Gazing upon her granddaughter with protective eyes, Ibtisam hesitates to open up about her difficulties caring for Karen, 10 years old. “Karen used to watch me boil water in the kettle so she could bathe. There were many times we could not wash her school clothes and she did not understand why,” she recalls, relieved that this hardship is now just a distant memory. Thanks to the generous support of the European Union, UNICEF has been able to implement a series of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) support initiatives across various cities in Lebanon, including Mazraat el Chouf, where Ibtisam and her family live.
“Karen lived in Beirut before so she is used to living with water and always being clean. She never understood why, until now, we didn’t live the same way here,” explains Ibtisam, who moved to Mazraat el Chouf, a rural area in Mount Lebanon, a few years back. It was not an easy decision for her, as she was forced to leave her home in Choueifat, southeast Beirut, to escape the unbearable costs of living of the capital. “When we arrived, it was very tough. I had to buy water every week, including in summer and winter, just to give my family a seemingly ‘normal’ life.” But even with that, the family still struggled, she recounts. “There was barely enough for our basic needs. Laundry was piling up and we still didn’t have enough to wash our fruit and vegetables… Sometimes even to wash ourselves!”
Regaining decency through the WASH support
Since January 2022, though, everything has changed for Ibtisam and her loved ones. Along with more than 458,000 individuals and households, she has benefited from the UNICEF WASH intervention supporting the region’s Beirut and Mount Lebanon Water Establishment (BMLWE) every month. With funds from the European Union, UNICEF has worked on the repair and maintenance of 70 water pumping stations, sustaining the delivery of around two hours of water per day. “Things turned around. Up until now, we’d always had an unreliable water supply. But since this programme started, our home has had sustainable running water,” explains Ibtisam. Her eyes sparkle as she talks about the happiness Karen feels while enjoying a hot shower “whenever she wants now”. The grandmother now hopes to stop having to buy water whatsoever, so she can start using the much-needed money on other essentials like fuel. “Without water, life is very hard. It is our primary necessity.”
Addressing a structural issue
Mayor of Mazraat el Chouf, Yehya Abu Karoum, agrees. “We have long suffered from water shortages just like other towns in Lebanon. But it became much worse when groups of people started moving here from Beirut to escape the financial crisis.” More than water shortages, it was the whole infrastructure that needed repairing. “Numerous faults in the water system and a rise in urgent repairs have added to the shortages. Even when we have water in the town’s tanks, the lack of state-generated electricity and diesel availability to fuel the private pumps’ generators had become a huge problem. We were already overstretched. We just could not solve the whole problem ourselves.”
Water for a decent life
Thanks to the WASH support, the mayor says life has resumed in the village. “UNICEF and donors like the EU have played a significant role in addressing our water issues.” A reality echoed by the testimony of Younes Jermani, Head of the Water distribution department in Aley at the BMLWE. “The lack of electricity, our inability to perform the routine maintenance, and low wages have all worsened the situation. With the dollar crisis, the scale of our problems has widened.” More than a temporary fix, the EU-UNICEF partnership aims to empower all four regional water establishments to continue operating and maintaining infrastructure on their own in the future, so they can keep catering to local families, like Ibtisam’s. Effectively addressing structural water issues, such as network leakages and efficient repairs, is the only way to support the Lebanese population and Syrian refugee community in affording a decent, honorable life.
The EU and its Member States are the leading donors of international aid to those affected by the conflict in Syria. Since the start of the crisis in 2011, the EU has mobilised more than €25 billion to support the most vulnerable Syrians inside the country and across the region. The EU has organised, over 5 consecutive years, from 2017 to 2021, conferences supporting the future of Syria and the region. These have been the main pledging events for the Syria crisis. In 2021, the European Commission mobilised over €141 million in humanitarian aid to provide vital assistance to millions of people inside Syria. Adding to its initial allocation of €130 million, the Commission provided over €10 million to support people suffering from the severe water crisis and drought in northern Syria. The funding also helps support people throughout the winter. An additional €1 million was allocated for COVID-19 response.