Lebanon’s Rotary clubs unite a divided nation around a water project
At a school in northern Lebanon, students line up to drink from taps and wash their hands at basins. It’s a luxury that was once rare for schoolchildren here, though the snow-capped mountains that supply much of the country’s water loom not far in the distance.
“Before, the water was not drinkable, it contained many bacteria,” explains Nabila Babetti, principal of the Adnan al-Jisr High School in Tripoli, the country’s second-largest city. Students had to rely on bottled water that was expensive for families to provide. Some were sickened by unsafe water, forcing them to miss days of school.
Then in 2022, a new water filtration system was installed at the school with funding from a global grant awarded to the Rotary Clubs of Tripoli Cosmopolis and Genève International, Switzerland. “Now we have had fewer absences. It has made things a lot easier,” Babetti says. School officials were relieved, especially in light of an outbreak of cholera in northern Lebanon last year, the country’s first since 1993. “We are eager to cooperate with Rotary on all future projects, especially those related to health,” Babetti says.
In 2013, all two dozen Rotary clubs in Lebanon at the time united behind a global grant-funded project to bring clean drinking water to nearly every school in the country in partnership with outside groups and Lebanese government ministries. In May, the last of the more than 1,000 schools targeted by the effort received filters and tanks.
Lebanon has relatively plentiful water sources for a country in the Middle East, but safe drinking water has been a problem for years as aging infrastructure and mismanagement take their toll. Water flowing down from the mountains and feeding into rivers gets polluted by garbage, industrial waste, or agricultural runoff. Even treated municipal water is often contaminated before it reaches taps due to corroded pipes or tainted storage tanks. An influx of Syrian refugees has strained resources further.
So when Jamil Mouawad, a member of the Rotary Club of Zgharta-Zawié, was preparing for his year as district governor in 2013-14 and looking for a “mega project” that could deliver widespread, lasting impact, water quickly emerged as a priority. A few Rotary clubs in northern Lebanon had already installed water tanks and filters in schools. And after meeting with government leaders and heads of organizations, Mouawad formed a committee that saw the potential of scaling up the effort countrywide. “When we set out, we said we wanted to do it in three years,” Mouawad recalls. “It was not easy to accomplish this big project. It took us eight years to make it happen. But in the end, we can say it has been a huge achievement.”
Twenty global grants later, an estimated 600,000 schoolchildren in Lebanon, half of whom are children of Syrian refugees, as well as the students’ parents and teachers have access to safe drinking water.
But the project has delivered more than just water. It has sown seeds of peace in a land torn by conflict. Lebanon’s civil war, fought largely along sectarian lines from 1975 to 1990, left the country deeply divided. Today, 18 recognized religious sects compete for power in a fractious political system, and with the near-constant interference of neighboring countries.
The project was deliberately designed to promote cooperation among different factions, by having Rotary clubs from various parts of the country work together to install water systems in schools in both the north and south.
“What is good about Rotary is we don’t deal with religion or politics,” says Rym Dada-Husseini, a past president of the Tripoli Cosmopolis club, who spearheaded two of the global grants. “We deal with each other as humans. We are a big family all together, and we want to make the best for this country. This is what united us and what keeps uniting us.”
Mouawad notes that Rotary’s ability to work together and get things done has earned it the trust of other entities in the country and the population. “Rotary has built such a good reputation that when we knock on the door of a big institution, they are ready to help us,” he says.
By the numbers
Total global grant funding for the project
Number of schools reached
Share of Lebanon’s population with access to safely managed water
The project could not have come at a better time. On top of the COVID-19 pandemic, a crippling economic collapse has plunged much of the country into poverty, with the local currency losing more than 90 percent of its value over two years.
Beginning in 2019, new tax measures sent protesters into the streets by the tens of thousands to call for social and economic rights and an end to corruption. A 2020 explosion in the Port of Beirut that killed more than 200 people and left 300,000 homeless further fueled tensions. And more recently, an energy crisis has left most homes with only an hour or two of power a day. The turmoil has made accessing safe water even harder for millions of people. The situation was so dire at one point that UNICEF warned in 2021 the country’s water system was on the verge of collapse.
Many people have lost hope that the government can solve Lebanon’s growing challenges, says Dada-Husseini. “Lots of people have left the country already,” she says. “The thing that keeps us going is the feeling that we are changing people’s lives.” The water project’s impact, for instance, extends beyond the students. The schools, she says, are now among the most reliable sources of clean water for families, and many students fill bottles to take home.
The project by the Tripoli Cosmopolis club, one of the initiative’s final pieces, involved schools in north Lebanon and the Saïda area of south Lebanon. Water for Life, a water treatment service in Beirut, installed triple-layer, fiberglass-reinforced plastic tanks to replace corroded galvanized-steel ones.
Water is pumped from the municipal source to a raw water tank and periodically treated with chlorine tablets. That water is then pumped through an initial filter to remove suspended solids and a carbon filter to eliminate the chlorine, before passing through an ultraviolet sterilizer for disinfection. Water ends up in the plastic tank, mounted high enough that water can flow by gravity to ground-level taps and fountains in the case of a power loss.
To ensure sustainability, Rotary clubs had schools and municipalities sign agreements to replace filters two to three times a year. The Ministry of Education issued a memorandum to all school directors telling them to permit access for testing and include money in their budgets for replacement filters.
Jad Gerjes, a former senior water, sanitation, and hygiene coordinator with World Vision, was hired to assess each school’s needs and to test the water before and after the systems are installed. He also monitors the results of the school’s own testing during the first year.
The committee that runs the water project has been looking into providing solar panels for the schools as a way around power outages that threaten normal school operations. But the primary focus remains ensuring long-term sustainability of the water systems.
“We shall go with this project to the end,” says Mouawad. “Children are the change agents for an entire community. I used to participate in the openings of the water systems, and every time I would observe the children drinking clean water it would give me a huge lift. I see in their eyes what every Rotarian wants to see: happiness, trust, hope. It makes me realize the importance of what we are doing.”
This story originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.