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Water purification must save the River Litani


The Litani River is crucially important to the Lebanese people. But this river in the Beqaa Valley has been polluted by waste water discharge. In addition, many small water purification plants are not operating properly. Expert Cees Vallentgoed: ‘One large central water purification plant would be much more effective.’

Blue skies and snow-topped mountains form the backdrop to vineyards and orchards, alternating with grazing livestock. The Litani River flows through the deep Beqaa Valley. It was for this river, 170 kilometres long, that Cees Vallentgoed, an expert in water purification, travelled to Lebanon in May 2019.

The Beqaa Valley is a beautiful landscape, and the people are enormously friendly, Cees Vallentgoed tells. It is an area of much agriculture and livestock farming in which many small companies can be found, producing cheese and yoghurt or making products from fruit. There is little or no chemical industry, but there is a paper mill. Vallentgoed: ‘The quality of the river water is being threatened by the discharge of untreated urban waste water. This water also originates from refugee camps in the valley, in which tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are staying.’

The other major cause of the pollution is that businesses in the valley discharge their waste water directly into the sewers. Vallentgoed: ‘Those sewers are often not connected to a large water purification plant as they are in the Netherlands. There are, in fact, water purification plants but many more need to be built. At present, sewers drain into the river and cause significant pollution.

The Lebanese Ministry of Environment has introduced a law to combat this development. The law states that businesses in the valley may be granted a permit to discharge their waste water into the river or sewers, but they must first purify it. And to do that, businesses must first install their own purification plant.

Strict environmental requirements

‘The Litani is playing an important role in the economy of the Beqaa and the South governorates in terms of irrigation, hydro-electric power production and tourism’, says Said Gedeon. He is a project manager at the Chamber of Commerce, Industry & Agriculture of Zahle and Bekaa (CCIAZ), in Zahle. Gedeon is responsible for the project ‘Improving water availability, Quality and uses in Agriculture and Industry in the Bekaa’, funded by USAID. The aim is to support small dairy industries in the development of appropriate water treatment solutions which helps reducing the pollution of the Litani River. ‘We support the small dairy companies in putting water purification plants into operation and maintaining them.’ Their own plants often turn out not to operate properly. ‘Lack of knowledge and experience means that few businesses are able to meet the strict environmental requirements set for water purification by the government’, Gedeon mails, from Zahle. So the CCIAZ went to PUM for help. Could PUM send an expert who was able to assess the technical installations and make recommendations to improve the situation?

That is how Cees Vallentgoed appeared on the scene. He visited seventeen dairy companies, joined in their daily routines, looked at what they had in the way of purification capacity and inventoried the problems. He saw that most of the companies were too small for such a technical facility. ‘They have only a small amount of waste water. For example, there is a small cooperative in the Beqaa Valley, run by women. They take fruit and make it into jams and marmalades. They also keep goats. From the milk they make and sell cheese and yoghurt. They use around 1,000 litres of water a day, most of which has to be discharged. Should they have to have a purification plant built just for that? If so, small businesses will face extra costs. It would be better if the government allowed these companies to discharge the waste water into a sewer leading to a local purification plant, rather than purifying it themselves. And in this situation, that was possible.’

More stable and less expensive

Vallentgoed shared his findings and recommendations in an evaluation with all parties involved: the businesses, the suppliers of water purification systems, the Ministries of Industry and Environment and the Litani River Authorities LRA. His advice is to consider building one or more large central water purification plants. ‘Instead of having 150 small plants, which are often difficult to maintain too, large companies should invest in such a large plant; they can afford it.’

A central water purification plant is more effective, more stable and consumes less energy. This solution is also cheaper, according to Vallentgoed. ‘It allows you to treat all the sewage water, both from the businesses and from the cities, at once. There are thousands of substances in the water; a good system will remove most of them. That means a huge reduction in the pollution of the river and it would allow the farmers to concentrate on their production activities.

Working cleanly

In Vallentgoed's experience, everybody is for 'green', both the Lebanese government and the entrepreneurs in the Beqaa Valley. ‘The dairy companies work very cleanly. Employees wear surgical masks and gloves, there are nice stainless steel machines, everything according to ISO (internationally recognized criteria for good production methods and business operations, ed.). The quality of the products is closely monitored, also by the Chamber of Commerce which has a large food laboratory for that purpose.’

In his contact with the industries, Vallentgoed found that they are quite prepared to pay for the protection of the environment (water). They would rather do that than invest money in an installation that they don't understand and can't manage efficiently. ‘Entrepreneurs were sometimes desperate because they are caught in a vice: they are required by the government to take measures, but they don't really know how. In the production of cheese or yoghurt, for example, waste water is produced which has to go through such a purification installation. That water still contains a lot of fats and protein, so the process does not go well since such a purification installation cannot cope with that.’

Precious raw materials

Precious raw materials are also wasted in this way. ‘These substances are very suitable for reuse: why not use them to extract proteins, for example? Some entrepreneurs already skim the cream off first, and extract the whey (by-product of cheese-making) before the waste water goes through their installation. You could set up a collection point for these raw materials, purify them there and make high-protein products for sports people, for example.’

Said Gedeon, project manager at CCIAZ, has since also become convinced of the idea of tackling water purification centrally, combined with good information and exchange of knowledge. ‘Mr Vallentgoed tried to help the lack of knowledge on the part of entrepreneurs with his expertise. But he really must return to see the advances we have make.’ Cees Vallentgoed confirms that there will indeed be a second mission, to see whether businesses are actually able to discharge into an existing local water purification plant. ‘Everything in this project hinges on socially responsible business practices, for the conservation of the river and the welfare of the people.’

Cees Vallentgoed (70) took a Master's in Environmental Science and Protection at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences under licence from the University of Lincoln in the UK. Lebanon was his eighth advice mission. Previous advice missions went to Morocco, India and Pakistan. Vallentgoed: ‘I hope I can help people move forward. It is about setting something in motion on the spot that can be used to stimulate certain improvements.’

Text: Annemiek Huijerman

Photography: Cees Vallentgoed / Pixabay