The World Bank has frozen over $600 million in funding for Lebanon's Bisri Dam project in order to launch a dialogue with citizens and civil society groups who oppose the project. The bank said yesterday that it is open to suggestions from the Lebanese government on how the funds could be redirected to support residents through the national lockdown. Lebanon is in a crippling economic crisis which has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.
"[Such crises] often imply a change in national priorities in light of emerging needs," said the World Bank. "[The bank] has agreed globally to help countries re-channel available resources to emerging priorities of a more pressing and acute nature."
The funding suspension was reportedly sparked by a series of civil society campaigns which have pushed back against the Bisri Dam project in recent years. The World Bank has been calling for "an open… engagement and dialogue… with all stakeholders and civil society."
Activists have raised concerns that the project will destroy the region's rich ecosystem; damage cultural heritage by forcing the relocation of historical sites to higher ground; and plunge Lebanon's already struggling economy into more debt. As recently as last week, activists tied themselves to trees in a symbolic campaign against the dam's construction.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has also raised concerns, condemning the construction project in an open letter published on 3 April. "The construction project at the Archaeological Site of Nahr El-Kalb could have a major impact on the site, and possibly jeopardise any future nomination for World Heritage inscription," said the UN body.
The project is planned to provide essential drinking water for 1.6 million people in the greater Beirut and Mount Lebanon area, and was initially proposed by the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1953. It was adopted formally by the Lebanese government in 2014 under the World Bank's Water Supply Augmentation Project of Lebanon scheme.
Six years later, however, the dam remains unbuilt, with some households in the proposed catchment area receiving an average of only three hours of water per day during the summer. According to World Bank statistics, most people affected spend up to 15 per cent of their incomes on alternative water supplies.