Springs of Hope in Lebanon

CNEWA restores a dwindling water supply

text by Don Duncan with photographs by Laura Boushnak

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The presence of water gave us a means to stay here,“ says 65-year-old Hana Habshi, a resident of the Maronite Catholic town of Deir El Ahmar. The once-bustling agricultural hub nestles on the slopes of the fertile Bekaa Valley, about 60 miles northeast of Beirut, where Mr. Habshi has lived and worked since the height of civil war in the 1980’s. But for the past decade, thanks to several irrigation projects, Mr. Habshi has returned to his hometown every summer to farm his family’s ancestral lands. “It helped us come back and live off the land again.”

Lebanon’s civil war — which ravaged the country from 1975 to 1990 — destroyed much of the nation’s infrastructure, including its irrigation systems, and sounded the death knell for the Bekaa Valley’s agricultural economy.

Without reliable sources of water, and subsequent erosion, farmers could no longer cultivate the land that formerly nourished lush fields and bountiful yields. Desperate for work, inhabitants moved to Lebanon’s major coastal cities, such as Beirut, Saida and Tripoli. Some left the country altogether. The few who remained scraped by as sustenance farmers, growing crops that require little water such as wheat, hay and, in some cases, hashish.

Deir El Ahmar, like most settlements in the area, remains but a shadow of its former self. Its many empty homes and crumbling public buildings remind locals and visitors of a more prosperous past. Though municipal authorities register some 10,000 residents, in reality half as many actually live there — and only then in the summer months. In winter, the town’s population plunges to little more than 3,000.

However, in the last ten years, Deir El Ahmar has been slowly but surely bucking the trend. Locals attribute this reversal to one thing — water. Since 1999, when the town installed its first irrigation system drawing on natural spring water, residents such as Mr. Habshi have been trickling back to town and reviving their parched properties and the Christian identity of the town.

“Before it was all just trees and shrubs, but look what happens when water comes,” says Mr. Habshi, pointing to the surrounding hillsides and valley below.

The striking vista, indeed, is a visual testament to the power of irrigation. Patches of land covered with rows of neatly tended greenery and tilled, dark-brown soil intersperse with the otherwise arid terrain. The cultivated lots all run along lines of an irrigation network that crisscrosses the hillside and valley.

About 12 miles uphill, the network’s main lines come together at a vast, manmade lake. Designed and built by the staff of CNEWA’s Pontifical Mission in 2005 at a cost of $160,000, it sits atop the Ain el Naama Hill, some 1.3 miles above sea level. The 13.2 million-gallon capacity reservoir consists of a deep crater-lake basin, which is lined with a thick, black artificial membrane to seal the soil. The reservoir collects water from rainfall, melting snow and several pipes connected to natural springs at higher altitudes.

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Tags: Lebanon Village life Farming/Agriculture Water Civil War