Unblocking the cycle of water stress, crises and innovation in the Bekaa Valley

Urbanising regions in drylands often face environmental problems – particularly water stress. When people in these areas are also responding to other crises, such as conflict or refugee flows, it becomes difficult for them to implement long-term solutions. 

April 2015 - March 2017
Ced Hesse

Senior fellow, Climate Change; team leader, climate resilience, productivity and equity in the drylands

Although aid agencies provide emergency help in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, only long-term planning can deal with the wider environmental stresses (Photo: Caroline King-Okumu/IIED)

Although aid agencies provide emergency help in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, only long-term planning can deal with the wider environmental stresses (Photo: Caroline King-Okumu, IIED)

From 2015 to 2017, IIED drew on our broader experience in the arid lands of Kenya to look at ways to strengthen resilience in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. 

Water and climate stresses in urbanising dryland regions can reduce human wellbeing. People in the drylands face many short and long-term environmental challenges, including water shortages, water quality concerns and depletion of groundwater tables. These, in turn, increase energy demand and the cost of water pumping, treatment and regulation.

There are many ways in which human populations can innovate to overcome these problems. But in a crisis, bringing people together to overcome shared environmental challenges and plan strategically is complicated, and these innovations are more difficult to apply.

Crisis responses – such as poorly planned well digging, accelerated extraction rates and temporary settlements with makeshift sanitation arrangements – can also add to existing pressures on the environment. These problems can concentrate in and around urban areas.

All too often, vulnerable people are wrongly blamed for creating environmental degradation, when underlying institutional and governance failures may be a big part of the problem.

In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, the accommodation of displaced people from Syria and elsewhere has been blamed for making existing environmental challenges worse. But it is the lack of strategic planning to alleviate their situation that has left them reliant on inadequate sanitation systems and a water supply infrastructure that was intended for other users and uses.

International humanitarian organisations play an important role in relieving immediate suffering. But they often have neither the remit nor the capacity to engage with longer-term environmental stresses and they rarely encourage or enable local and national institutions to plan strategically in the long term. 

Changes and innovation can appear during crises. The large-scale humanitarian intervention in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley created new opportunities as well as challenges, as additional experienced staff were seconded into local government offices and survey work on access to water and other services generated new data.

Balancing water stress under a difficult and variable dryland climate requires:

  • A dedicated strategic focus on water and environmental challenges, coupled with an understanding of the inherent climatic variability, resource value and wealth of energies and human capacities that characterise the drylands
  • A recognition that low-income groups' absolute demands on water availability are often small, while the health, wellbeing, social and economic benefits of providing adequate water to marginalised groups  can be substantial, and
  • An effective and sustained collaborative approach among all those involved to enable progressive improvement of public databases and participatory scientific capacities to build confidence in their credibility and use in decision making, despite the crisis-driven nature of international and national agendas.

What IIED did

IIED's work explored how to transform water and climate stresses in the Bekaa Valley, an urbanising dryland region affected by humanitarian emergency. Our analysis suggested several entry points for developing a long-term strategic approach to water and environmental stresses in the area, including:

  • A pilot climate mitigation and adaptation planning process to strengthen local institutions, build financial and planning capacity across local, regional and national scales, and improve the coordination of international actors
  • Pilot investments in municipalities designed to simultaneously adapt to and mitigate climate change, achieve the water and energy-related Sustainable Development Goals and build economic activity, and
  • Enhanced information management and analysis on the present and anticipated future balance between water extraction and availability, including regular reports on water stress and strategic plans to overcome it. 

Additional resources

Blog: Urban crisis response needs a humanitarian sector shake-up, by Diane Archer (December 2017)

News: Urban crises conference: time to put learning into practice (November 2017)

News: IIED to host Twitter chat on effective humanitarian response in urban crises (October 2017)

News: IIED hosts international conference on humanitarian response in urban crises (September 2017)

Cracking the climate-water-energy challenge in the drylands of Kenya, Bashir Jillo, Victor Adaka, Ibrahim Jarso, Abdullahi Shandey, John Kinyanjui, Lordman Lekalkuli, Daoud Tari, Caroline King-​Okumu (2016), IIED Briefing