HARF BEIT HASSNA, Lebanon (AP) — Farmers in a small town perched on a northern Lebanese mountain have long refused to accept defeat, even as the government abandoned them for life off the grid.
Harf Beit Hasna receives almost no basic services. No water or sewage system, no traffic lights or garbage collection. The only public school is closed. The nearest pharmacy is a long drive down a winding mountain road.
“We live on another planet,” said Nazih Sabra, a local farmer. “The state has completely forgotten about us, and so have the politicians and the municipalities.”
Its roughly 2,500 residents have escaped because of a clever solution: They dug trenches, lined them with plastic and used them to collect rainwater. For decades, rainwater allowed them to grow enough crops for themselves, with a surplus to sell.
But where government neglect did not kill Harf Beit Hasna, the combination of climate change and economic disaster now threatens.
In recent years, rainfall in Lebanon has decreased, straining even the most water-rich country in the Middle East. At the same time, the country’s economy has collapsed in the last two and a half years. families whose livelihoods have been shattered struggle to afford the basics as prices escalate.
Harf Beit Hasna, on a remote mountain plateau above steep valleys, prides itself on its own rainwater pools. The city is littered with them, most the size of a backyard swimming pool.
Sabra said he remembers in his childhood how his grandfather and other farmers could raise animals and make a decent living.
But the last few years have become more difficult. As rain decreased and temperatures increased, farmers adapted. They grew less water-demanding produce such as tomatoes and cucumbers and planted tobacco, a more drought-tolerant plant.
Now they can barely grow enough to get by.
“If it’s not raining, you use what you have in store and work with a deficit,” Sabra said. “You can’t even afford to farm anymore.”
Sambra’s field is barren and dry except for a few tobacco plants and potatoes. He tried to plant a small patch of tomatoes for his family’s use. But to save water, he had to let them die. Rotting tomatoes swarm with pests.
“There’s nothing we can do about them,” Sambra said, before taking a long drag on his cigarette.
He has a small patch of eggplants surrounded by barren, cracking soil. He hopes he can sell them in the nearby city of Tripoli to buy more drinking water for his family this month.
“These eggplants wouldn’t be there without the ponds,” he says with a smile. His pool, which can hold about 200 cubic meters of water, was only about a quarter full. The water was green, because he was pulling it slowly, trying to take care of what was left.
From his field, Sabra can see the Mediterranean Sea on the horizon and, below him, a valley where there are fresh water springs. But gas is too expensive to drive daily to get water from there. He struggles to afford school for his children. His home has been without power for weeks because power does not come from the state grid and he cannot afford fuel for his personal generator.
Government services and infrastructure across Lebanon are dilapidated and faltering. But the situation of Harf Bait Hasna is particularly bad.
It is remote and inaccessible. Administratively, it is caught between two different municipalities, neither of which wants to deal with it. And, residents say, it has no political patron — a critical need for any community to gain anything in Lebanon’s factional politics. Sabra and other farmers say politicians have ignored their requests for a well or connection to the state water network for years.
In Harf Beit Hasna, government neglect and climate change have combined to leave “an area with a major water security challenge,” said Sammy Kayed, at the American University of Beirut’s Center for Nature Conservation.
The devastation in the city is “much deeper (because) you have a whole community that relies on rain-fed agriculture” but can no longer rely on rain, he said.
Kayed, the co-founder and CEO of the Conservation Center’s Environmental Academy, is trying to find donors to fund a solar-powered well for the city and get officials to connect it to the state water grid.
Across Lebanon, rainy seasons have shortened and the number of consecutive high-temperature days has increased, said Vahakn Kambakian, the UN Development Program’s climate change adviser for Lebanon.
A recent report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization said water scarcity, pollution and uneven water use add to the hardships of Lebanon’s rural communities. The agricultural sector accounts for only a small fraction of the country’s economy and is thus often overlooked, and like the rest of Lebanon’s producers and consumers are struggling with rising costs.
In Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, farmers say their work is being disrupted by strange weather patterns due to climate change.
“Rain has fallen short of its usual season and we are seeing our soil drying up and cracking. But then we somehow got more rain than usual in June,” Ibrahim Tarchichi, head of the Bekaa Farmers Union, told the AP. “We’ve never seen anything like this in the Bekaa.”
He does not expect anything from Lebanese politicians. “Here, you can only expect help from God.”
The government has for years been committed to diversifying its economy and investing more in the struggling agriculture sector. But since the economy tanked, the divided ruling clique has been unable to shape any policy, failing to pass the 2022 budget so far and resisting reforms needed to bail out the International Monetary Fund.
Meanwhile, Sambra takes some water from one of his ponds and sighs. It has almost run out of water since the last rainy season in winter. This is his only lifeline that lasts until the rains come again.
“We have nothing left but the ponds,” he said.