There are several things I had to adapt to when I first moved to Lebanon in May 2009. Although it is the most “Westernized” of Arab countries, and that makes some aspects of the move easy for a Westerner, the Westernized veneer belies deeper cultural differences one must understand and assimilate to over time. But before any of this happens, there are more practical differences that are starkly obvious the minute you land. Many basic government services are patchy. Electricity outages are a daily occurrence, water cuts happen frequently — especially in the dry summer months — the postal service is not reliable, and the internet speed in Lebanon is among the slowest in the world.
Within a few weeks of my initial move, the hot summer season was firmly in place and the steady supply of water I had come accustomed to became less and less steady. I had just about gotten used to the daily three-hour power cuts, which rotate on a scheduled basis, when I would wake up to find my kitchen tap and shower dry. Water cuts, it seemed, were much less predictable than electricity cuts and so were much harder to get accustomed to. Cuts would happen sporadically and last many hours, sometimes entire days, and the worst was that I never knew, once the water was cut, how long it would be before it would come back on so that I could carry on my household chores. In the meantime, the sink would progressively fill with dirty dishes, laundry would sit unwashed and, worst of all, in the searing, humid Beirut heat, I would have to manage without a shower and feel hot and nasty indefinitely.
The situation became unbearable and I began to try out some solutions. I would buy water bottles in bulk and boil them in big saucepans on the gas stove to do the dishes and laundry. I’d warm up water and give myself a sponge bath in the shower to feel fresh again. It wasn’t the same, and it was really time-consuming.
Then I began to see how Beirutis did it. The rich ones had big reservoirs in their buildings which would be filled by private providers as part of the hefty building charges they paid every year. The poor would resort to pulling water from wells or taking a plunge in the sea to keep clean. Those in between, many of them my neighbors, would manage by saving and rationing their water and when that ran dry, they’d pay a private water provider who would come and pump water he had taken from a spring up in the mountains. He’d come along in his mini-tanker truck and connect its hose to their water tanks. For a set price, he would pump a thousand to two thousand liters, to be rationed over as long a period as possible.
I have gotten used to this kind of intermittent government provision since I moved here, although there are still times I become exasperated and marvel at how easily the Lebanese adapt to fluctuations in supply of the various government goods and services. The truth is that, since 1975, when their civil war first broke out and the government collapsed, the Lebanese have learned how to do it themselves and not rely so much on the state. Since the war ended in 1990, things have gotten better and the government is more present, but the Lebanese people’s ability to cope has endured — an asset of resilience when the going gets tough.
You can read more about this issue — and what is being done about it — in the story Springs of Hope in Lebanon.