The lush, green hills that roll through the northern edge of Lebanon and surround a town of 2,500 called Menjez create a landscape rich in beauty. But to the naked eye, the greenery masks the local impacts of climate change, which has plagued the region with drought.
According to a recent NASA study, the ongoing drought in the Levant, which includes Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey, is probably the worst to hit the region in the past 900 years. Lebanon is projected to be one of the world’s most water-stressed countries by 2040, according to the World Resources Institute, with rainfall projected to drop by 10 to 20 percent by that year.
Furthermore, the overflow of Syrian refugees into the small country has spread water resources thin in some areas. A year ago, Lebanon was already hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees, close to 20 percent of the country’s total population.
“The influx of a million refugees would be massive in any country,” António Guterres, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees and current UN Secretary-General, stated in a 2014 United Nations Development Programme report. “For Lebanon, a small nation beset by internal difficulties, the impact is staggering.”
Menjez residents already minimize time in their agriculture-reliant hometown just south of the Syrian border. Many relocate to a bigger city like Tripoli, or further south to Beirut, for most of the year in hopes of making a better living than what farming can provide. Recent water shortages have given them no choice.
But for the last two years, villagers have rediscovered hope in their drought-stricken land. In 2015, the modest village became the subject of an experimental project focused on bringing new life to Menjez using two water-focused goals: implementing innovative water infrastructure in the community, and teaching its people responsible and efficient water use practices.
In 2014, the Lebanese community development organization G Foundation entered Menjez with a goal laid out by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The UNDP’s vision for the “New World” program—launched by the UNDP, Global Water Challenge and The Coca-Cola Foundation—was to create sustainable communities in areas lacking the resources or knowledge to do so themselves. That meant bringing safe water access, sanitation and youth and female empowerment to developing countries.
For the struggling Lebanese village in particular, the UNDP and G Foundation saw an opportunity to develop what engineers and social workers involved in the project call a “water-wise” village. Menjez, a community previously reliant on wasteful and inefficient farming techniques, was an ideal location to test new agricultural and water conservation methods on a small scale.
“We know how much the area is subject to the effects of climate change, and water isn’t being utilized properly,” said Menjez Mayor George Youssef.
Traditionally, farmers in the region have flooded their fields while watering them. Most don’t have the infrastructure for a more sophisticated process. But when water is scarce, flooding fields isn’t just inefficient; it puts health and even lives at risk come drought season.
So developers started with irrigation. G Foundation, the local municipality and the UNDP partnered to implement a drip irrigation system in Menjez that was funded primarily by The Coca-Cola Foundation. The system was a clear need for the village that couldn’t afford to waste water. Following the installation of a 60,000-sq.-meter irrigation network that distributes water using low-pressure and low-water volume, Menjez now saves approximately 400 million liters per year (around 390 million of those liters are saved by the drip irrigation system), around 90 percent of the total amount they previously used.
The new system also allows famers to irrigate their fields much more efficiently; in two hours, it waters an amount of land that previously took two days to water. According to estimates from the UNDP and G Foundation President Nader Nakib, farmers in Menjez can now water nine times the amount of land they had before the irrigation system’ implementation, with the same amount of water.
“I have a big piece of land, so it would take me a long time to water the area and check that everything is intact,” said one farmer. “This network makes it easier to water, and I save time and energy as well as the help I need.”
The true success of the project will depend on whether the local community will be able to keep the project running. The farmers in the area have been trained by G Foundation in order to maximize their yields with minimum water usage, and the municipality currently has the capability to maintain the irrigation system.
“We have some impediments that need to be solved,” Yousef said. “Mainly, regarding sustainability, we need to solve the problem of fires that are destroying some of the water networks, which we are currently trying to do…But we need more to inform farmers about modern irrigation as opposed to classic irrigation. Also, to encourage the farmer, we need to focus on encouraging fair trade and improving demand. However, we know that this project provides the optimal method to irrigate our lands, so we need to work on solving these problems.”
G Foundation also installed more than 1,400 aerators on faucets in 350 houses to limit water flow. Homes became a vital location for education on water conservation, which has become increasingly important in regions of the world struck by falling water levels. In the houses of Menjez, as well as in the local school, G Foundation reached women and children with their message of improved sustainable farming and conservative, efficient use of water. The foundation also installed a rainwater harvesting system in the local school.
“Water stewardship is a key sustainability priority for Coca-Cola,” Murat Ozgel, general manager of Coca-Cola Middle East, said of the project. “Through engaging the community, we were able to effectively partner to enable the use of practical, sustainable and cost-effective solutions to save water.”
New World, New Horizons
After New World’s continual investment in 22 of projects across 19 countries since its start in 2014, the program is getting ramped up. On March 20, The Coca-Cola Foundation and Global Water Challenge announced a $2 million joint investment in New World.
Organizations in 18 countries in Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa will receive funding. The program is aimed at inching closer to the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 by increasing availability of clean water, sanitation, gender equality, economic growth and climate action.
“Such high-impact partnerships are critical in the race to accomplish the SDGs and continue to be core to the work of both TCCF and GWC,” said Monica Ellis, CEO, Global Water Challenge.
The New World Program began as an expansion of Every Drop Matters, a similar collaborative partnership between the UNDP and Coca-Cola that lasted from 2007-2013. The NWP is essentially a continuation of EDM that will proceed as local partners implement a series of rainwater harvesting systems and irrigation demonstration sites, train farmers in modern techniques and hold leadership sessions for youth.
One of the biggest challenges, though, will be to revitalize communities in ways that allow their members to make those changes permanent. Struggling towns and villages might do well by following the example set by farmers and social workers in Menjez.
“Because it was a grassroots program, based on the needs of the local community, they will continue to take care of and maintain these projects,” said Aydan Olcer, sustainability communications manager for Coca-Cola who is based in Turkey and visited Menjez last year. “That’s what it means to be sustainable.”