Outcry grows over Lebanon’s World Bank-funded mega dam

Outcry grows over Lebanon’s World Bank-funded mega dam
Protesters rally in front of the World Bank offices in Beirut over the Bisri dam project, which they claim will ravage the region’s farmland and historic sites. (AFP)
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Updated 03 September 2020

Outcry grows over Lebanon’s World Bank-funded mega dam

Outcry grows over Lebanon’s World Bank-funded mega dam
  • Critics say the $617m project is an ‘environmental crime’ that mirrors the country’s corrupt patronage system

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Bisri Valley lies on a green fertile bed, a spot that has cradled civilizations dating as far back as the Bronze Age. Its expansive lands of pine, citrus trees and ancient ruins are threatened with being submerged by a controversial mega dam funded by the World Bank.

For years, activists and locals have voiced their opposition to it, describing it as an environmental crime and a project that mirrors Lebanon’s patronage system and bad governance.

The devastating explosion that rocked Beirut last month, killing more than 190 people and injuring thousands, has highlighted endemic corruption in Lebanon. It has also revived calls for investigations into mega-infrastructure projects proposed by politicians whose corruption and negligence the public blames for the disaster.

The Bisri dam project was approved by Lebanon’s government and parliament in 2015 and is funded through a $474 million loan by the World Bank, with a total cost of $617 million. It is supposed to store 125 million cubic meters of water, providing a solution for chronic water shortages to 1.6 million Lebanese living in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, according to the World Bank website.

But those opposed to the project, about 35 km south of the capital, say the dam is fraught with technical and corruption issues. Lebanon’s politicians are notorious for using projects to pass out lucrative positions to their supporters to skim off cash or otherwise profit.

“It represents everything we have been fighting against, it is a model of the confessional patronage system that has led to Lebanon’s demise,” says Roland Nassour, co-founder of the Save the Bisri Valley Campaign.

In a recent letter to the World Bank, the campaign organizers reiterated their call to cancel the project, drawing a parallel between failed dam projects in Lebanon and the explosion, describing both “as a major lack of integrity in the public sector.”

“This is one of the few projects left that the politicians and companies they hire can capitalize on and make money from,” said Elias Hankash, a parliament member who resigned after the blast and has opposed the project from the beginning. “Is it possible that today, a bankrupt country like Lebanon takes a multi-million-dollar loan to build a dam?” he said.

Lebanon is mired in an unprecedented economic crisis, with a collapsing currency, increasing inflation and hundreds of thousands thrown into poverty. The government defaulted on its foreign bonds commitment for the first time earlier this spring.

Activists have also voiced concerns that Bisri is on an active seismic fault line. Geologist Mohammed Khawlie says the dam won’t store the expected amounts of water. “The rocks are very porous, they absorb the water, the land is karstic,” he explains, referring to a terrain that is formed of soluble rocks and limestone.

“If you want to solve this problem by injecting cement into the dam structure, then you are incurring hundreds of millions of dollars in additional cost.”

Other recently built dams in Lebanon have failed for similar reasons, Khawlie said.

Environmental expert Paul Abi Rashed says the project will destroy more than 6 million square meters of green land, among Lebanon’s most scenic and pristine. “We are talking about vast agricultural lands, pine forests, the second largest roosting area for migratory birds in Lebanon,” he adds.

It also threatens the historic Mar Moussa church as well as Roman and Hellenistic ruins, though the World Bank says they will be preserved or moved.

The World Bank declined an interview request. On its website, it says, “an environment and social impact assessment was carried out in close collaboration with government agencies, civil society, the private sector and community members and has been approved by the Ministry of Environment.”

Abi Rashed says the assessment has not been updated since 2016.

It was also conducted by Dar Al Handasah, a consulting firm that is a stakeholder in the project and listed as the supervising entity to the construction of the project’s tunnel and pipeline.

“That is a clear conflict of interest,” says Nassour. “The World Bank says the assessment should not be done by an entity affiliated in any way to the project.”

The World Bank has heavily invested in mega-dam projects in developing countries in the past but not without controversy. It withdrew from contentious projects in India and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and faces complaints against its dam projects in places like Uganda.

Email exchanges between the regional World Bank director Saroj Kumar Jha and his staff in April show the World Bank recently changed its mind about the Bisri dam project and is offering to use the rest of the loan for “protecting the poor and most vulnerable.”

But Kumar mentions in his email that “the president prefers to proceed with the project,” referring to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, whose party has held the Energy Ministry for more than a decade.

The limited preliminary construction done so far on the dam has been suspended since the summer of 2019 under pressure from civil society.

Recently, the World Bank gave the Lebanese government the deadline of Sept. 4 to meet “the tasks that are preconditions to the commencement of construction of the dam.” But in the aftermath of the explosion, the deadline is unlikely to be met.

The World Bank has already paid around $320 million to Lebanon, including $155 million for expropriations of private land in the valley.

“There are many alternatives to using the land, the government can invest in agriculture or turn the land into a natural reserve and encourage eco-tourism,” suggests Hankach.

Beirut’s water shortages are primarily due to mismanagement, Nassour said. His group calls for parts of the loan to be redirected to support alternative water projects — and to rebuild lives and livelihoods of people affected by the Beirut blast.


Changes in KSA so far just tip of the iceberg, Saudi PIF chief tells the ‘oil man’s Davos’

Changes in KSA so far just tip of the iceberg, Saudi PIF chief tells the ‘oil man’s Davos’
Updated 03 March 2021

Changes in KSA so far just tip of the iceberg, Saudi PIF chief tells the ‘oil man’s Davos’

Changes in KSA so far just tip of the iceberg, Saudi PIF chief tells the ‘oil man’s Davos’

DUBAI: Changes in Saudi Arabia in the past five years are just the “tip of the iceberg” of the transformation the Kingdom will experience under the Vision 2030 strategy and beyond, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of the Public Investment Fund, said on Tuesday.
“The things we’d like to achieve in 2030 will be our optimal way of starting the next phase, which is what we will do until 2040, or after that to 2050,” Al-Rumayyan told a virtual session of CERAWeek — the “oil man’s Davos” — in Houston, Texas.
“Our society is changing, the people are becoming more receptive to new ideas on how companies should work and how society should function, and even the social contract is changing. If you add all of these together, you will have an idea of what Saudi Arabia, by embracing and implementing Vision 2030, will look like in nine years,” he said.
Al-Rumayyan, who is also chairman of Saudi Aramco, said plans remained in place to sell more shares in the world’s biggest oil company, after the biggest initial public offering (IPO) in history in 2019 when it sold less than 2 percent of its shares.
“From the very beginning we said we would be selling more of the shares owned by the government; once we see market conditions improving, and more appetite from different investment institutions and investors, we will definitely consider selling more shares,” he said.
He also underlined the Kingdom’s ambitions in renewable energy and hydrogen fuels. “Aramco is interested in renewables, believe it or not. It is the largest oil and gas company on the planet, but we are thinking of ourselves as an energy and petrochemical company.”
He told Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer prize-winning oil historian, that PIF would invest $40 billion a year in Saudi Arabia to “stimulate the economy and
create jobs.”
 


Saudi forum to showcase key projects

Saudi forum to showcase key projects
Updated 03 March 2021

Saudi forum to showcase key projects

Saudi forum to showcase key projects
  • The Future Projects Forum aims to showcase future projects in the Middle East

Saudi Contractors Authority (SCA) will hold the Future Projects Forum (FPF) virtually during March 22-24.

The FPF will include the participation of more than 37 government and private  entities to present around 1,000 projects with an estimated total value exceeding SR600 billion ($16 billion).

The Future Projects Forum aims to showcase future projects in the Middle East. It also aims to create opportunities for contractors and investors via identifying details of future projects in the contracting sector and knowing the mechanism of qualification and competition.

The forum seeks to develop a wide network of relationships between contractors, investors and interested parties, in addition to creating partnerships between them.

 The number of delivered residential real estate projects increased from SR12.4 billion ($3.3 billion) in 2019 to SR13.9 billion in 2020.


Bahrain expects $3.2bn deficit in 2021, 5% economic growth

Bahrain expects $3.2bn deficit in 2021, 5% economic growth
Updated 03 March 2021

Bahrain expects $3.2bn deficit in 2021, 5% economic growth

Bahrain expects $3.2bn deficit in 2021, 5% economic growth
  • Bahrain’s economy contracted by 5.4% last year, the IMF estimated, as the COVID-19 pandemic hurt vital sectors such as energy and tourism
  • The tiny Gulf state, which based the 2021-2022 budget on an oil price assumption of $50 a barrel, expects the economy to grow 5% this year

DUBAI: Bahrain expects to post a deficit of 1.2 billion dinars ($3.20 billion) in 2021, state news agency BNA said, citing the finance ministry.
The oil-producing Gulf state projected a budget of 3.6 billion dinars for 2021 with revenues expected to amount to 2.4 billion dinars, BNA said.
For next year, total expenditure is estimated at 3.57 billion dinars, against total revenues of 2.46 billion dinars, resulting in a slightly lower deficit of 1.1 billion dinars.
Bahrain’s economy contracted by 5.4% last year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has estimated, as the COVID-19 pandemic hurt vital sectors such as energy and tourism.
The tiny Gulf state, which based the 2021-2022 budget on an oil price assumption of $50 a barrel, expects the economy to grow 5% this year, BNA said late on Tuesday.
Sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat will double its contributions to government revenues, said the agency, as Bahrain seeks to boost non-oil revenues.
Bahrain has accumulated a large pile of debt since the 2014-2015 oil price shock. In 2018 it received a $10 billion financial aid program from Gulf allies that helped it avoid a credit crunch.
BNA cited Finance and Economy Minister Sheikh Salman bin Khalifa Al-Khalifa as saying that the country remains committed to achieving the objectives of the fiscal balance program — a set of fiscal reforms linked to the financial aid.
“This budget makes clear Bahrain’s continued commitment to the Fiscal Balance Program, despite the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, with core government expenditure remaining under tight control,” the minister was quoted as saying.
Public debt rose to 133% of GDP last year from 102% in 2019, the IMF has said, cautioning that the country needs to reduce government debt once economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis firms up.


Theeb Rent-a-Car to list 30% of shares in IPO this month

Theeb Rent-a-Car to list 30% of shares in IPO this month
Updated 03 March 2021

Theeb Rent-a-Car to list 30% of shares in IPO this month

Theeb Rent-a-Car to list 30% of shares in IPO this month

RIYADH: Theeb Rent-a-Car, a Riyadh-based car rental company, plans to float 30 percent of its share capital in an initial public offering (IPO) later this month.

The company issued an IPO prospectus last month to the Saudi Stock Exchange (Tadawul), in which it outlined the many factors that enable it to compete with its current and potential competitors and the factors it sees for its future growth.

The Saudi Capital Market Authority (CMA) last October approved Theeb’s request to offer a 30 percent stake as part of its IPO, representing 12.90 million shares on Tadawul.

The company’s strategy is to continue seeking growth in the car rental services sector by opening new branches, whether at airports, inside cities, or in new mega projects in which the need for car rental is likely to increase.

According to Argaam, Theeb Rent a Car reported a net profit of SR41.9 million ($3.97 million) for the first nine months of 2020, an increase of 8 percent on the same period in 2019.

Short-term leasing accounted for 44.8 percent of revenue, followed by long-term leasing (30.2 percent) and used car sales (25 percent).

Offering daily, weekly and monthly rental services, it operates through 48 outlets across the Kingdom. With 264,131 customers as of March 2020 – a 3 percent year-on-year increase – Theeb has an 8.8 percent share of the short-term car leasing market. It competes with the likes of Al WAFAQ, with a 6.9 percent market share, followed by Budget Saudi (6.9 percent), Arabian Hala (4.6 percent), Key Car Rental (3.5 percent) and SEERA (3.2 percent).
 


Own goal? Shaky finances ruin China’s dream to be a global football power

Jiangsu FC on Sunday said they had
Jiangsu FC on Sunday said they had "ceased operations" — just three months after winning the Chinese Super League. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 02 March 2021

Own goal? Shaky finances ruin China’s dream to be a global football power

Jiangsu FC on Sunday said they had "ceased operations" — just three months after winning the Chinese Super League. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Jiangsu FC on Sunday said they had "ceased operations" — just three months after winning the Chinese Super League

SHANGHAI: Five years ago, China under President Xi Jinping pledged to become a football power by 2050. But the financial collapse of the newly crowned Chinese champions raises fresh questions over that lofty goal.
Jiangsu FC on Sunday said they had "ceased operations" — just three months after winning the Chinese Super League — in a move described as "shocking" by state media.
After rushing in to curry favour with Xi and the Communist Party, burnt investors are retreating again and last year 16 teams pulled out of Chinese football. More are set to follow.
It is a far cry from when the Super League broke the Asian transfer record five times in less than a year, culminating in Chelsea midfielder Oscar joining Shanghai SIPG for 60 million euros in January 2017.
Argentine striker Carlos Tevez was lured by Shanghai Shenhua in the same transfer window on reported wages of 730,000 euros a week, the highest in the world.
But state-run Xinhua news agency said this week that soaring salaries and transfer fees, as clubs vied to outspend each other, had created "a bubble" that is now bursting.
Citing Chinese Football Association statistics, Xinhua said average expenditure in the 2018 season for the Super League's 16 clubs was about 1.1 billion yuan ($170 million), against average income of 686 million yuan.
"The CSL club expenditure is about 10 times higher than South Korea's K League and three times higher than Japan's J-League," CFA president Chen Xuyuan said in December, when salary caps were announced.

Journalist Ma Dexing said that in 30 years covering Chinese football he has seen more than 200 clubs close, indicating a wider problem beyond the current crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, which delayed the Super League for months last year and forced it behind closed doors.
Tianjin Tigers, a Super League mainstay since its founding in 2004, are expected to dissolve within days and Hebei FC's parent company is drowning in debt.
"The fundamental reason is that the foundation of Chinese professional football is too weak," Ma, who has 1.5 million followers on China's Twitter-like Weibo platform, wrote in a column.
Clubs are built and run by companies which have little connection to the communities where they are based, Ma explained.
"Therefore the survival of China's professional clubs directly depends on the economic situation of the enterprise or company," he wrote.
"Once the company or enterprise has problems, the club ceases to exist."
That's what happened to Jiangsu FC, who were until recently called Jiangsu Suning, named after their backers.
The Suning conglomerate, which also owns Serie A leaders Inter Milan, is in financial peril and has cut the team loose.
A recent CFA order for clubs to drop sponsors from their official names -- supposedly to help foster a deeper footballing culture -- was the "last straw" for some investors, the Beijing News said.

Speaking to AFP last year, CFA secretary-general Liu Yi said a healthy Super League was central to China's football ambitions, which include hosting and even winning a World Cup.
Concerned about clubs' high spending and the lack of opportunities for Chinese players, the CFA imposed a 100 percent transfer tax in 2017 on incoming foreigners, plus recent salary and investment caps.
The Shanghai Observer said clubs must abandon single-owner models in favour of multiple stakeholders including "government, enterprises, communities and even individuals".
"Super League clubs cannot only rely on blood transfusions from their parent company but must attract more sponsorship, match-day income (and improve) transfer market operations, etc.," it said in an opinion piece.
Liu told AFP that China remains committed to its ambitious long-term plans, pointing out that foreign stars including Oscar, Paulinho and Marouane Fellaini remain in the Super League.
But the short term is uncertain.
A more frugal Super League is expected to kick off in the spring but with coronavirus concerns persisting, the CFA is yet to announce a start date. Given Jiangsu and Tianjin's problems, it's also unclear which teams will be involved.
Meanwhile, the men's national side has moved up just five places in the FIFA rankings since China revealed its football dreams in 2016. They are now 75th, just above war-ravaged Syria.
China has reached only one World Cup, in 2002, when they failed to score a goal or win a point in their three group games.