Stories from Afar & Up Close

War of Water

“You are stealing our water!” It was a women’s voice, and she was screaming at the top of her lungs.“No I am not, you come here all the time and take everyone’s water!” the man yelled back angrily. A third one joined. “They filled it up yesterday! If you don’t steal it, then why are we out of water again now?” She was even louder and angrier than the other two.

I know wars are being fought in the Middle East over water, but I didn’t know they were being fought right outside my bedroom window, on the roof of the neighboring building. Yet here they were, and they kept screaming until the two women decided to take action, bringing their jerrycans to the roof to single-handedly fill their tank.

Water tanks on the roof

Water in Lebanon is an interesting phenomenon. Lebanon is one of the few countries in the region to have ‘rivers’ – and this definition should be taken broadly; a stream of a few meters wide is called a river – going through almost every area of the country. Water, it is jokingly said, is Lebanon’s oil: it’s a blessing and a curse in one (as the neighboring countries will always try to find ways to control the flow to their own benefit). Yet having all these streams running through the country doesn’t mean that one is guaranteed to have running water in the house, in fact, quite the opposite.

Most buildings have gigantic tanks on the roof, ranging in size from a hundred to a thousand liters of water, that provide water for all the apartments. Every few days, a government truck passes by and delivers water at street-level, that is then pumped up to these tanks on the roof. If you are unlucky, you can be out of water for quite a while – the government tank didn’t pass by; or they did but there was no electricity at the time so the pump to get it to the roof didn’t work; or the neighbors have felt the need to water all their plants and have thus used up the ration for the week, leaving the tank empty.

Meanwhile, my roommate and I have a slightly different problem in our new little house on the roof. The government truck did pass by, the electricity was there to pump it up, and the tank is still full of water as the other apartments on this floor are still uninhabited. Yet not a drop of water is coming out of our taps. The landlord can’t seem to find out what the problem is despite our repeated pleas and threats (and apparently plumbers are a rare species these days), but to prevent total social exclusion as a result of a lack of cleanliness, he gave us the keys to an empty apartment on the third floor. Showering, washing hands, doing the dishes, everything is done on the third floor. That’s why we can be seen sneaking down the stairs in our pyjamas in the middle of the night, with a roll of toilet-paper in our hands…