stone bridges. It is believed that the Phoenicians used the river to float timber to their Mediterranean port of Byblos, from where it was shipped to Egypt to build furniture, rooftops, and ships for the pharaohs. A thousand years later, the Romans built a series of staircases throughout the Adonis that connected it to their temples and palaces in the Bekaa Valley; portions of the route still can be traversed. Following logging of the valley by successive civilizations, from the Babylonians to the Persians, the Roman Emperor Hadrian banned the felling of trees in the first century, making the region one of the world’s first protected forest reserves. Latin inscriptions announcing the prohibition can be seen carved into boulders across the valley.
Environmental activists say dam builders have chopped down thousands of trees and that the number could reach as high as 300,000 or more. Drone video captured from above the area by the Lebanon Eco Movement, an association of environmental organizations, reveals the scale of the destruction: Bald, crumbling mountains are a stark contrast to the green hillsides that will be razed next. The flow of the river is slowing from the buildup of debris; its surface is covered in a thick layer of algae. The destruction is sure to affect the 16,000-acre Jabal Moussa Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO-recognized biosphere a few miles downriver from the dam site that is recognized as a protected forest by the Ministry of Agriculture. Two thousand years after Hadrian’s declaration, says Joelle Barakat, conservation manager for the Association for the Protection of Jabal Moussa, “we have ministers who laugh at you if you say you don’t want to cut down [trees].”
During summer Sundays, narrow roads leading through the reserve are thronged with cars and buses full of families out to picnic and camp along the riverbank. Since its establishment in 2007, the reserve has been producing maps and publications categorizing and documenting the hundreds of flora and fauna species native to the area and carving paths to archaeological sites such as the Hadrian inscriptions and the Adonis temples. Barakat says the reserve receives 10,000 visitors per year, which it hopes to boost by supporting family-owned inns.
“We believe the importance of Jabal Moussa reserve stems from the Adonis Valley,” says Barakat. “The whole region is culturally linked to this valley. The dam will have a direct effect on the riparian ecosystem that is there—it won’t be there anymore.”
In the summer months, the Abraham River, fed by snowmelt, is reduced significantly, creating wading pools among the rapids. Barakat says government flow studies failed to take into consideration seasonal changes, evaporation, or filtration down to underground resources—a finding confirmed by the German team, which concluded that existing flow meters are outdated and inaccurate.
The Ministry of Energy and Water maintains that the impact on nature will be limited and that the number of trees cut so far is only 5,000 and will not exceed 50,000. Repeated attempts to contact the ministry went unanswered.
Although Jannah is one of the largest state projects in Lebanon’s history, no environmental impact assessment was carried out before construction began. Public reviews are not protocol in Lebanon. Because sectarian politicians and affiliated sectarian media often scapegoat personalities and individual rivals rather than address broader, more complicated public service problems—which could implicate the attackers’ own side as well—such projects are seldom investigated and proceed with little oversight. Only after a group of hikers and environmentalists encountered signs in the valley announcing the project two years ago was a complaint lodged with the environment ministry.
With digging well under way, the study was eventually commissioned and then issued in June 2015 by Beirut civil engineering firm Gicome. It found that the project would “unavoidably cause negative effects on the local flora and fauna” and that “mitigation measures were proposed much too late since the implementation of the project has already started.” The study calculated environmental and social costs of the dam project would exceed $100 million a year while noting that “some environmental degradations are irreversible in nature so their loss [exceeds the value of] any other good.” Gicome proposed an exhaustive and immediate survey of the site by “a specialized team of biodiversity experts and monitored throughout all stages of the project” to produce a “complete inventory of the biodiversity of Adonis Valley.” It also noted a “potential risk of landslides,” which “can affect the safety of the dam or reservoir.”
Other experts are convinced that the dam will not even succeed at its principal aim: retaining water. The entire Adonis Valley is underlain with porous karst stone foundations, jagged rocks ubiquitous throughout the country that give rise to the limestone caves, underwater aquifers, and springs spread across Lebanon’s mountain ranges.
Video captured by a drone shows damage to the Adonis Valley as a result of construction on the Jannah Dam project.
Along dirt tracks on the drive to Jannah, recently carved wide for construction vehicles to pass, limestone facades are evident along the freshly cleaved mountainsides. A six-foot-wide cave opening can be spotted, partially obstructed by a pile of rock crushed to create an access road for construction vehicles and equipment. Inside are several deep crevices, one filled with stalactites hanging from its ceiling.
The valley floor’s permeability could cause the dam to lose more than two-thirds of the more than 10 billion gallons it aims to store, according to the German report. In a 2012 email obtained by TakePart, project leader Armin Margane pleaded with a senior Lebanese official at the state-run Council for Development and Reconstruction: “If construction of Jannah Dam goes ahead it would lead to a failed investment because at a cost of $300 million not more than around [2.6 billion gallons] of water could be stored.”
The Ministry of Energy and Water maintains that it will seal the porous valley floor through grouting, a technique in which concrete is injected across the inundation area behind the dam. The German team described this move as “practically impossible” and maintained that any attempt to seal the valley floor would “significantly reduce” the flow to the Jeita spring, which it estimates provides 75 percent of Beirut’s water.
Riachi says that even if grouting were attempted, the enormous amount of cement required would cause the project cost to balloon to at least three times the stated estimate. He uses an old Arabic proverb to make the point: “It would be like trying to tile the ocean floor.”
Several dams built on karst foundations, the permeability of which can compromise the integrity of the structure, have failed or faced severe problems in the United States. A 2009 report prepared for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers noted that half the U.S. dams deemed “unsafe or critically near failure” were built on karst foundations. “Numerous attempts at grouting solution features in karst have been ineffective,” and “grout has proven to be a short-term risk reduction measure,” it stated. The report concluded by listing a number of “minimum steps” to reduce failure, such as building deep underground walls to attempt to hold water back, though it does not indicate the success rate of such measures.
Mosul Dam in Iraq, built on karstified rock in 1984, is facing the imminent threat of collapse, according to both Iraqi and American engineers. The Corps called the dam “the most dangerous in the world,” forecasting that a collapse could release a wave of water more than 40 feet high that would submerge Mosul and flood Baghdad, killing up to 1 million. Although warned repeatedly about the unstable nature of the rock by successive foreign consultants, Saddam Hussein’s regime ignored this advice and went ahead with the project, viewing it as a symbol of state power and vowing to use grouting as a solution. Problems emerged two years after construction, when the structure was compromised as water running through the bedrock began eroding caves and causing them to expand. Despite a reported 104,000 tons of grout poured over the dam’s lifetime, new problems arose after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when the maintenance operation, which involved a 24-hour-a-day concrete injection schedule, came to a halt. At a height of 367 feet, Mosul Dam is only slightly taller than the Jannah Dam, although its carrying capacity is far smaller.
In Lebanon, the Chabrouh Dam, completed in 2007, also sits on karst rock. Researchers say the dam is now leaking at a rate of 52 gallons per second. The recently completed Brisa Dam is largely empty, as seen in pictures distributed by activists. The country’s largest dam, the Litani, built in the 1970s on the advice of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, has failed in its expectations to deliver water to farms across the arid Bekaa Valley. It now irrigates just 1.5 percent of Lebanese agriculture and leaks some 80 gallons per second, according to Riachi. “These are all failures,” he says.
Another major concern is that the Adonis Valley is a high seismic activity zone, with three fault lines traversing the axis of the proposed dam, according to a United Nations Development Programme preliminary study of the project in 2008. The presence of the faults was the study’s second-biggest concern following the presence of “pervious karst” beneath the dam axis.
In a conference hall at the new Hilton Beirut Habtoor Grand hotel, which towers over the concrete sprawl of Beirut, a line of suit-wearing, stone-faced parliamentarians sat awaiting the start of a televised press conference. Hastily organized by the Ministry of Energy and Water in response to growing criticism of the Jannah Dam project, over the course of nearly two hours the June 3 conference paraded contractors, architects, and project consultants before the cameras to present a series of charts, which they said proved their assessments of the project were sound.
In the front row were members of the political coalition supporting the dam project, led by Gebran Bassil—the former minister whose route Abu Akar had blocked in 2012. A rising star in politics, Bassil, 46, now heads the Free Patriotic Movement, a powerful parliamentary bloc founded by his father-in-law, Michel Aoun, a former army commander. The station covering the event, known as a mouthpiece for Aoun, regularly panned its cameras toward Bassil and other members of his coalition.
Throughout multiple presentations, the German team was constantly dismissed as producing “a viewpoint,” not “science,” while its series of reports, released in 2012, were called “old,” allegedly disproved by subsequent tests carried out by the prominent local engineering firm Khatib & Alami. The company, which has executed a significant share of government contracts over the last several decades, also claims that soil samples from the site indicate an “excellent” quality of stone and “no possibility” of leakage. Khatib & Alami’s tests were not made available. It was largely a party affair; only a handful of journalists or average citizens attended, and there was no discussion of grouting and the industry-wide skepticism about it.
At one point, Khatib & Alami lead engineer Adel Abou Jaoude held up a printout of a report from the French consulting firm SAFEGE, highlighting one key sentence on an overhead projection: “We have a favorable view toward building the dam.” What Jaoude failed to mention was three subsequent paragraphs qualifying the statement with the condition that the floor of the dam reservoir be sealed or grouted to prevent leakage. The report states this would be a “very difficult” task and could increase the costs of the project. The SAFEGE report confirms a positive soil finding on one side of the riverbank; testing on the other side—the side especially rich in karst stone—is pending.
Raja Noujaim, a retired quality control expert and a leading activist resisting the Jannah project, believes the testing was performed deliberately on the less permeable sections of the river valley. He also points out that the SAFEGE report makes a series of vague and conditional statements and relies heavily on tests conducted by the government. Particularly curious is the discrepancy between the SAFEGE report presented at the conference and one that the firm released three months earlier that extends its reservations toward not only the waterproofing of the dam floor but also the dam foundations. “They put them under pressure,” says Noujaim. “Otherwise they would not be paid.”
Riachi agrees: “SAFEGE initially said it was a bad site for a dam and then said their position was one of reservations.”
With near constant political instability and unregulated crony capitalism in Lebanon, maintenance of the dam could become a critical issue. The Lebanese state is infamous for its failure to maintain and deliver public services such as electricity and water. Despite billions in investment, the state electricity company’s power plants and transmission networks have suffered blackouts up to 12 hours per day for 30 years.
Garbage collection is equally problematic, with waste regularly dumped into rivers and rural areas or flushed untreated out to sea and a raft of failed sanitation and sewage projects. Beirut’s streets were lined with piles of trash last year following the overburdening of the country’s main landfill, due to a lack of oversight and planning by government bodies. Several municipalities resorted to burning their trash, sending cancerous toxins into the air, according to local university studies, which also warned of garbage residue from the piles seeping into groundwater and affecting agricultural production. The crisis, which led to extensive street protests, persists a year later, with plans now to create landfills along the Mediterranean, adding more pollution to existing sewage drains along the once pristine coast.
The nation’s potable water network is no outlier in the state of dysfunction. Tap water runs only a few hours per day; most households are equipped with plastic rooftop reservoirs, and residents are often reduced to buying water from private trucks. Because neither the tap water nor the private supply is treated, nearly the entire country is forced to buy crates of bottled water for drinking and cooking. Poor maintenance and mismanagement by the ministry and its labyrinth of regional water agencies are a major part of the problem. A 2011 study conducted by one of the government’s engineers found that nearly 50 percent of water in the network is lost because of outdated infrastructure and leaking pipes. Some aqueducts are more than 100 years old; Beirut’s main pumping station was built in 1896 and cannot be expanded.
“Why don’t they spend a few million dollars and repair the pipes?” asks Noujaim. He and other experts believe a series of small dams, wells, and lakes would serve as a more sustainable solution. “These people care about selling big projects, even if they don’t work. They care about money. You are dealing with Ali Baba.”
After the technical presentations, the press conference took a decidedly political turn as Bassil was introduced to much fanfare. The dam project will create an annual state revenue gain of some $180 million, Bassil said, though he did not reference the $100 million environmental cost Gicome calculated.
Known for his off-the-cuff remarks, Bassil dismissed concerns about the fault lines running beneath the dam, saying, “If it’s seven on the Richter scale, then who cares? All of Beirut will be gone anyway.” Government-hired experts had earlier claimed the dam’s concrete structure would help protect against earthquakes and that disaster is unlikely. “Only 12 dams have been ruptured in the past,” said a French expert working with Khatib & Alami.
Bassil is famous for promising during his term as energy and water minister 24-hour electricity in Lebanon by 2015. (He also promised, during his stint as telecom minister, fiber-optic internet by 2010.) With blackouts worse than ever this summer and internet speeds in Lebanon still among the world’s slowest, the hashtag #BlameBassil has periodically trended as the population complains on social media about public service failures.
Though Bassil has been appointed minister of foreign affairs, he maintains a frequent presence at events related to the Jannah Dam. At the hotel press conference, he touted the project as a pillar of “strategic national interest” and security and spoke in conspiratorial tones when describing opposition to the dam.
“What is this reason that a state…, two and a half years after starting a project, needs to stop it?” Bassil asked, throwing his hands in the air. “Cutting down a tree? That an earthquake could happen? An old study? Every day they are creating reasons to stop the dam. What makes all of these concerns lack value? One thing: politics. We spent $100 million, and we have to stop. Why? So someone can have fun?”
Bassil painted his party as a victim of political sabotage, singled out, he says, for abuses that others get away with, such as rampant illegal logging or polluting landfills. Forest fires, he argues, decimate 14 percent of Lebanese trees annually. “Now they are mad about 5,000 trees? Let the environment minister go chase after those [who are] logging trees,” he suggested to rousing applause from the conference audience. “If we are talking about environmental impact, this is over; it’s done,” he said. “The trees have been cut; the site of the dam has been excavated. If there was environmental impact, it happened already.”
The deep commitment to harnessing water and dam building in Lebanon far predates Bassil and his coalition. The notion that Lebanese rivers flowing to the Mediterranean are wasted dates back to the French mandate period: The precolonial water management system, wrote Riachi in an op-ed for Beirut newspaper paper Al-Akhbar, “was judged too archaically managed by the locals and needed to be modernized by a good-willed colonizing power.” This notion was extended during the 1950s, when American engineers first proposed the Jannah Dam as part of diplomacy efforts at the height of the Cold War. Today, Lebanon is embarking on $1.9 billion worth of future dam projects, many of them supported by loans from international lending organizations such as the World Bank.
In the hills overlooking Jannah, Andrade Gutierrez has set up dozens of mobile homes for its engineers in the picturesque mountain village of Kartaba. The firm is celebrated for creating jobs and bringing traffic to local business. In the town’s main square, the windows of offices rented by the company are covered with decals showcasing its projects; a giant rendering of the Jannah Dam is spread across an entire storefront.
Down below in Jannah, however, farmer Abu Akar is bent on giving Andrade Gutierrez hell. He regularly chucks rocks at the passing dump trucks because, he says, in addition to the destruction of the valley, they operate on Sundays in contravention of Lebanese law. His sister parks her Jeep strategically on the narrow road leading to the site to obstruct traffic flow. But it is a lonely battle.
He points to where his neighbors used to live. All that remains are three stone houses on a hillside, nestled amid a handful of oak and olive trees. They are an island of the past surrounded on all sides by newly carved gravel construction roads. Abu Akar says about 100 villagers—more than half the town—have vacated, as their homes were flattened. About eight families received sums of around $80,000 each, he says. “What will they do with that? Buy a small apartment and then what?” He vows to stay despite the enormous dam wall that is set to be built only a few hundred yards from his home and remaining fields, eclipsing the bounty of sunlight that shines down on his greenhouses: “No one is going to move us from here. I won’t leave even for $100 million.”
Abu Akar walks up to a home built of roughly cut boulders, with a porch made of straw and tree branches. Its former occupants, his great-grandparents, are buried under a slab of tombs around the back, near a one-room church with a dozen dusty pews. (Abu Akar says his great-great-grandfather was the first to settle in Jannah, in the 1820s.) Inside, under a chandelier, hangs a fading portrait of John the Baptist wearing a gold crown as he pours water over a half-robed Jesus, knee-deep in another river, the River Jordan. Outside the church, a cast-iron bell is propped up by a piece of decayed wood wedged between two gnarled olive trees. The inscription on the bell says it’s from 1885.
Just beyond Abu Akar’s greenhouses are vast bulldozed plains. He surveys the construction site. Once densely forested mountainsides have been shaved haphazardly, as if buzzed by a giant electric razor. Toward the center of the site lies a mound of bulldozed branches and tree trunks piled a dozen feet high, as if mauled in a natural disaster.
“Look at what they have done,” Abu Akar says, pointing to a large splintered tree stump. “They didn’t even cut them down properly.” The image seems to be at odds with a tree-replanting program put forward by government contractor Khatib & Alami to uproot and move thousands of the trees that needed to be cleared for the reservoir basin. Mountainsides have been reduced to loose sediment. Rockslides from the highest peaks of the excavation are evident throughout, particularly in the V-shaped section where the dam structure will be erected. Bubbly limestone facades are exposed in multiple sections of the construction area. Abu Akar says he witnessed water being pumped out of the project’s tunnel excavation, casting further doubt on the state’s claims of “excellent” rock integrity.
Abu Akar still has a few crops in the construction area but says he can’t bring himself to collect them: “I don’t have a heart to go inside. I’ll cry if I go there. It was the most beautiful valley in the world.”
He changes the subject and puts on a face of defiance mixed with sarcasm. “It’s all business; everyone wants to fill his pockets,” he says. “They make themselves out to be leaders, but they are worth the sole of my shoe.”