Out of Water

Loubna El Amine

We had been in Beirut for barely two days when the concierge told us we had only half a tank of water left to use in the apartment. At ten the next morning, he knocked on the door to say we were almost out. The water delivery truck was arriving a bit later, he said, and asked if I wanted to pay him in advance the 500,000 Lebanese liras (slightly more than five US dollars). We had not been at home much since we arrived and, when we were, had been consumed by the challenge of not overloading the power circuit. The concierge had made his disgruntlement clear the second time we asked him to flip the disjoncteur which he alone had access to, as demanded by the private generator company that provided most of our electricity. Now he was telling us we were nearly out of water.

The toddlers’ interest in the pull-up mechanism of the Lebanese toilet flusher became a source of much exasperation, as did their older brother’s inability to turn a recalcitrant tap completely off. We heard water dripping even when it wasn’t. Our son learned to ask every time whether he should flush or not – a zeal less prized when we weren’t at home. I was happy to learn from the instruction videos I found on YouTube that the ‘semi-automatic’ washing machine used less water than an automatic one.

This part of Beirut gets no water from the state. In the already congested streets of the Hamra area, water tankers are always stopped in front of one building or the other, sometimes late into the night, humming loudly. The building where my parents live, not too far from here, has its own well. It was dug during the civil war as a way to avoid the fees for state-provided water, which still flowed then. The well water is so salty that brushing your teeth is anything but a refreshing experience. The water we have been buying isn’t salty but, unlike state water, isn’t fit for drinking. It sometimes has sediment in it, perhaps because the tank is small and in need of cleaning.

Lebanon is supposed to be rich in water, at least compared with neighbouring countries. It boasts many rivers, as we were taught at school, and has as much groundwater as surface water. In early July, two men in the northern town of Bsharri were shot dead. Their killing was thought to be part of a long-standing dispute between Bsharri and the neighbouring district of Dinnieh over underground water reserves and flows from the high peaks of Qurnat as Sawda.

The media reported the episode with the usual sectarian gloss: Bsharri is Maronite Christian while Dinnieh is Sunni Muslim. Some even raised suspicions about a role for Hizbullah in the feud, although there is no significant Shi’a population in the area. A few analysts suggested the conflict was a distraction from the stagnant business of electing a new president. The caretaker government responded to the shootings by promising to complete a survey of the disputed land to ascertain areas of jurisdiction. Environmental groups, meanwhile, have been pushing for the mountains and their aquifers to be considered protected land for the use of everyone.

I resigned myself to having to request a water delivery every other day. As proof of delivery the concierge would send me a WhatsApp image of the cauldron-shaped tank on the roof, filled to the brim.

One day while I was working at a coffeeshop, a man came to fix the air conditioning unit in the ceiling. I was sitting almost under it, and felt uneasy as he reached from his ladder and brought down the whole cover, which hung suspended by a set of cables. All of a sudden, something fell from the gaping hole onto the table I was sitting at. It was a glass bottle. It landed upright and cracked but didn’t break. It was covered with a film of dirt but I could see that the bottle was still full of water.