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Cleaning up corruption along Lebanon’s longest river

People are speaking out against the widespread corruption that has kept the Litani River heavily polluted

Lebanese Transparency Association

For years, people in towns near Lebanon’s longest river have been living in fear. Where cancer was once rare, it has become uncommonly frequent — especially among young people.

In 2019, in the riverside town of Bar Elias alone, there were 600 cancer cases among a population of 12,000. The disease caused three out of five deaths. Many of the 48 other towns and the Syrian refugee camps bordering the river have been suffering the same problem.

The cancers have been linked to heavy river pollution. Raw sewage and waste from nearly 1,000 factories, slaughterhouses and quarries have been pumped into the Litani for years — while the authorities until recently turned a blind eye. Despite its stench, the water is used for drinking supplies and irrigating crops which feed the population.

Residents have repeatedly complained to the government, but despite official promises, too little has changed. Many factory owners are either politicians or have links to powerful political interests, and can get away with polluting the waterway.

Amid persistent rumours of corruption, including bribery of officials to ignore ongoing environmental violations, the increasingly desperate residents of Bar Elias contacted our chapter in Lebanon, the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA). They asked for help in making the government keep its promises to restore the Litani.

A deeper culture of corruption

Sadly, LTA staff were unsurprised by the situation. They receive frequent reports of bribery and corruption among the country’s officials, denying people their right to essential services and undermining their quality of life.

According to the latest Global Corruption Barometer — Middle East and North Africa, which surveyed more than 6,600 people in six nations about their day-to-day experiences of corruption, 44 per cent of citizens think government officials are corrupt and 35 per cent think local officials are corrupt. In Lebanon, these figures rise to the highest in the region, at 68 per cent and 46 per cent respectively.

Using film to drive change

By 2018, the LTA’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC) had received numerous complaints about the ongoing contamination of the Litani and the increasing rates of disease. In response, ALAC staff took innovative action to highlight the pollution and press the authorities to keep their promises to tackle it.

Documentary by the Lebanese Transparency Association on the Litani River pollution scandal

After the officials they contacted took no action, they teamed up with investigative journalists to identity sources of pollution along the Litani. Together, they carried out the first-ever aerial filming of the river from source to estuary, documenting flows of waste into the water. This was accompanied by field surveys to identify the parties responsible for the environmental abuses.

The ALAC also submitted an access to information request for details of budgets and projects to address the Litani crisis. They obtained a list of agreed projects for the construction and improvement of wastewater treatment plants and sewage systems. In 2016, the government had allocated 1,100 billion Lebanese liras (approximately US$728 million) to cleaning the Litani over the next five years. But the projects were not being implemented.

Prompting official action

Based on their aerial filming, the ALAC team produced a documentary, which they circulated widely and promoted through the media, causing an outcry. In response, the National Litani River Authority also posted the film on social media and started to take action.

Officials sent numerous legal warnings to factories and municipalities over their dumping of waste and sewage, and informed the Public Prosecutor’s office, which issued warrants against several offenders.

Work is finally taking place on two major wastewater treatment plants, and the Litani’s colour is starting to improve. But there is a lot more to be done, with further renovation of treatment plants and sewer networks scheduled, and new stations due for construction.

Challenging the culture of bribery

Rescuing the river still requires major political action. In towns like Bar Elias, people’s lives are at stake.

ALAC staff are watching closely to ensure that funds allocated to restoring the Litani are properly spent, and that bribery and political ties don’t prevent the clean-up operations. They are also ensuring media coverage of the situation and supporting people to hold officials to account.

The GCB shows that 39 per cent of Lebanese believe ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption. The changing colour of the Litani River shows that they’re right, encouraging more people to speak out and drive positive change.

Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) provide free and confidential legal advice to witnesses and victims of corruption. With more than 100 offices in more than 60 countries, ALACs provide an accessible, effective way for people to report corruption and demand action.

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This article was written as part of the Global Corruption Barometer — Middle East and North Africa 2019, the largest, most detailed survey of citizens’ views on corruption and their direct experiences of bribery in Middle East and North Africa.