Lessons from Bcharre for Bouaida’s Reed Bed Wastewater System

Last summer, a group of citizens from Al Bouaida came together to address their village’s lack of wastewater treatment and consequent unpleasant odors, contaminants seeping into the soil and water, and higher disease risk. After a deep dive into the possible local solutions for treating wastewater, the team narrowed down the options to a relatively low-cost, low-operation, and energy-free solution based on lagoons and reed beds. On July 9th 2022, the Environment Academy team from Al Bouaida and a few EA core staff set off for Bcharre.

Reed bed wastewater treatment systems are overlooked in Lebanon, though they are highly adapted to the country’s current needs and limitations especially when it comes to energy intensity. The option is well-suited to places that have nearby available land parcels, small amounts of waste to be treated, or for whom pipeline infrastructure transporting sewage to distant wastewater treatment plants would be too expensive—in other words, for small or rural communities like those one finds across Lebanon’s hinterlands. In their case, Al Bouaida only needs a system for 300 persons, and doesn’t have a municipal authority or municipal budget. And as we discovered in Bcharre, where the local municipality placed the system under the authority of the Ministry of Water and Energy, this type of system can feasibly be operated without a municipality. For Nour Al Kesserwany from the EA Bouaida team, the field trip provided valuable information about how Al Bouaida should overcome challenges they may face: “Even the problems faced by the Bcharre community are very similar to the problems we are facing, as in small community problems,” she explained. “So we felt really connected, and we felt like people like us have done this before us.”

We went up to Bcharre to investigate for ourselves (with the Bouaida team members driving over 5 hours from the far south of Lebanon!), to visit Lebanon’s only functional reed-bed wastewater treatment site in Bcharre, operational since 2013 and serving the needs of 40-50 households (150-200 people.) We learned from municipal representative and environmentalist Nathalie Kayrouz about what species to use to filter the water (the common reed Phragmites Australies), how much space is needed per person (5m2), how deep to make the reed basin (1.2 meters), how to protect the soil from contamination (covering the pit in geotextile and a membrane), how to avoid clogging using special black basalt rocks, how often to prune the plants and when (2-3 times a year and especially right before snow arrives), as well as the risks and actions to be taken when issues arise. For Elias Al Kesserwany from the EA Bouaida team, learning about the Bcharre site’s technicalities was an important step towards physically realizing their own site. “It really gave us a full overview of all the project, and the whole project is clearer now in our minds,” he said. “It’s not just on papers or iPads or laptops, it became a visual project and we know every step of it.”

Understandable misconceptions do hinder the spread of reed bed treatment systems, as people fear they could be odorous and inefficient. But our group was stunned by the complete lack of odors around the reed beds. It turns out that when reed bed systems are correctly set up and properly maintained, they actually eliminate unpleasant smells. In fact 90% of Biological Oxygen Demand is eliminated through the system (how much oxygen is consumed by the bacteria and microorganisms while organic matter decomposes in water under aerobic conditions). High BOD in water signals higher organic matter and depleted oxygen so higher pollution, whereas low BOD is a sign that water has been properly cleaned. The low BOD thus demonstrates the high efficiency of this system, and means that the water output is not harmful for irrigation and can be discharged to a river or a water body (though further tertiary treatment is needed to make the water potable.)     

Thank you Natalie and your team for welcoming us and stay tuned for the rest of Al Bouaida’s journey towards creating their reed bed wastewater treatment system!

Allegra B.