Lebanon confusion: Uneasy calm descends on Beirut amid ‘fear of what is to come’

A boy fishes from a breakwater in Antelias, Lebanon November 20, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 21 November 2019

Lebanon confusion: Uneasy calm descends on Beirut amid ‘fear of what is to come’

  • Life in Beirut returned to normal 35 days after activists took to the streets

BEIRUT: More than a month after bitter demonstrations erupted across the country, Lebanese protesters, just like warriors in battle, appear desperate for a rest.

On Wednesday, 35 days after activists took to the streets to demand an end to government corruption and mismanagement, life in Beirut returned to normal.

Students went back to their schools and universities, banks opened their doors to unprecedented numbers of customers, roadworks restarted on some streets and TV channels resumed regular schedules.

However, behind the appearance of calm, many residents remain nervous and fearful.

Taxi driver Abu Omar said: “The roads are no longer blocked by protesters, but people are still in shock. They fear what is to come. There have been no solutions, which means it is not over.”

Madeleine, shopping on Hamra Street with a friend, said: “We have had enough of sitting in front of the TV all day, watching the news. People in the street were right to protest and their demands must be met. Employees were told two days ago that their salaries will be cut in half.”

Another said: “We might lose our jobs at any moment. They told us that last month the company suffered enormous losses and might not be able to continue. I do not think that the protests are the cause, but the economic stagnation that began before the protests has got worse.”   

Away from the capital, protesters are still setting up roadblocks, but the Lebanese army’s decision to open major roads between towns has been unopposed.

In the north of Lebanon, roads were blocked in Akkar, while life in Tripoli returned to normal and the main protest squares were closed.

In Saida, in the south of the country, public facilities, schools and universities reopened. But protesters called for money exchange and transfer shops to be closed amid anger at the outlets’ high pricing of the US dollar while banks still have strict limits on providing customers with US currency.

According to a final review by Lebanon’s Central Bank, more than $3.2 billion was withdrawn from banks at the start of the financial crisis.

Alia Abbas, general director of economy and trade at the Lebanese Economy Ministry, said that prices of some products have risen by up to 11 percent.

President Michel Aoun, caretaker prime minister Saad Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri have failed to reach a formula to form a new government since Oct. 29.

One activist, who declined to be named, said that he fears Aoun will name someone other than Hariri to form a government of both experts and politicians since the former PM is insisting on a technocrat government.

“Naming Hariri to form a techno-political government is a good thing, as familiar faces will be replaced with experts, but this will not be well received by the protest movement,” he said.

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Water-scarce Gulf states bank on desalination, at a cost

Updated 12 December 2019

Water-scarce Gulf states bank on desalination, at a cost

  • For Oman and other Gulf states dominated by vast deserts, obtaining fresh water from the sea comes at a high cost
  • In Sur, water for residents and businesses comes from a large desalination plant

SUR, OMAN: “We have water, and it’s the most important thing in a house,” says Abdullah Al-Harthi from the port city of Sur in Oman, a country that relies on desalination plants.
But for Oman and the other Gulf countries dominated by vast and scorching deserts, obtaining fresh water from the sea comes at a high financial and environmental cost.
In Sur, south of the capital Muscat, water for residents and businesses comes from a large desalination plant that serves some 600,000 people.
“Before, life was very difficult. We had wells, and water was delivered by trucks,” the 58-year-old told AFP. “Since the 1990s, water has come through pipes and we’ve had no cuts.”
But these benefits — relying on energy intensive processes that produce carbon emissions — do not come without a cost, particularly as global temperatures rise.
The United Nations says 2019 is on course to be one of the hottest three years on record.
And there is another impact: the desalination plants produce highly concentrated salt water, or brine, that is often dumped back into the ocean.
Researchers say more than 16,000 desalination plants around the globe produce more toxic sludge than freshwater.
For every liter of freshwater extracted from the sea or brackish water, a liter-and-a-half of salty slurry is deposed at sea or on land, according to a 2019 study in the journal Science.
All that extra salt raises the temperature of coastal waters and decreases the level of oxygen, which can conspire to create biological “dead zones.”
The super-salty substance is made even more toxic by the chemicals used in the desalination process.
Oman’s bigger neighbors produce the bulk of the brine.
More than half comes from just four countries — Saudi Arabia, at 22 percent, United Arab Emirates with 20 percent, and smaller shares by Kuwait and Qatar, according to UN data.
“Brine production in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Qatar accounts for 55 percent of the total global share,” according to the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.
It said new strategies are needed “to limit the negative environmental impacts and reduce the economic cost of disposal.”
This would help “to safeguard water supplies for current and future generations.”
At the Sur plant, “almost no chemicals” are used during the pre-treatment phase, as the water is naturally filtered through the cracks of karst rocks, said Mahendran Senapathy, operations manager at French company Veolia which runs the plant along with an Omani firm.
There are other ways to safeguard freshwater supplies, from encouraging savings and efficiently to recycling wastewater.
Antoine Frerot, chief executive of Veolia, said wastewater recycling will help resolve the problem of water scarcity.
He also pointed out that “reused water is less costly,” nearly one third less than that won through desalination.
Omani authorities continue to mount campaigns urging people to use water wisely, mindful that other demands — especially the energy sector — also guzzle up large amounts.
Across the Gulf, huge amounts of water are used not just for homes, gardens and golf courses, but also for the energy sector that is the source of the region’s often spectacular wealth.
On the edge of the Arabian peninsula’s “Empty Quarter,” the world’s largest expanse of sand, lies the Khazzan gas field, operated by BP and the Oman Oil Company.
The method used to extract the gas here is hydraulic fracturing — more commonly known as fracking — said Stewart Robertson, operations manager at the site.
The method requires huge amounts of water. The site is supplied by a facility that provides 6,000 cubic meters of water a day, extracted from an underground aquifer 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.
Fracking involves directional drilling and then pumping water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture rock and release the hydrocarbons.
The rock formations that hold the gas are “like a big sponge with lots of little holes in it,” said Robertson, explaining that fracking is the process “to open those holes slightly to take the gas out.”
So the more the region extracts oil and natural or shale gas, “the more they need water,” said Charles Iceland of the World Resources Institute.
“The Middle East is projected to need more and more energy,” he said. “So that means the situation is going to get worse.”
“On the other hand,” he said, “if they can produce power using solar photovoltaic technologies, which are getting reasonably priced in the Middle East, that would take care of a lot of the problem because solar PV doesn’t need much water.
“You need just some water to clean the solar panels.”