World Bank freezes $600 mln in funding for Lebanese dam, says funds can be redirected

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The World Bank has frozen over $600 million in funding for Lebanon’s Bisri Dam project to launch a dialogue to address concerns from citizens and civil society groups who for decades have opposed the dam they say will lead to the destruction of thousands of trees, farmland, and archaeological heritage sites in the valley where the dam would be located.

The bank also said that it is open to suggestions from the Lebanese government on how Bisri dam funds could be used to respond to “emerging needs of the Lebanese people,” given the country is currently mired in an economic crisis that has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Given strong stakeholder concerns about the Project, the World Bank has requested the Government of Lebanon to launch an open and transparent public dialogue to address the concerns raised by citizens and civil society groups,” the World Bank statement from Thursday read.

A slew of campaigns from locals over the last few decades have pushed back against the dam. Last week, Lebanese tied themselves to trees in a symbolic campaign against the dam’s construction.

Progress has been stalled since the project’s adoption in 2014, but in early April, the Lebanese cabinet approved the $617 million loan from the World Bank as the heavily indebted country was under lockdown due to coronavirus.

The World Bank and the Lebanese government body overseeing the project have said the project would provide essential drinking water for 1.6 million people in the greater Beirut area and that the ruins would be preserved and moved to another area.

Lebanese Energy Minister Raymond Ghajar defended the project, saying halting it would be a waste of public funds as $320 million has already been paid as one part of a two-part loan payment from the World Bank, and canceling the contracts would mean additional costs incurred by the state.

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Lebanon’s debt-to-GDP ratio is currently around 170 percent and the country recently defaulted on its sovereign debt.

The Lebanese government announced earlier this month that it will launch a public dialogue on the dam soon.

The Bisri dam project was initially proposed in 1953 by the US Bureau of Reclamation and has been hotly contested in Lebanon for decades.

In 2014, the Lebanese cabinet formally adopted the project to be led by the World Bank in 2014 under the Water Supply Augmentation Project of Lebanon, but six years later, the dam remains unbuilt. According to World Bank project documents, the dam would take around five years to build.

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