The Litani Basin in Lebanon: A metabolic conversion of politics into cancer 


Amid the influx of displaced Syrian families to Lebanon, the Lebanese Ministry of Environment commissioned theEnvironmental Assessment of the Syrian Conflict, which attempted to quantify the environmental pressures instigated by the rapid flow of refugees [01][1]. The report indicated that, between 2014 and 2015, Lebanon received over one million registered displaced individuals, who not only constituted twenty-five percent of the Lebanese population, but also represented the highest ratio of refugee to inhabitant worldwide [02][2]. With an increase of thirty-seven percent in population density in recent years –from 400 to 520 persons/km2–, recent studies have estimated the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon at 2.7 million, nearing forty percent of the population [03][3].

Due to its proximity to the Lebanese-Syrian border, the availability of vacant land, cheap accommodation and job opportunities –mostly in agriculture, animal and food processing, chemical manufacture, and extraction–, the rural landscape of the Bekaa Valley, which overlaps with the Litani Basin, is witnessing traces of a densification that is beyond its assimilative capacity. With the increasing number of refugees, and the relative increase in water demand, the Litani Basin, which blankets twenty percent of the Lebanese territory and spans 170 km, surfaced as the most vulnerable area in Lebanon [04][4]. The population in many of its villages tripled, and the number of Syrians residing in the valley is now almost equivalent to the number of Lebanese locals [05][5]. In August 2016, the Inter-Agency Mapping Platform (IAMP) indicated that, out of the 563 515 residents in the Bekaa governorate, 228 142 were Syrian and Palestinian refugees, most of whom reside in informal tented settlements, and 275 372 were Lebanese [06][6].

Simultaneously restrained and unconstrained, the Litani Basin provides an opportunity to examine war –the Syrian war in this case– beyond conditions of race, politics, and borders, and through its acquisition of a global scale of contamination. In the following drawings, the Litani river’s processes of contamination – political in nature and geo-environmental in manifestation – are traced across multi-scalar conditions: from the river’s infamous water to its basin’s groundwater below the Bekaa Valley, through the fissures of the Jurassic Aquifer, and from the river’s aquatic animals, poisoned ecosystems, and crops irrigated with contaminated water, to the anthropogenic microorganisms breeding within them. Not dissimilar from the “Cancer Alley” of the Mississippi [10][7], the Litani Basin presents an opportunity to trace how ambiguous national, regional, and global politics produce, through traceable metabolic processes, a self-governing and unbiased agency of pollution.

[1] MoE, Lebanon Environmental Assessment of the Syrian Conflict and Priority Interventions (2014)

[2] MoE, Lebanon Environmental Assessment of the Syrian Conflict and Priority Interventions Updated Fact Sheet (2015), 1

[3] ibid., 3

[4] Diane Machayekhi et al., Domestic Water in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon (2017), 8

[5] Hadi Jaafar et al., Water Resources within the Upper Orontes and Litani Basins (2016), 12

[6] IAMP, Informal Settlements of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (2016). Accessed November 27 2019

[7] Misrach and Orff, Petrochemical America (Aperture, 2014), 115


What prompted the project?

The project elaborates upon a semester-long investigation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as part of the Proseminar in Contemporary Urbanism: Theory & Representation course taught by Professor Rania Ghosn.

The Litani River, which has long been subject to industrial pollutants and solid wastes -discharged simultaneously by state-backed industries seeking quick remedies, and domestic households detached from the wastewater network [08] -, witnessed in the last few years a resurgence of territorial pressures triggered by the refugee crisis. In the absence of penal regulations, operational infrastructure and treatment plants, and amid a massive influx of displaced Syrian families who lack access to proper networks, the discreet yet notorious politico-economic incentives of the Lebanese state, coupled with the political turmoil in Syria, acquired a geo-environmental status. Intangible political negotiations within and outside the Lebanese borders materialized in the Litani River and its basin as quantifiable anthropogenic substances at macro and micro scales. The thickening density of such substances is aggravated both by the river’s open outfalls in a predominantly agricultural territory, which established it as an easy target for discharge of undesirable substances [09] , and its long span, which made it vulnerable to numerous and incremental sources of pollution [10] .

What questions does the project raise?

In recent years, a combination of political, social, and environmental factors stained the river’s mythical depiction as a pristine lifeline and infected it with chemical secretions, slaughtered animals, human excrements, toxic industrial wastes, as well as both organic and inorganic pollutants. The image of the mighty historic river and its neighboring rural landscape, long romanticized by city dwellers seeking refuge beyond the confines of the ‘city’, is slowly expunged from their collective memory and eclipsed by that of a cancer-breading, bacteria infected version of the river water that once flowed. In the context of recent studies that sampled the Litani water and discovered, apart from alarming levels of chemical toxicity, new bacterial species unknown to mankind, the project examines the geo-environmental process of reciprocal contamination between the Litani River Basin and its inhabitants by linking it to larger sociopolitical and socio-economic phenomena. It asks: how do obscure political decisions generate quantifiable cases of cancer and alarming degrees of contamination? What are the processes that enable such conversions? Where and at which scales can they be observed? What is the role of drawing in this context?

How did you approach the research and gathering of data? How important is the drawing as means through which to visualize and communicate data?

The project builds on data gathered by international organizations as well as foreign and local agricultural, hydrological, and biological engineers, social and political scientists, and experts in the fields of landscape design, ecosystem management, and risk assessment. It also constructs a theoretical framework to contextualize its position and borrows from architects, urban designers, anthropologists, and sociologists. The drawings stem from this seemingly dissonant amalgamation of theory and scientific data, and seek to materialize and spatialize their apparent rift. In doing so, they seek to superimpose layers of data that would otherwise remain detached, and propose visualizations of such unorthodox dialogues. Within this context, the drawings assume the role of a mediator – one that doesn’t necessarily search the objective truth, but that uses the apparent irrationality of its constituents to produce a new lens to understand the river.

What informed the multi-scalar approach through which the project is explored?

The river’s multisource politicizations, manifested as multi-scalar contaminations by domestic and industrial pollutants, mediate between the territorial and the bacterial and molecular scales. The Litani River’s discernible characteristics, ranging from its various depths to its infamous odors, are as pertinent to the political discourse shaping it as the precarious elements and microorganisms constituting its water. Classified into one of two categories –organic or chemical– these microconstituents transcend their negligible scales and reveal, besides the performance of their sources, traces of political contestations that have been embedded within their microscopic bodies –not on them, in them (check Eyal Weizman, Political Plastic (Collapse Volume VI: Geo/Philosophy, 2010), 272).

How and to what extent do these operate as a whole and/or at times individually?

Each drawing emphasizes a singular phenomenon and can be read separately. Having said that, the proposed sequence of ten drawing surpasses the sum of its individual parts and begins to tell a story – one that spans across various scales and geographic conditions. It elucidates the relationship between the macro and micro scales, between the Bekaa Valley’s 988 reported industries [24] , its 563 515 dwellers [25] , and the microorganisms they produce. It details how the contamination of the Litani River, orchestrated by local and regional politics, easily surpasses the boundaries of the Lebanese territory and extends to the rest of the world. The story, spatialized by the drawings themselves and the interruptions between them, narrates the life of the river: from the proliferation of refugee camps on its surface to the contamination of its aquifers, and from the microbes breeding in its ecosystems to its acquisition of a global scale.

To what extent are you interested in exploring these traces through time?

Mapping time proved valuable to understand the evolution of the river basin pre and post-contamination. This is particularly evident in Drawings 2 and 6. By overlaying demographic data from various sources, namely, ratios of Lebanese to Syrian inhabitants, population densities across various villages, vulnerable and overpopulated communities, and the proliferation of informal tented settlements from 2011 to 2014 (here, time is indicated by the rotating hinge), Drawing 1 sets in motion an inquiry into the various ramifications of the Syrian conflict on the Litani Basin’s contested territory. Drawing 6 illustrates how the river’s degree of contamination fluctuates between seasons and peaks in summer, when the river’s runoff rate decreases and causes dryness. With water demands climaxing during the summer season – caused mainly by the resurgence of irrigation – the extraction and rechanneling of the river’s stream for domestic and agricultural purposes peaks at a time of maximal contamination. The drawing also highlights the inversely pro-portional relationship between the concentrations of fecal coliform and the quantities of precipitation during different months. The map indicates recorded cases of Hepatitis A, Inflammation, and Diarrhea.

Did you ever think of enquiring the perspective of the refugees inhabiting the territory?

Drawing 7 raises these questions. It maps recorded cases of cancer in the Deir Zanoun/Bar Elias area and highlights, at the level of a single farmer or refugee, a daily dilemma: using contaminated water for irrigation (and consciously threatening the health of thousands of individuals) or surrendering to the water scarcity and refraining from irrigating crops. However, the absence of the human body across the various drawings is not coincidental. It proposes a new understanding of the river –itself as a body that encompasses organic metabolic processes. The Litani River, not dissimilar from all the contaminated rivers of the world, is an ill body that was forced to surrender to forces beyond its absorptive tendency –irrespective of the social classes of their instigators, their races, political positions, locations, and reasons. From the point of view of the river, contamination, whether administered by corrupt states, a refugee family attempting to survive the lack of infrastructure, or a farmer who has no access to irrigation water, is indistinguishable. The river does not point fingers; rather, it continues to assimilate the ramifications of a political system frozen in evasions of responsibility. It is within this context that the drawings ask: what are the rights of the river? How can we see the world through its lens?


Mohamad Nahleh is a graduate fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Master’s of Science in Architectural Studies (SMarchS) program.