Despite dire warnings about the health consequences of the country’s prolonged trash crisis, residents remain largely in the dark about the quality of their water, though delayed figures from the Beirut Water Authority show that quality was not affected following the torrential downpour on Oct. 25.
According to statistics the Water Authority showed The Daily Star – but would not let copy – water piped through the Beirut and Mount Lebanon networks in the days following the deluge remained free of chemical and bacterial pollution.
Though the news is positive, it took the Water Authority two weeks to reply to The Daily Star’s inquiry, indicating that the public should expect to receive future notices with a similar delay. The Daily Star was asked to submit a handwritten request at the Water Authority’s headquarters, and no officials were made available for an on-the-record interview.
With trash festering and rotting around Mount Lebanon, health and water sanitation experts began raising alarms in September that the winter rains would wash pollutants into the porous geography and contaminate groundwater.
Whether or not this has happened, the water that the Authority sends into its pipes remains the same as it ever was after treatment, at least according to delayed figures.
E. coli and bacterial coliform levels, key indicators of water-borne diseases, exceeded allowable limits in some wells, leading engineers to remove them from the distribution network and treating them with chlorine, following normal protocols. Contamination regularly spikes with the onset of the rainy season, a Water Authority engineer told The Daily Star, and it is not related to the trash. He was not authorized to speak on the record.
Contamination can still occur as water flows through the pipes, according to Jean Abi Rizk, a water sanitation expert, but only if the pipes are punctured and empty. He said there is some risk of contamination as aging pipes can cause water cuts, but little probability of pollution in the water mains. Abi Rizk told The Daily Star he could not independently verify any of the Water Authority’s conclusions or data.
Altogether, the data indicates residents can continue to use municipal water as they always have, Abi Rizk said. However, the same cannot be said about water purchased from private companies, something many residents do to fill their cisterns in times of outages. This water is usually piped in from unregulated wells that may be exposed to trash contamination.
“This water is probably not treated. You need results from lab tests to know what is in this water,” Abi Rizk said.
But polluted water can deposit residues in cisterns, contaminating household water long after the municipal water supply has returned, as many residents know.
The Beirut Water Authority said it would not provide customers with contaminated water, even if it meant cutting off supplies following downpours to let the trash pollution wash out.