Lebanon is bracing for a summer drought, after a record dry winter exacerbated by a massive influx of Syrian refugees and long-standing water management problems.
In Ammiq, in the east of the country, the effects of the dry winter are already visible.
Farmer Khaled al-Kaabi has begun watering his fields a month earlier than usual because the rains that ordinarily feed his lands never came.
“Usually we do this at the end of May, but this year the lack of rain has forced us to do it now,” he said as he irrigated rows of wheat for animal feed.
Lebanon’s meteorological service says the country has had just 431mm of precipitation since September, less than half last year’s 905.8mm and far below the yearly average of 812mm.
The country hasn’t seen such low levels since 1932, when just 335mm was recorded, according to Hadi Jaafar, assistant professor of irrigation engineering and water management at the American University in Beirut.
But the increase in the country’s population since then makes this year’s drought far more serious, he said.
“This year, and although we received a little bit above 400mm, it is far worse,” he said.
“Back then, the population was less than half of today’s, and so were the agricultural areas,” he added.
“Relatively speaking, it is the driest year on record for the inhabitants in this country.”
Ordinarily, Lebanese farmers irrigate their fields by digging channels that divert water from local rivers or wells that fill with rainwater.
But the rain and snow that usually feed the rivers and wells never arrived.
“This year, we will have to pump up water from below ground, but if this drought continues next year, there’ll only be 5% of that groundwater left,” Kaabi said.
Lebanon has the highest proportion of arable land to residents in the Arab world, but just 12% of the land is cultivated, and agriculture contributes only 11.7% to GDP, behind services and industry.
Still, farmers can ill afford to leave their lands unwatered, despite warnings from Jaafar and others about tapping the country’s groundwater reserves.
“The water demand for Lebanon is projected at about 1.8bn cubic metres per year,” he said.
“Most of this water needs to come from groundwater pumping this year... Renewable groundwater resources will all be depleted and we will be tapping from our strategic reserves.”
Lebanon’s parliamentary committee for public works and energy called in April for the creation of a crisis group to deal with the expected summer shortages.
Fadi Comair, director general of hydraulic and electric resources at the energy ministry, described a “truly dramatic situation”, exacerbated by waste and an influx of Syrian refugees.
He said Lebanon could ordinarily expect to have water resources of around 2.7bn cubic metres in a given year.
Those resources would be sufficient to meet projected annual needs at least until 2020.
“But the influx of Syrian refugees means this balance will tip into the negative by the end of this year,” he said.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR warned in February that the presence of more than a million Syrian refugees alongside 4mn Lebanese would seriously deplete the country’s renewable water resources.