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Lebanon's Blue Gold Project: Vote to Privatize Your Water [Al-Akhbar (Lebanon)]
[January 17, 2014]

Lebanon's Blue Gold Project: Vote to Privatize Your Water [Al-Akhbar (Lebanon)]

(Al-Akhbar (Lebanon) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Vote for the Blue Gold project. Many have noticed the television ads on Lebanese networks, and some may have even thought that Blue Gold is a campaign to protect Lebanon's water resources. However, the project owner – the Civic Influence Hub, a lobby of leading businesspeople – is actually proposing nothing more than a novel way to make profits. Indeed, the advertisements fail to mention that the ultimate goal is to privatize the water sector.

On Tuesday, December 17, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam attended a launch ceremony for what is actually yet another nail in the coffin of the Lebanese state: the Blue Gold project, the brainchild of the Civic Influence Hub (CIH), which seeks to manage Lebanon's water resources.

But it is rather odd is to see the Lebanese president sponsoring a commercial venture declaring the bankruptcy of the state and promoting the need for a private sector "savior," whose natural purpose is to profit from rather than provide a public service.The CIH called on the Lebanese to support replacing government departments with a National Water Council, to be shared equally between "delegates from the ministries concerned" and "civil society experts" – the latter a euphemism for private companies and banks seeking to profit from the privatization of Lebanon's water resources, citing "poor and weak management" of public institutions.

The CIH is in truth a lobby for the elite of the business community. It seeks to be a "moral guide of a national conscience," according to its founder Farid Chehab, and for its members to be the "founding fathers" of a new Lebanon, as the lobby fantasizes. This is bearing in mind that the CIH insists its members are not interested in financial, personal, or political gain.

"Your vote is the key to turn our water into gold!" "The winner is Lebanon! The biggest winner is you!" "Come on to the water! Come on Lebanon!" With these catchphrases, an ad campaign promoting the Blue Gold project and efforts to partially privatize Lebanon's water sector is in full swing. To sell its message, the campaign uses a series of presentations focusing on Lebanon's failure to publicly manage water resources. The ads appeal to the audience to vote for the project online or through SMS.

The people behind the plan employed professional advertising agencies to promote the project, using dazzling audio-visual effects and popular Lebanese television actors. Marketing techniques were used to appeal to the audience's "emotions," rather than delivering a meaningful idea. Several advertising and marketing agencies support the project, including Leo Burnett, JWT-Beirut, IMAGIC, and Impact BBDO.

But some well-defined aspects of the project do eventually slip out in the course of the ad campaign. Consider for instance the part about a "pilot project" for Beirut and Mount Lebanon, which were chosen, quite frankly, because of the "good financial performance" of their utilities "compared to others." In clearer terms, the Establishment of the Water of Beirut and Mount Lebanon (EBML) was chosen because of its potentially huge profits. For this reason, "the project aims to transfer the responsibilities of operations and maintenance to private operators." There is no dispute that Lebanon's water resources are in dismal shape, precipitated in no small part by poor public administration. The reasons for this are many, beginning with the lack of an appropriate plan for water distribution, dam-building projects, and programs for the maintenance of the worn-out water grid. Then there is the unchecked overconsumption of water nationwide.

But can commercial advertisement persuade any sane person that this business lobby is really above profits and special interests?But it is rather odd is to see the Lebanese president sponsoring a commercial venture declaring the bankruptcy of the state and promoting the need for a private sector "savior," whose natural purpose is to profit from rather than provide a public service.

The campaign calls for replacing "our divided and beleaguered" public water utilities with a partnership between the government and the private sector, recommending that this first starts by establishing institutional and legal structures that ensure transparency. But who will have access to the meetings of the boards of private companies behind the project, not to mention holding them accountable or even influencing them? And are "politics" really independent from the economic interests of the CIH? The project proposes a series of recommendations, such as increasing water storage capacity through the construction of dams; "connecting water basins" through a "national grid"; "rehabilitating water distribution networks" to reduce losses in them; developing new water sources; establishing a monitoring system to monitor water safety; pushing for more efficient consumption; establishing water treatment plants; and using drip irrigation to save water.

According to project planners, the plan would see "surplus water quantity increase to 500 million cubic meters by 2020," which would eventually allow Lebanon to create a water-bottling and export industry worth $600 million.

But who makes up the lobby behind the project, which claims to "transcend" politics and special interests? During the Blue Gold project launch event, prominent businesspeople gave testimonials in support of the project, including Samir Hanna, group chief executive officer of Audi Saradar Group, who expressed his "faith" in the project. Other business leaders also took the podium to praise the project: Walid Raphael, general manager of Banque Libano-Francaise; Nehme Frem, head of industrial INDEVCO Group; Walid Assaf, general manager of Pepsi Cola Lebanon; Mazen Salha, manager of the Phoenicia Hotel; Marc Tabourian, from the Sannine Bottled Water Company; Dana Nakad, director of Wardiyeh petroleum products company; and Gilbert Ghostine, president of Asia Pacific, the Diageo spirits company.

Some people with good intentions may be persuaded that these people are really above politics. But can commercial advertisement persuade any sane person that this business lobby is really above profits and special interests? This business lobby uses the CIH as its nom de guerre. The CIH is led by a council consisting predominantly of businesspeople and executives from private firms, according to founder Farid Chehab, who published a book in 2011 titled A Bet for a National Conscience, explaining the nature and goals of the CIH.

Chehab calls the CIH's ruling board the Council of Wisdom, but where the only criterion for wisdom is wealth. Chebab wrote in his book that a man's ability to accumulate wealth served as "a test for wisdom." It should be noted that each council member must pay an obligatory entry donation of $50,000, and then a $10,000 annual membership fee.

Chehab insists that the CIH is above financial, personal, and political gains, and that his goal is to nurture an "apolitical consciousness," and remind the Lebanese "that issues of national concern should be determined not on the street, but within the esteemed chambers of corporations and businesses." Chehab wants to "replace the language of popular politics with one of productive economics." In other words, Chehab does not want "the mob" to have a role in determining public policy on the street, and yet, he and his clique need one million votes from this same "mob" to get their venture approved, forcing them to invest in a huge advertising campaign that addresses the public's instincts in the dumbed-down language of empty marketing slogans and special effects, rather than their intellect.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

(c) 2014 Al-Akhbar. All rights reserved Provided by, an company

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