Southern Lebanon - The Politics of Water
March 2001

Commentary by Rick Francona

Southern LebanonEven before the establishment of the state of Israel, the leaders of the Zionist movement realized that water was the key to economic survival. In negotiations with the British during and after World War One, the Zionists asked that boundaries for the promised Jewish homeland to go as far north as the Litani River (in what is now Lebanon) and east to include all the source rivers of the Jordan River, the major ones being the Hasbani (in what is now Lebanon) and Baniyas (in what is now Syria). They even proposed that the new state include all the tributaries of the Yarmuk River on the present Syrian-Jordan border. 

The Problem

By 1979, Israeli engineers determined that all available water resources within the country's 1948 borders had been fully exploited. In fact, Jordanian irrigation specialists complained that they could not support any future development of the Ghawr Valley of the Jordan because Israeli projects had siphoned off almost all of the water. By the early 1980s, Israel was getting half of its water from Arab sources located in territories seized in the Six Day War of 1967. Calls by the international community for Israel to return to its pre-war borders as required by United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 would cause economic turmoil in the country. 

Further, in 1981, the Knesset formally annexed the occupied Syrian Golan Heights into Israel proper, securing the headwaters of the Jordan River for Israel.The large-scale immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel in the late 1980s increased Israelís water requirements. By 1990, Israeli experts estimated an annual water deficit of up to 500 million cubic meters. By 2000, that deficit reached had quadrupled to over two billion cubic meters per year.

Water Sources

In addition to the exploitation of the Jordan River and securing of its headwaters on the Golan Heights, southern Lebanon has been a source of water. The Hasbani flows from Syria to Lebanon, and then into Israel where it joins with the Baniyas to form the Jordan. This part of the Jordan River provides 40 percent of Israel's water supply. For years there have been claims by Arab groups of Israeli attempts to divert the Litani River. The Litani begins in Lebanon and empties into the Mediterranean on the Lebanese coast, making the riverís course entirely in Lebanon. For this reason, the Lebanese identify their nationalism with the Litani and any Israeli efforts to divert its waters, true or not, enrage them. Israel did undertake feasibility studies about diverting the Litaniís waters into Israel. The study was made in 1954. After Israel invaded Lebanon in the summer of 1982 in the Peace for Galilee operation, it made no attempts to exploit the Litani. With the wiothdrawal from most of southern Lebanon in 2000, the threat of diversion has subsided if not disappeared.

The Hasbani

The Hasbani is another story. The Hasbani flows from its origins in Syria through Lebanon and into Israel. Since the Israeli withdrawal, control of the Lebanese portion has reverted to Lebanese authorities. Recent Israeli military intelligence reports claim that Lebanon has begun a project that will pump waters of the Hasbani River. Pumping water from the Hasbani would lessen the flow of water across the border into Israel. Israel consumes over 120 million cubic meters per year from the Hasbani.

In early March 2001, Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures Avigdor Lieberman threatened military action if Lebanon proceeded with a plan to pump water from the Hasbani River. This was accompanied by a request from the director of the primary Israeli water company, Ori Saghi, to the Ariel Sharon administration to prevent Lebanon from pumping waters from the Hasbani. Saghi, a former military intelligence officer, claimed that access to the headwaters of the Jordan River was a strategic Israeli interest and also intimated military action.This was followed by remarks by Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer that although the Israel Defense Forces had withdrawn from Lebanon, it retained the capability and conduct operations there if ordered. These statements by three senior Israeli officials underscore the importance Tel Aviv places on the waters of the Hasbani. 

As with the Nile and relations between Egypt and the Sudan, the Euphrates and relations between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and the Golan Heights and relations between Syria, Israel and Jordan, the rivers of southern Lebanon play an important role in the politics of the region. 

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