A WAR OVER WATER?
Lebanon's use of spring riles Israel
By Mohamad Bazzi
[Newsday - November 3, 2002 -
Wazzani, Lebanon] - Amid the parched landscape of this southern Lebanese
hamlet, Ahmad al-Ahmad poured thick Turkish coffee from an aluminum pot and
reflected on the source of his water.
"We sacrificed a lot for this water," he said, motioning downhill toward the
spring that provided the water for his afternoon coffee. "Many people died,
and many went to prison and lost their homes."
Wazzani Spring is a tranquil stretch of shallow water about 20 yards wide,
strewn with black basalt boulders and shaded by oleander and eucalyptus
trees. For 22 years, Israeli troops who occupied much of southern Lebanon
barred local villagers from the creek. After a long guerrilla war against
Lebanese militias, the Israelis withdrew in May 2000, and villagers once
again had access to the water.
On Oct. 16, the Lebanese government began pumping water from the spring to
quench the thirst of villages like al-Ahmad's. But water is one of the most
sensitive issues in the Middle East, where arid countries must share
overtaxed sources. The Wazzani's water eventually flows south to the Sea of
Galilee, Israel's largest source of fresh water.
Lebanon's construction of pipelines and a pumping station at Wazzani Spring
has raised new tensions with Israel - and threats of war. A few days before
Lebanon started the pumps, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that
the project could become grounds for war because it would deprive his country
of water. A former Israeli water commissioner said Israel could solve the
problem with "a few tank shells."
Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim group that fought to oust Israel from southern
Lebanon and that now controls the area, threatened immediate retaliation for
any Israeli attack on the pumps. Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon with
more than 20,000 troops stationed here, also warned Israel not to disrupt the
The United States, worried that tensions over the Wazzani could spark a war
that would distract from its focus on Iraq, sent a State Department water
expert to Lebanon and Israel. A European Union water expert and the United
Nations' special Middle East envoy also are trying to mediate.
Lebanon's government says it is well within its rights. "The water is on
Lebanese land and we are using it to meet our needs," said Kabalan Kabalan,
president of the Council for the South, which oversees development in the
area. "If the United States agrees with us, that would be great. If not, then
we will continue to take our water anyway."
The rhetoric has calmed in recent days, but Sharon continues to say he may be
forced to act if the dispute is not resolved diplomatically. Israeli
officials say Lebanon should have negotiated an agreement with them about
sharing the Wazzani before starting work on the pumps.
"This is not a matter of supplying water to south Lebanon. It's a matter of
political hostility," said Uri Shamir, director of the Water Research
Institute at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. "Israel
would have been forthcoming if there had been discussions before Lebanon
started building these pumps. ... This was a political move intended to bring
pressure on Israel to do something which would cause Hezbollah to retaliate."
Chronically short of water, Israel has had to undertake a massive
desalinization program and buy billions of cubic feet of water from Turkey
over the next 20 years.
Shamir noted that Israel reached water-sharing agreements with neighboring
Jordan in the 1980s, well before the two countries signed a peace treaty in
1994. "Many water treaties have survived difficult situations," said Shamir,
who helped negotiate agreements with Jordan and the Palestinians. "Even when
two countries are fighting, they decide that water is too valuable to fight
Lebanese officials say the Wazzani project eventually will raise Lebanon's
consumption from the spring and the Hasbani River, just downstream, to 350
million cubic feet a year, far below the Lebanese annual share of 1.2 billion
cubic feet set in a 1955 agreement drafted by a U.S. commission. But the
agreement was never signed by the countries involved, including Lebanon and
The $3.5-million Wazzani project will supply drinking water to about 60
villages being repopulated and rebuilt after the Israeli occupation.
Officials say the project is not intended to provide water for farming. No
one doubts that southern Lebanon needs water for irrigation and to drink.
Along the Wazzani, fields are barren, with only a few scattered lots of
tomato vines and olive orchards. Across the border, Israeli orchards produce
apples and apricots, and houses have lush lawns.
Some analysts say Israel is most concerned about the precedent that the
project sets. "It's quite trivial amounts of water," said Hussein A. Amery, a
Lebanese water expert and geography professor at the Colorado School of
Mines. "If Lebanon was to establish a precedent of unilaterally developing a
water project on a trans-boundary water body, what is there to prevent the
Syrians and Palestinians from doing something similar in the future?"
Amery said a water dispute could trigger war in the region because of
widespread scarcity, historic tensions and deep distrust among countries
involved. "Relations between countries usually encompass a lot more than
water, but if relations are not good and there's a messy political situation
in the entire region, then water may well be a trigger for war," he said.
In 1964, Israel lobbed shells into Syria to halt a plan to divert the nearby
Banias River, triggering a series of skirmishes that eventually led to the
1967 Arab-Israeli war.
In the Wazzani dispute, Lebanese officials and Hezbollah leaders are relying
heavily on the symbolism of the spring and the continuing national euphoria
over the south's "liberation" by Hezbollah. Billboards dotting main roads in
the south proclaim: "Lebanon is following the path of liberation, so the
water will flow along its natural routes."
During the Israeli occupation, villagers said anyone venturing near Wazzani
Spring was fired on by Israeli troops atop a nearby hill. Villagers had to
buy water from private wells, or haul jugs on donkeys to distant springs.
"Now, we got Wazzani Spring back," said al-Ahmad, 35, a dairy farmer, "and no
one is going to take it away from us."