From ONE Magazine

Pipe Dreams

How would you define your community’ primary needs? A new gym for the high school? A remodeled city hall? A bypass for truckers? Most of us would add buildings and roads. Few of us would do what the villagers of Dmit did.

In Dmit, a Druze village 11 miles from Beirut, some 400 questionnaires were distributed that asked that very question. Before you guess what was at the top of the list, consider their recent history. Many of these villagers were displaced during Lebanon’s civil war. They fled to Beirut or other communities where security, schooling and some hope of a livelihood could be found – if only on a temporary basis. Everyone hoped it would be temporary.

With the arrival of peace the villagers returned to Dmit, but usually on a weekend-only basis. There was much to do, with house repairs high on the list.

Small shopkeepers reopened their stores stocked with the basics: cooking oil, cleaning supplies, paper products, canned items. Bakeries opened with the traditional array of snacks and breads, such as man’uushi, a breakfast bread, and sfiiha, a stuffed pastry. Dmit felt like some weekend getaway spot: busy and thriving on Saturday and Sunday, sleepy and silent during the week.

Help for these villagers came from many nongovernmental organizations and the Lebanese government, particularly the Ministry of Energy and Water.

It is to the government’s credit that during the war, this ministry continued to provide power and water to the people.

But as war spread some communities such as Dmit lost government support. Dmit was located at the end of the line – the pipeline, that is. The consequence of the village’s location was that water once earmarked for Dmit was divided among more populous villages along the line.

When peace returned, the people of Dmit found a sad truth in the old adage, “Possession is nine tenths of the law”: Once something is given away, it’s hard to get it back.

So when some 400 heads of households were polled by the municipality through a questionnaire, it was not surprising that 360 of them voted for potable water, or as they call it in Arabic, my-shefi, or “lip water.”

Once Dmit had a substantial portion of its population back in place, the villagers asked CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission, for help in creating a potable water supply, one independent of the old system that brought water from miles away. The Pontifical Mission agreed to help with the infrastructure on the condition that a source of clean water could be found.

Dmit’s pipe dreams were in the works.

Dmit is a Druze village; the Christian village of Serjbal lies just below it. These villages and others around them lie in what the Pontifical Mission’s Beirut staff calls a cluster – a group of villages that, if combined for a common purpose, could have their needs met more efficiently both in time and money. In this case, Serjbal and Dmit were twinned for the water project.

The groundwork began. Local involvement was extensive. The village bought and paid for the land where the well would be built. They paid for the digging of the well and the land where the pipes would be buried. And they paid for three small rooms where the main control and pumping equipment would be housed.

The Lebanese government agreed to provide a team to find a water source and provide electricity for the pumps.

Rarely do dreams come true in a day, so the old government system had to be reactivated. “Trickle” was the word of the day – day after day. Even before the war, potable water was at a premium in Dmit. Every 48 hours, 5,250 cubic feet of water flowed into Dmit, to be shared by 715 families. With an average of five persons per family, there were 3,575 people with their hands on the tap. According to UNICEF the water supplied was only half the amount needed.

After the war the old system pumped in 5,250 cubic feet of water only three times a week. For the population’s needs it should have been much more. When families came for the weekend they brought their own water for washing and drinking.

One longer-term solution was to buy water from one of the many entrepreneurs who fitted their trucks with water tanks, a hose and a generator. The going rate was $20 for a tank of water. Where the water came from and how clean the tanks were remained a subject for discussion.

For the Pontifical Mission’s Beirut staff, the Dmit water project would be their most significant potable water project. For three months, experts and engineers came and went.

The Ministry of Energy and Water brought their maps of artesian wells. The water source had to be substantial; it had to be deep enough to assure that it was not polluted.

The water from the government source started out clean, but the pipes that carried it and the tank where it was stored were not. The pipes were narrow and often cracked, allowing untreated sewage from village households and farms to seep into the pipes. As for the old reservoir, it had become home to a noisy family of frogs.

Once a site was chosen, the digging began, went on for one month and reached a depth of 760 feet. The well was a predetermined distance from the village and other sources of contamination. Now came the challenge: How to transport that water from down in the valley up to the crest and behind Dmit, where an enclosed cistern would house the water.

With the flick of a switch a generator activates the system – and bells and whistles are no exaggeration. The control panel looks like a little slice of Las Vegas. It draws the water from the depths below to the surface, where the pipes carry it to the first booster station. From there an electric pump carries it to the reservoir.

A grand total of 11,550 feet of pipe were required to make this village dream come true. Now there is no fear of contamination – these modern pipes are made of polyethylene, a material guaranteed toprevent seepage. They are also a hefty four inches in diameter.

The main reservoir for this elaborate stretch of pipe is nestled among the pines. Pipes lead down to Dmit and its Christian neighbor, Serjbal. This village has 125 families, all-year residents. In the summer the count rises to 315. Most full-timers in Serjbal are farmers.

Water does not just quench their thirst. Now the lush, terraced hillsides abound in plum and apricot trees, grapes, olives and figs. Their stellar crop, nicknamed ‘platinum’ because of its quality and value in Lebanon, is the white bean.

Today, Lebanon’s future farmers are an endangered species. An entire generation of potential farmers – children whose parents fled to Beirut – grew up in the big city where they studied with urban students and were attracted by urban subjects and urban futures.

Bright and ambitious, these village youth don’t take easily to the suggestion that they abandon careers in architecture or software design to raise white beans. Abundant water, however, may make it possible to keep them down on the farm. Their business talents may yet be combined with the love and appreciation many still have for the land.

There is talk of raising mangoes, popular in Lebanon and a good moneymaker, but presently imported. Flowers, an ingredient in virtually all Lebanese occasions, will yield faster crops. Both of these endeavors require feasibility studies and marketing strategies. Agricultural engineers may indeed heed the call. There is also talk of building cold storage facilities. These items would be imported through the local agents of international companies. Opportunity never stops knocking.

Meanwhile, community leaders are working to create outlets for those young people who already make the village their home. The basketball court is rarely empty.

Historically, the Druze village of Dmit and the Christian village of Serjbal have been on good terms. Feast days and funerals find villagers heading in each other’s directions for a respectful courtesy call.

But it’s water that will bring these two communities closer together, now that their pipe dreams have come true.

Marilyn Raschka is a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East.