THE southern provinces on Lebanon’s border with Israel fare worse than the rest of the country by most measures. Water is one thing in short supply. Swathes of fertile farming land sit idle. Officials say the lack of water is partly to blame for the region’s underdevelopment. While Lebanon as a whole has water in abundance, the south’s rivers are shared with Israel which gets the lion’s share. This is nothing new, but a new study has sketched out the extent of the imbalance for the first time.
Rivers that straddle borders have long caused tensions in the Middle East. International law says that the usable water should be divided into “equitable and reasonable” portions according to such factors as population. But this directive is often overruled by bilateral agreements. These are lawful but often outdated and the more powerful country usually gets the better deal.
The tributaries of the upper Jordan river, however, which straddle Lebanon, Israel and the Golan Heights, remain unregulated. During its occupation of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, Israel controlled the territory’s water. But while Lebanon now controls most of its own land, Israel still controls the sources of two of the three tributaries and gets most of the water. A study by AFIAL, a Beirut-based organisation, and researchers at the University of East Anglia has now pinpointed the asymmetry of the division. Lebanon uses approximately 1% of the 350m to 550m cubic metres that flow each year, with the rest going to Israel (Syria, which has no control over its territory where the rivers lie, gets none). On equitable shares, Lebanon should get 15%, according to an estimate by one water expert.
It is unclear if the report’s findings will have any effect. The paper was circulated at February’s World Water Forum, an annual get-together of hydrophiles, and some Lebanese politicians, including the president, Michel Suleiman, have copies. Hizbullah may wade in, too. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Shia political party-cum-militia which currently controls the government and is anxious to look after its support base in the poor south, mentioned trans-boundary water no less than five times in his victory speech after the 2006 war with Israel.
In 2002 when Lebanon built a pumping station on the Hasbani, one of the three tributaries, international mediators had to step in to calm threats of war with Israel. With the region in turmoil and with rainfall plentiful, a serious water fight is unlikely at present. But in calmer times, that may change.
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