“As per the recent World Bank statement on the Bisri project, the World Bank is committed to a constructive stakeholder engagement and dialogue in all the projects we finance. We look forward to the outcome of such a process with regards to the Bisri Dam project.”
With these words the head of communications for the World Bank in Beirut responded, or, more accurately, failed to respond to my email enquiring about their recent decision to freeze the funds for the Lebanon Water Supply Augmentation Project, or the Bisri Dam project, a $617.00 million project that promised to give 1.6 million Lebanese access to clean water. The Bisri Dam, which was approved in 2014 and was projected to finish in 2024, has generated much controversy, ranging from ecological concerns to accusations of corruption among the entire ruling class.
Different Lebanese civil society groups have pleaded with the World Bank to sway them from committing an ecological massacre and to prevent them from destroying ancient archeological sites in addition to thousands of trees and wildlife. And if the aforementioned damages were not enough, many leading geologic experts have warned that constructing the dam where two seismic fault lines lie – the Roum and the Bisri offshoot – places the whole country at increased risk of earthquake.
Naturally, the World Bank and the Lebanese government presented their own sets of experts and data to prove the contrary, but they were unable to appease and convince the general public whose crusade to stop the dam intensified at the outset of anti-government protests last October. When the World Bank announced it would freeze the project on April 16, Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq Regional Director announced that “throughout all phases of the Bisri Dam project preparation and implementation and ever since its approval by the Lebanese Government and ratification by the Lebanese Parliament, the World Bank has been, and remains, committed to engage openly and constructively with all stakeholders and civil society.”
The World Bank’s supposed commitment to engaging openly with all of these stakeholders is nowhere to be found. This became especially evident after the funds were frozen, and stakeholders asked questions which were responded to by the World Bank with vague and inconsistent answers.
Desperate for a success story, the ruling Lebanese establishment insisted the World Bank approve the loan for the project. And while the World Bank is perhaps correct in insisting that its environmental impact assessment studies are sound, granting the ruling junta access to funds essentially bankrolls their corruption, making the World Bank is complicit in this corruption.
Consequently, the World Bank has approved the relocation of $40 million as part of it Health Resilience Project. However, the manner in which the Lebanese state has decided to use these funds clearly indicates their shortsightedness and deceitfulness. Instead of purchasing the proven COVID-19 rapid test, which would mean the entire country could be tested, the Lebanese state continues to purchase the PCR test that is more expensive and less practical, but conveniently is supplied by a company that has ties to Hezbollah.
Progressive Socialist Party President Walid Joumblatt’s change of heart over the Bisri project was a driving factor in the World Bank’s decision. Unfortunately, this proves the bank does not really care about the public at large, but wishes to work exclusively with the political elite.
While Joumblatt has publicly admitted he was wrong to support the Bisri dam project, the World Bank, based on its inaction and lack of communication, remains unapologetic and more importantly have not made clear what comes next.
So far, 861 landowners have been paid a total of $155 million in expropriation fees, and this money will never be reclaimed. Moreover, $340 million has been spent in total, paid to contractors and cronies close to President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil.
Despite the World Bank suspension of the project, which virtually equates to its termination, the Aoun administration and Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s cabinet have not yet publicly acknowledged, nor accepted the decision, and the state's official statements give the impression that this is a temporary freeze. Aoun responded to the World Bank by lashing out, declaring that "arbitrary criticism is unacceptable and insults are rejected, especially when they come from those whose history is full of violations, wrongdoing and attacks on the state and its institutions and properties."
The Bisri dam should have been axed long ago, simply because it was just one more project for the ruling elite to exploit and gain access to more funds, and the World Bank simply allowed this to happen under the premise of development. It is the bank’s responsibility to properly communicate their messages to the Lebanese people and to equally accept feedback that might not necessarily fit on their PowerPoint presentations and in their economic forecasts. Lebanon and its people are looking toward a bleak future, and it is the responsibility of the World Bank and the international community to think twice before allowing Lebanon’s politicians to exploit them. Rather, they must invest in the people and not their corrupt leaders.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History.