Reexamining the Lebanese State Through Water: Sect, Class, and Politics in Mount Lebanon

By Kevin Boueri
Submitted to Session P4636 (Water and Power Politics: Palestine and Lebanon, 2016 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper explores what patterns of water distribution in Mount Lebanon can tell us about the relative importance of sect, class, and politics in state resource allocation policies. Although Lebanon receives substantial rainfall, mismanagement and poor infrastructure have left many Lebanese reliant on private distributors during the summer months and, at times, even during the winter (Amery 2000). However, not all Lebanese citizens are affected equally by state distribution schemes. Consider the Aley region, where over the summer of 2015, Bhamdoun allegedly received three hours of water from the government each week, while the neighboring village of Sofar did not encounter water shortages. We see these patterns across the country, certain communities being given preferential treatment over others. The question is, how can we understand the Lebanese state’s algorithms for determining who receives water and who must rely on private distributors?
In the available literature on Lebanon’s political system, two paradigms can be deployed to help make sense of this situation, though neither is entirely sufficient. Scholars in the first camp argue that Lebanon lacks an effective state, and that in its stead, traditional political bosses and their subsidiary welfare organizations provide social services and resources to their constituents, primarily of their own religious sect in exchange for political support during elections (Leenders 2010; Salti & Chaaban; 2010; Cammett 2014). Extending this logic to Aley, the reason why Bhamdoun doesn’t receive as much water as Sofar is because its a Christian village in a region of Druze political control. As with this paradigm, however, the explanation ignores questions of social stratification within communities, treating Lebanon as heterogenous only at the level of sect. While Bhamdoun may receive less overall water than Sofar, are there internal differences? Do some households receive more water? Who is most impacted by the shortages? An emergent second camp of scholars like Fawwaz Trabulsi (2014) and Hisham El-Achkar (2012) have taken up the subject of class, arguing that the Lebanese state apparatus is strong, but only in its service to the interests of a small ruling elite. This paper serves to bridge the gap between these two bodies of literature by exploring the state logic behind inequitable water distribution in Mount Lebanon and how this affects peoples’ relationships to the state. The paper is built on survey and interview data to be collected from communities along the Damour River Watershed over the summer of 2016.