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AUB research study warns of contamination in agricultural water sources
Sami Halabi  |  Office of Communications  |  | 
AUB research study warns of contamination in agricultural water sources
Vegetables irrigated with the polluted river water showed an increased accumulation of trace metals in grown crops
A new study by researchers at the American University of Beirut (AUB) has confirmed that the Litani River and Lake Qaroun, Lebanon’s largest river and artificial lake respectively, continue to be exposed to physical, chemical and microbiological contaminants.
A research team led by Professor Mey Jurdi, chairperson of AUB’s Department of Environmental Health, collected new samples in the summer from problem areas in the two water bodies and found that the contamination persists.
The results from the new samples corroborate those from a previous seminal study published by Jurdi in 2010. These new samples form the basis of a study that has been submitted to the Litani River Authority, the government body with a mandate to manage the water in Lebanon’s largest river.
Entitled “Litani River Basin Management Support Program Water Quality Survey,” the 2010 study surveyed the Upper Litani River basin and Lake Qaroun, which is filled by the Litani River and located at the foot of the eastern descent of the Mount Lebanon range in the southern Bekaa.
“The hotspots are still hotspots,” said Jurdi in an interview in December 2013. “The sites that are bad are still bad and those that were of medium quality have become worse as there is no integrated water basin management.”
Jurdi confirmed that as long as measures for the integrated management of the upper Litani basin are not seriously enacted, progressive exposure to pollution will persist.
Prior to the 2010 study similar studies took place on the Qaroun in 1995 and in the upper Litani in 2005. The 2010 study found that high levels of harmful trace metals in the water were increasing and some had already reached internationally unacceptable levels that are potentially hazardous and will impact ecological viability and public health in exposed communities. Most of the contamination was attributed to improper sewage management; industrial wastewater effluents that are directly discharged into the Litani river; as well as haphazard dumping of municipal and agriculture runoff. The buildup of contamination levels is directly associated with increased health risks to communities  that live alongside the river, as well as those that consumers purchase in common markets that use the contaminated water to irrigate crops. These poor practices continue to pose serious health risks for the population of Lebanon, warned Jurdi.
To investigate the matter further, a separate pilot study conducted in June 2013 found that vegetables irrigated with the polluted river water showed an increased accumulation of trace metals in grown crops.
“Trace metals are not just cancerous, they affect the central nervous system and cardiovascular and kidney functions—they have several channels,” Jurdi explained. “What we teach students is that the first thing you do is look for another source of water, if it contains trace metals; if you don’t have another source, then you have to treat the water properly.”
The pilot study was funded by the Associated Research Unit on Water Quality and Management at AUB, Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research and the Lebanese American University.
Recently, the government took the decision to begin construction of two large infrastructure projects that rely on the Qaroun—the Canal 800 and the Greater Beirut Water Supply Project — which will supply large water networks in South Lebanon and Beirut, respectively.
The water that goes to the South will be used mostly for irrigation, which poses inherent health risks in food posed by trace metals in water, if it’s not properly treated,” says Judi. “These trace metals can get into the plants depending on the types of the soil. If the soil is acidic then the conditions are suitable the trace metals will leach out and the plant can absorb them.”
The water that goes to Beirut will also be used for household consumption. Already the government has planned to construct a treatment plant in the Ourdaniye area just northeast of Sidon to treat this water before it comes to the capital. However, the specifications of the plant may not be sufficient to ensure that water safety. “For the water to be of safe quality, it should undergo advanced treatment, and proper monitoring of the quality of the treated water should take place to adjust the treatment process accordingly,” noted Jurdi.
Story Highlights
  • Litani River and Lake Qaroun continue to be exposed to physical, chemical and microbiological contaminants
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