Over the last decade we have become increasingly alarmed at the amount of chemical waste and rubbish in water streams globally. The quality of natural water in rivers, lakes and reservoirs and below the ground surface depends on a number of interrelated factors. Unfortunately, factories use water from rivers to power or to cool down machinery, with dirty water containing chemicals returning back to the river in such high concentrations eventually killing birds, fish and mammals.
In Lebanon, water pollution is a major problem. The Litani River, a 170-km long river and the longest in the country, has been subjected to several aspects of deterioration in its quality. The river crosses through 20% of Lebanese territory and is a major source of water for irrigation, industrial and household use.
Recently, a video was circulated and distributed by the National Authority of the Litani River (NALR) showing contaminants (industrial waste, sewage and cattle dung) being directly thrown into the river. Coincidentally, this footage was documented during a survey carried out by the representative of the Authority on the sewage pipes of the laboratory.
Lebanon’s Litani River Authority sent dozens of legal warnings to plants and municipalities over their dumping of waste and sewage in the county’s longest river, among which the Liban Lait dairy plant is situated and whose case was brought back lately to the criminal courts in Baalbek after the Litani Department filed a class action lawsuit against the company. In a statement by the Chairman of the Board and Director General of the National Interest of Litani River Dr. Sami Alwiya, “the Liban Lait plant is one of the biggest polluters of the Litani River. According to a previous report, it produces 200 thousand cubic meters of wastewater without any treatment and goes directly into the Litani River.” In addition to the waste being dumped into it, its banks have also been polluted by trash and dotted by construction violations. Furthermore, the over-use of its water for irrigation has led to a drop in its levels.
An Escalating Crisis
The Litani River is the largest water resource in Lebanon and occupies the Qaraoun Reservoir, the largest of its type in Lebanon, with a capacity of about 220 million m3. The river is an optimal nexus of water, agriculture and energy. However, given that it has become a geo-environmental issue with certain challenges, water quality and quantity have been severely impacted. It is a paradox that, although several studies, projects and researches have been conducted on the river and its basin to enhance its status, deterioration is still exacerbated. Due to decades of neglect and mismanagement, the river has become heavily polluted. The main contributors to the degradation of Litani River are industrial pollution from factories and slaughterhouse, untreated sewage, chemicals from agriculture runoffs and disposal of municipal waste. The pollution has reached such a level where it is obvious to the human eye. In 2016, the World Bank approved a loan of $55 million to address the wastewater and agricultural runoff along the lake and the river, as well as support from other donors to improve the municipal sewage network, solid waste management, industrial depollution and the monitoring of water quality along the river. In 2015, the Lebanese government announced a $730 million project to clean up the pollution of Qaraoun Lake and Litani river. The seven-year ambitious plan is divided into four components: $14 million will go to solid waste treatment, $2.6 million for agricultural pollution, $2.6 million for industrial pollution and $712 million for sewage treatment.
Kamal Slim, researcher at the National Council of Scientific Research and Litani specialist, states that “the river waters are now nothing but wastewater, whether they be household or industrial” (L’Orient le Jour Newspaper).
Liban Lait Case
The dairy company responded to the accusations by saying that the sewage filmed belongs to the Union of Municipalities of West Baalbek, which is adjacent to the land where Liban Lait is located, both operating on the same water stream that reaches the Litani River and maintains that they did not take any steps to build a refinery. They continue to suggest that the concerned parties in Baalbeck should have taken the necessary measures to ensure that domestic waste water is not discharged directly into the Litani River without any treatment.
Liban Lait, established in 1997, is one of Lebanon’s largest factories. The factory had signed an agreement with Canadian company “LWR” to set up a refining plant to purify its industrial wastes and to process biological agents.
The Ministry of Environment continues to monitor the file and supervises the progress of the work periodically through the LEPAP project. The company also says that it has completed the in-frastructure and construction work of the project and is waiting for the arrival of all equipment from the Canadian company in a few months so that the installation and operation can be completed within the time limit set by the Ministry of Environment by the end of 2019, a critical matter that should have been taken care of since the company’s establishment 22 years ago!
Liban Lait has a franchise agreement with Candia, the leading producers of UHT milk in France, allowing it to distribute and manufacture products under the Candia brand name. Liban Lait plant spreads over an area of 504,000 square metres in the Bekaa Valley. Facilities include a farm and a fully automated processing plant. Notable in its operations is its contractual arrangement with UNIFIL, as the international organization’s main supplier of dairy products according to the “Legal Agenda” report dated May 3, 2019, which is particularly surprising considering the international organization’s acclaimed abidance by strict governance and sustainability principles!
Based on the above annotations and the detailed investigation in the Legal Agenda report, there are substantial observations that complement the report from a CSR perspective that goes above only compliance with laws and decrees. No company, a factory or bank can assume themselves to be indispensable or immune to public outcry or criticism in the business world today.
When it comes to compliance, it is important to recognize Candia’s insistence that its factories in France comply with strict production methods and policies, with up to 78 checkpoints and quality checks of their milks in every step, and uphold values around protecting the earth, people and animals. It is a fundamental imperative that consumers and stakeholders are made aware of Liban Lait’s activities – especially the ongoing misuse of the environment, particularly when the company prides itself by claiming that it complies with international standards. Furthermore, how can a company claim to be offering quality products when it has not proved minimal compliance with social and environmental standards or applicable laws? In order to have an impact that will filter through to consumers, a franchise business needs to undertake strict social and environmental measures, concretized under a Corporate Social Responsibility strategy that’s consistent with both their core values and their unique position within their industry sector. An integrated approach to the plant’s social and environmental responsibilities and commitment towards its stakeholders should ensure customers feel good beyond the product or service they’ve purchased because they’re effectively supporting a company that is integrating their social and environmental wellbeing into its overall supply chain. This is critical for mitigating risks to a company’s brand and managing potential reputational risks, especially when a franchise business gets involved: more exposure for the franchise means creating a positive profile of the franchise business in the public eye as franchisees strive to become closer to their customers. Why is Candia turning a blind eye to Liban Lait’s activities in this case?
A Collective Responsibility
In November of last year, the Ministry of Industry shut down 79 unlicensed factories that were violating the law by polluting the Litani River. This shows there is legal recourse for breaching environmental laws, and that we can deter other actors from polluting Lebanon. The U.N. is also implementing projects to help resolve this catastrophic situation. This includes improving wastewater facilities in informal settlements and stopping wastewater from being directly discharged into the Litani River.
With these laws, policies, investments and international organizations in place, the World Bank should further investigate the projects it invests in, especially when the hundreds of studies, experts, seminars and conferences are being held to disseminate the principles of corporate governance, environmental responsibility and socially responsible business.
Donors from local or international banks or financial institutions should be alerted to the serious risks of financing companies, factories, hospitals and real estate projects that are harmful to the environment, humans or other living creatures. This is now classified as an international crime. In line with their ethical, social and environmental responsibilities, loan donors and major investment houses impose conditions and standards that companies, factories or others undertake to commit to before financing is approved, under the pretext of withdrawing funding in case of non-compliance. This is assumed to be a precondition for a funding institution, like the IFC, who impart that companies who do not comply with their financing, are at a risk of losing such funding.
The Litani River is in the middle of an ecological disaster, but we can still save it if we act together now. The Lebanon we want for the future should consider rivers to be sources of life – and not the end of it.
Author: Responsible Business - Beirut
Link: Responsible Business Magazine