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Water As A Conflict Issue in South Lebanon by Tobias Eickelpasch (Year 2001)


In a certain way, to take a closer look at water in Lebanon and the Middle East means to become a hydrologist. Hydrologists are experts who examine and do research on water close to the land surface of the Earth. Hydrologic sciences can be further categorized into oceanography, the study of water in the oceans and the sea, limnology, the study of water in lakes and inland seas and finally there is glaciology which talks about ice on the land surface. And let’s not forget the meteorologists who examine water in upper atmospheres as well.

Of course, one should not mix up this science with the content of this study. However, there is an important coherence that needed to be pointed out, an overlap between this science and the water issue in the Middle East in general and Lebanon in particular. All the fields related to hydrology are connected and inter-related. Hydrologists and meteorologists contribute to the study of water movement in the lower boundary layers and they are linked by the concept of the hydrologic cycle. Sea water evaporates, condenses within the atmosphere, comes down to Earth as precipitation and closes the circle through flowing back in the rivers and the sea. Equal ties can be found – on another scale and under different circumstances of course – in the water issue in the Middle East.

“Water as a conflict issue in South Lebanon”, although it appears to be regionally and thematically narrowed down, always has to be considered within a larger context. It is impossible to give a comprehensive and all-including summary of the “cycle of events” in this place still brulant. Water is perpetually flowing and so do events still follow hot on each otherīs heels. Almost daily there are news in the media adding new pieces to a “constantly changing kaleidoscope”. Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) brought and bring in new, differently colored and sized mosaics. The relations between the involved parties always play an important role: for example “The Treaty of Brotherhood” between Lebanon and Syria in 1991 and how Lebanonīs past and connection to Syria is still omnipresent in Lebanon in the form of aproximately 25.000 Syrian soldiers. Or how the reputation of the UNIFIL troops sometimes changes from a peace-keeping force to “sympathizers” with one faction or another and now to a future observation group. Or Israel, which wanted access to South Lebanon even before its borders were set before 1948; it later occupied South Lebanon for more than 18 years and withdrew in 2000.

The water conflict in South Lebanon reflects to a certain extent the Arab-Israeli conflict, a dispute that started more than 60 years ago, is still ongoing and will probably not come to an end in the near future. While working on this research one had to keep in mind that

In this patchwork of ethnic and religious rivalries, water seldom stands alone as an issue; it is entangled in the politics that keep people from trusting and seeking help from one another.

(Amery & Wolf, p. 218)

Beirut, August 7, 2001

Content Overview

This report will be divided into four parts:

1. The Water Situation In Lebanon In General

Part one should give an introduction into the geographical settings, the current conditions and major problems of the region. For this, I mostly relied on information from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN ESCWA). Their employees in Beirut helped me to get a general picture of “water in Lebanon”.

2. The History And Development of Today’s Still Ongoing Conflict

Next, we will jump back in history and begin to analyze the roots of the conflict that is still continuing in South Lebanon. First disputes arose at the beginning of the 20th century with consquences still visible today. The special example of the Litani River as a matter of conflict will then lead to current events.

3. The Water Issue in South Lebanon Today

The third part will mainly consist of a media analysis. I had the chance to read, watch and hear the coverage of recent events from and in Beirut, from May until August 2001. I analyzed the English-speaking press mainly, but also “The Middle East Reporter” – a daily that summarizes the content of Arabic newspapers. I could also take a look at the archive of Associated Press Television News in Beirut, which provided me with live pictures from a region that is difficult to get into.

4. Conclusion!?

Finally, the conclusion will talk about future outcomes, solutions and ideas.


Water as a conflict issue in South Lebanon today is a pivotal topic.While gathering information, I encountered several problems that need to be mentioned:

There is not much up-to-date literature about recent developments or facts and figures on water resources in the South. Since the region had been occupied for more than 18 years by Israel and since the withdrawal in 2000, not many researches have or could have been conducted. Rumours and tensions, as in the example of the Litani River, were sometimes baseless or not examinable due to political restrictions. Numbers varied a lot and whether or not a statement was reliable was hard to tell. Even governmental authorities face problems in accessing the South and examine the actual subject matter. I personally experienced how hot the topic still is; during my research Lebanese governmental authorities refused to answer certain questions, referring to Syria for example. That is why I most of all relied on media content and news in order to be able to draw a wider picture of the current situation. It is my intention to highlight as many views, perspectives and opinions as possible.

The Water Situation In Lebanon In General

Lebanon is situated in the Middle East, on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Its territory ranges from the northern and eastern border to Syria – 375 kilometres – to the Southern border with Israel – which has a length of 79 km. It has a total size of 10,400 sq km including 170 sq km of water. (CNN World Factbook)


While talking about Lebanon’s geography, it is important to take into consideration the geography of the whole Middle East. What is unique in Lebanon are the wide mountain ranges, declining from North to South. The resulting effect makes the coastline and the west-facing foothills well-watered, with a higer precipitation along the western slopes of the mountain ranges. Lebanon has elevation extremes from sea level to over 3,000 metres at its highest point, the Qurnat as Sawda’. 

This means that in comparison to its neighbors, Lebanon possesses springs in higher altitudes which naturally flow downhill and toward the sea. High mountain ranges also mean snow and consequently, as soon as the ice melts, it irrigates land on lower altitudes. The mountains experience heavy winter snows from time to time. In addition, seasonal rainfall run-off is sufficient to generate perennial river flow (UN ESCWA 1997-98, p. 109).

There are three rivers that play the most important roles in this paper: the Litani, Hasbani and Wazzani. The first one is located entirely in Lebanon and comes from the valley of Beqaa, where its springs are near the city of Baalbek, coming from the Mount Lebanon and Anti-Mount Lebanon ranges. It flows through the Beqaa, fills up the lake of Qaroun and shortly after turns west and heads toward the Mediterranean Sea. It is about 106 miles long in total and it is the largest river in Lebanon. The Hasbani and Wassani both origin from South Lebanon and flow southwards. They are contributors to the Jordan river.

A water-rich country in the Arab world

Lebanon is, compared to most other Arab countries, a water-rich country. Remarkably, in the World Factbook by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), pollution of coastal waters from raw sewage and oil spills is the only major water concern mentioned for Lebanon. As we will find out later, Lebanon’s neighbors and key players in the conflict in South Lebanon, Syria and Israel, face greater restraints, which cause inadequate supplies of potable water and limited natural fresh water resources and put the affected countries under stronger pressure.

 (Amery & Wolf, page 51)

Overall developments

The UN ESCWA witnessed a development in Western Asia, which also holds true for Lebanon: during the last 10 years, the water demand has increased dramatically because of a high population growth, urban migration, improvement in the quality of life and efforts to establish self-sufficiency in food and industrial development. The greatest problem in the Middle East is water wastage, caused by low water charges and high leakage in the distribution system. In Lebanon in particular, drinking water quality and the coverage of sanitation services has not improved during last 10 years. Only Iraq and the Republic of Yemen have a similar regressive tendency in Western Asia.


While talking about water consumption, it is always crucial to keep in mind that agriculture is the most water consuming sector in general. It is not so much the indiviual who  uses it in everyday life, this only represents 10% of the water needed. Ninety percent of all water being used is in the end and in one way or another embedded in food (Amery and Wolf). Agriculture in Lebanon mostly relies on surface and ground water for irrigation purposes. Due to sufficient groundwater Lebanon only has to exploit the sources to a certain limit so far.

Water policy

Lebanonīs water policies were initiated in 1993 and aim at the further assessment of surface and groundwater demand and optimizing water allocation as well as management. However, the UN ESCWA predicts problems to come up in 2025 in case Lebanon continues its present rate of increase in consumption. This supposition made in 1998 is derived from the comparison of figures from 1997 and the projections for 2000 and 2025. Should irrigation for agricultural purposes be expanded, it will be most likely that within or after the next 24 years Lebanon will have to cope with a major water shortage problem.

It seems that the current efforts to avoid shortage have focused more on short-term strategies, as for example the improvement of water services through rehabilitation of the distribution system. For the coming years Lebanonīs objectives are the increased utilization of surface water resources and development of groundwater recharge schemes (UN ESCWA 2000; p. 20).

As for the Arab world in general, Lebanon will have to overcome mainly the following tasks:

– the lack of public awareness of rational use and management of water

– the lack of institutional coordination

– the lack of up-to-date knowledge of sources in quantity and quality

– the absence of cooperation at the regional or sub-regional level in shared rivers

The latter two play key roles in the conflict in South Lebanon.

The History And Development of Todayīs Still Ongoing Conflict

More than a third of the total worldīs population lives near a surface water divided or shared by two or more countries; for example Mexico and the United States, Thailand and Vietnam or India and Bangladesh. However, it is the Middle East where the most dramatic and volatile water disputes take place. Nowhere else does water have such an impact on political action and economical matters. In addition, the conflicts are wide-ranging, including many factors and players. Water policies are based on different public perceptions, attitudes, conflictual circumstances and more or less proven and incorrect information. 

To consider a countryīs water situation solely is almost impossible, especially in the case of South Lebanon, a region caught between Syria and Israel. Throughout history, Lebanon has found itself a buffer state. Various factions and groups fought for a variety of reasons on its ground. Since the outbreak of the Civil War in the mid 70s the country has been in a state of transition. South Lebanon, for example the region around Chebaa, experiences a back and forth from 1967 until today. Experts assess that one of the main reasons for Syriaīs and Israelīs involvement in Lebanon is water. Both Judith Harik, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, and Dr. Tarek Majzoub, a judge who was also trained as an electrical engineer and who wrote several books on this issue, see the same motive.

First Findings

At the end of the 19th century Jewish strategic planners already realized the importance of water while making the first plans for a new state of Israel. Zionist leaders after World War I considered it necessary to extend Israel to important sources in order to keep Israel economically viable (Sabbagh, p. 505). The Sea of Galilee, the Yarmouk River, the Golan Heights and the Litani River were, among other landmarks, supposed to mark the natural border in the north. After the San-Remo accord in 1920, which decided on the former territories of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, Chaim Weizman, who later became Israelīs first president, wrote to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Cruzon:

[…] the accord draft France proposed not only separates Palestine from the Litani River, but also deprives Palestine from the Jordan River sources, the east coast of the Sea of Galilee and all the Yarmouk valley north of the Sykes-Picot line. I am quite sure you are aware of the expected bad future the Jewish national home would face when that proposal is carried out. You also know the great importance of the Litani River, the Jordan River with its tributaries, and the Yarmouk River for Palestine.


The Zionist movement, however, faced opposition by the French and was not able to extened the borders and reach the Litani.

Further studies

During World War II and after, investigations and assessments of the regionsīs resources continued. For example in 1939 Ionide and Hayes published their studies, Lowdermilk in 1944, Klab in 1949 and McDonald in 1950. Of these plans the Lowdermilk plan caught great attention and was considered the “water constitution” by the Zionists. Lowdermilk proposed to use the Dan, Zarqa, Banias, Yarmouk and the Hasbani river in Lebanon as conrtributors to irrigate the Jordan Valley. Furthermore, the Litani should make up an artficial lake in northern Palestine from where water could be pumped to the Negev Desert in South Palestine. Lowdermilkīs plan failed in the end because Eric Johnston in the 1950s, then special envoy to the Middle East of President Eisenhowerīs US administration, denied the use of half the flow or more of the Litani (Dolatyar). Nonetheless, the Lebanese waters in the South were of interest to the Zionists/Israelis for their purity and surplus (Kolars/Naff, p. 4).

A widening gap

At the end of World War II the situation became even more complicated. The new state of Israel was about to come into being, and the water needs of the native Palestinians and the increasing numbers of immigrating Jews had to be satisfied. Besides, the latter were (and to a certain extent still are) not necessarily used to water scarcity. The first major Arab-Israeli clashes took place in 1947/48. 

Israel as a new sovereign country was proclaimed on May 14, 1948 by David Ben Gurion. With sovereignty power also came to the Jews. The Zionist movement, led by their ideology and motto “to make the [Negev] desert bloom” (Dolatyar), abandoned further plans of regional development. Or, as Dolatyar describes it, after a period of bargaining for water from 1918 until 1948, Israel began to develop national and shared water resources.

The developmental circle

After 1948 Israel was, due to its growing military power, able to annex more and more territories. Despite the already mentioned ideological background, Israel thought strategically and practically.A greater territory promised more access to water, which again allowed Jewish farmers to produce better and larger crops. Increased agricultural production resulted in a higher capacity for absorption of Jewish immigrants to Palestine. And Palestinian farmers, who could not keep up with the more advanced Israeli production, ended up in bankruptcy and “had no other choice than sell their land to always-ready-to-buy- Zionists” (Sabbagh, p. 507).

The foundation of this strategy is not only the acquisition of land, which was solvable through military dominance, but also the availability of water. Without it, the developmental circle was at stake. This explains why

[s]ince 1948 and particularly after 1967 Israel had confiscated and controlled most of the Arab lands and water resources under the title of “security reasons” or “security needs”. […] Mr. Y. Shamir, Prime Minister of Israel in 1990, summarized this policy in the sentence: “Great Aliya (immigration) needs great Israel.” This means that great immigration needs all water resources in the occupied territories to still be under the control of Israel. On the same principle “Aliya” in the future needs new water resources and new lands, otherwise Israel will be in a water crisis!” (Sabbagh 513)

Proposals and rejections from both sides

Because of their dependency on agriculture and increasing population, Middle Eastern countries were then obsessed with ensuring their water supply (Soffer, p. 3). On the one hand, in the case of Israel, it was the National Water Carrier (NWC), a project that was meant to transfer water from the Jordan through Israel to the Negev Desert, which faced severe opposition by the Arab countries. On the other hand, the Arabs met under the leadership of Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser in January 1964 and planned “a deriving of Jordan River branches” (Sabbagh, p. 511). Although the Arabs with their proposal stuck to their granted proportion of 125 million cubic meters (according to the Johnston plan from the 1950s), Israel considered the project a threat to its national security and decided to impede it by all means.

The constellation at the Syrian-Israeli border in the mid-60s. (Sabbagh, p. 511)

Relations between Arabs and Israelis concerning water in the years after the establishment of Israel were marked by a “proposal-disagreement” scheme. Eric Johnstonīs efforts to settle the water issue in the mid-50s failed mostly because as long as the Arabs accepted a plan, Israel would reject it because it wasnīt granted access to the Litani waters. And the other way round, the Arabs couldnīt say yes to a proposal and decide for example on the Litani due to political changes in Syria and Lebanon. The situation didnīt bring any agreements and just increased the pressure on both parties.

External factors

The Arab countries with the 1964 water project bypassed the issues of the settling of Palestinian refugees outside their homeland and the recognition of Israel. Because of that, Israel began provoking the Syran army. Israel needed sufficient reasons to be able to justify military action and to be able to prevent progress in Arab water projects. Consequently, when the Palestinian National Liberation Movement Al-Fatah targeted the NWC, Israel took revenge and aimed at the Syrian construction site. These acts of retaliation were the forerunners of the six-day War in 1967. Dolatyar quotes in this context Ariel Sharon, today Israelīs Prime Minister that 

“people generally regard June 5, 1967 as the day the six-day war began, […]. But in reality, it started two and a half years earlier, on the day Isreal decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan.”


Professor Harik is of an equal opinion. During an interview she mentioned the first clashes between Arabs and Jews south of the Yarmouk and Dan River in 1964 which indicated the hostility of the involved parties and their interests in the scare source. As a result of the 1967 war, Israel took the Golan Heights (and not, as Professor Harik emphasized, Jerusalem) and predominated in water questions through their military power. Since then, negotiations and fights between Syria and Israel were mainly about the water-rich Golan Heights and the surrounding region of South Lebanon. Obviously, Israel could retain upper hand in this region until today.

Lebanon – struggling with domestic and external problems

Lebanon at that time tried to keep itself out of the Arab-Israeli conflict and rival Arab nationalism, not least because it had to deal with internal religious factionalism. Besides ist domestic problems, Lebanon had to cope with the impacts of external rival Arab nationalism. And for all actors, be it the Arabs or Israelis, Lebanonīs rivers were still of importance. On the one hand there was the Arab diversion plan. It intended to rechannel the Hasbani to the Litani or Yarmuk river and thus cut off parts of the supply Israel was longing for. On the other hand, Israel still spoke about its proposal that Lebanon should sell water (which was perfectly feasible, according to Kolars (p. 7)) from the Litani to the water-poor, northern regions of Israel. 

However, the controversial standpoints on water utilization and also the Palestinian problem prevented the parties from seeking further bilateral accomodations. Lebanon remained reserved concerning its water. It could hardly estimate future needs for example for the South and wanted to be careful. Also, the Lebanese government did or could not realize further deployment plans for political and ethnic reasons (Soffer, p. 217). The Litani was part of many plans (Lowdermilk 1944, Hays-Savage Plan 1948, Cotton Plan 1985 and older proposals developed in times of the French mandate), but besides being considered for development schemes by various parties, nothing much happened. The original plan to irrigate southern Lebanon including the plateau around Nabatieh has not yet been accomplished.

In 1966 the centerpiece of the Six-Year Master Water plan was finished: since then the Litani waters accumulate at the newly built Qaroun dam and marginal parts of it are diverted to a small stream called Awali. Hydro-electricity is produced to provide Beirut, among other parts of Lebanon, with power. Nonetheless, “[a] constant but variable surplus […] has flowed unused into the Mediterranean” (Kolars/Naffer, p. 3). Soffer writes about estimates from 1982, when about 80 mcm of water are used for irrigation and another 20-120 mcm that are not utilized at all (Soffer, 219).

(Soffer, p. 218)

The Lebanese water and the Golan Heights 

Despite the lack of development plans, South Lebanese water remained in all actors political and strategical considerations, especially because it contributed to the Jordan and the area around the Golan Heights. Israel needs (according to the Jerusalem Post; November 16, 1999) 1.6 billion cubic meters and has a total of 1.8-2 billion cubic meters of available water. Undoubtedly, the Golan Heights with approximately one mcm groundwater (Dr. Mazjoub) played and play an important role. As a result of the 1967 war Israel took the Golan Heights (and not Jerusalem, as Prof. Harik emphasizes) and wanted to ensure that no non-Israeli scheme for the diversion could be implemented (Amery & Wolf, p. 224). Still today, this area is a key negotiation point between Syria and Israel. Later on, the struggle would be even expanded to who dominates Lebanon completly.

The 1970s and the Civil War

The 1970s led to more degeneration in the South. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) established itself there in 1971 and with it Lebanese territory was watched cautiously by the Israelis. After drought-stricken years in 1973 and 1974 and before the ensuing Israeli-Palestinian hostility, the population from the South migrated northward, mostly to the capital. A region already underdeveloped faced more and greater restraints. 

Then the Civil War broke out in 1975. Although the Civil War was mainly between reformist, left-wing Muslim factions and right-wing Christian forces, Syria and Israel from then on were sucked in even more. In the end, Syrian interests prevailed, but Israel invaded Lebanon twice in 1978 and 1982.

In 1978, Israel invaded Lebanon. The “Litani Operation” was meant to end the presence of approximately 5,000 guerillas and destroy their infra structure (Hiro, p. 127). Part of the plan was to establish a buffer zone to prevent more cross-border attacks. The South Lebanese Army (SLA) under Israeli control had the task of securing a two-to-six miles wide and 50-miles-long stripe. This zone also reached the Litani river, a fact that was to create rumors and tensions between the neighboring countries, as I will explain later. Israel tried to expand its territorial gains until the northern city of Zahle, near Beqaa, but it failed because of Syrian resistance.

In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon again after an (unsuccessful) attempt to assassinate the Israeli embassador in London by the Abu Nidal Organization. The Litani and Hasbani were still in reach for Israel, however, opinions on whether or not water was the broader incentive for the invasion in 1982 differ. Kolars and Naff argue on the one hand that to seize Lebanonīs southern waters was not the primary motive (p. 9). On the other hand, Dolatyar describes that “many view Israelīs retention of southern Lebanon as an extension of its peristent efforts o secure the Litani waters. Although the invasion was run under the pretext of security, Israel sought other natural supplies of water from the Litani.” (Dolatyar)

Whatever the true background was, a number of factors kept Arab mistrust concerning Israelīs striving for water alive: Kolar’s reports of hydrological data conducted in Beirut by Israel; the fact that Israel in South Lebanon withdrew to the Awali only and thus had to defend a larger area while it also had the opportunity to retreat until the Zahrani and control a smaller territory; or the introduction of water restrictions on Lebanese farmers in the South similar to the ones imposed on the Palestinians (p. 10).

 The Litani controversy

Althought the Litani entirely flows within Lebanon and thus it is no “international” river, there has been a long-lasting and still ongoing controversy between Middle Eastern states, Lebanon and Israel in particular. Historical and geographical reasons let conflicts and dispute arise and created supposition and speculations.

(Soffer, p.214)

Chronologically, there were three proposals during the 20th century, that moved the Litani on an international stage. First of all, in 1919, the World Zionist Organization suggested the Litani  mark the northern border of a new state of Israel. The World Zionist Organization claimed that it was the “natural northern border of Eretz Israel” (Soffer, p. 219) and they saw the potential in the amounts of water. Secondly, the Lowdermilk plan in 1944, as mentioned before, contained the Litani waters in an overall utilization plan for the Jordan and its tributaries. Thirdly, Blass, a member of the delegation accompanying U.S. envoy Eric Johnston in the early 1950s, had the idea of reallcoating the Jordan basin with the help of the Litani waters. Neither one of the proposals was realized.

Nonetheless, the Litani was of interest for all nearby countries: Lebanon, Syria and Israel, expected a greater water scarcity while the true potential of the Litani was not fully investigated. As described earlier, Israel had indeed gained access to the Litani through the security zone. Israelīs penetration into Lebanese territory in 1978 and 1982 was considered by some experts to be for water reasons only (according to Soffer, p. 221: Mideast Market, 1983; Naff and Matson, 1984: 75; Halawani, 1985; Amery, 1993; Schofield, 1993) The region became a hot spot with the South Lebanese Army (SLA) led by Israel and the then newly founded Hizbollah, a militant organization opposing the occupation.

The confused situation gave birth to conjecture and rumors. Israelīs claims for the Litani were long known and the occupation zone gave Israel access. Various publications, as Soffer lists, talk about Israeli actions:

At first, two Arab accusations said that Israel has a plan to divert 400 million m3 annuallly of the Litani water from the Khardala Dam (close to the Khardala Bridge, where the river once turned westward), which is planned to be built. This quantity is about 60 percent of the total Litani discharge. With this deed Israel is returning to execute its plans of 1919. (Halawani 1985: 52) Halawani added that in order to divert the Litaniīs water, the Khardala Dam, which still does not exist, must be built, and a five-mile tunnel must be dug.(Soffer, p. 220)

The general opinion is that Israel diverted the Litani water to Hasbani by a tunnel, and through it 500 million m3  annually reach Israeli territory. In this way Israel hurts Lebanese farmers who used the water. (Musallam, 1986: 6)

(Soffer, p. 220)

Russian sources were of an equal opinion: on December 26, 1982, the Monday Morning wrote: “Israel has already begun diverting the waters of the Litani.” (Soffer, 220)

The Mideast Market, a western publication, published the statement that: 

“Lebanon is afraid that Israel has already begun diverting the Litani and there are recurring, although unproven, rumors that Israel has already begun to transfer water to the Galilee settlements in an underground siphon.” (Mideast Market, July 22, 1983: 19)

(Soffer, p. 220)

However, no matter what was (or is) rumored, there are various reasons that refute such accusations. Arnon Soffer discusses in five steps the most often heard arguments (p. 221f.):

1. Given the geographical settings, it would have been very expensive to build a dam and pumps in order to be able to transfer water from the Litani to the Marjayun Heights. Therefore, a dam would have been necessary that would have raised the water level several hundred feet.

2. In 1994, there were talks about a tapline bringing water to the Golan Heights. Again, it is questionable how the needed facilities could have been built secretly.

3. The UNIFIL troops in the South observed the region constantly since 1974. They probably would have seen larger constructions sites respectively could have reported on the removal of water.

4. Besides the population living in and around the gorge of the Litani, American spy satellites could have perceived any activity on a larger scale.

5. Soffer asks, whether the total amount of water that could be have been diverted would have justified the economic effort and whether Israel seriously would have wanted to come under international criticisim for such operations.

Merely one act, the trucking of water, really demonstrated how water was virtually carried across South Lebanon. But this may not be overvalued, for the quantity of water being transferred was small and an expansion of this method to remove greater quantities would have been economically prohibitive. As Deputy Commander Officer Reidy from the Irish battallion said  in an interview on June 22, 2001, the trucking still happens occassionally. While formerly also soldiers of the SLA needed to provide themselves, today, villages and farms still use this more feasible way. The lack of infra structure, e.g. water pipes, forces them to do so.

Of course, the question whether or not and if so, to which extent Israel took water from the Litani, has not been and canīt be completly answered. Kolars states that Israel did take water out of Lebanon but “not in any significant amounts” (page 13):

Despite seismic soundings and surveys, the weight of evidence indicates that Israel has not yet [at the time the book was published Israel was still occupying the South; the author] laid pipelines or dug tunnels for the diversion of large amounts of the Litani water; […]. (Kolars, p. 13)

The act of extraction by Israel, however, canīt be turned down as trivial, he says.

Soffer does not explicitly talk about how much water has been taken, but he denounces the way experts and journalists have tried to transform the Litani into an international river and to implicate it into the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Litani is not an international river and the laws relating to international rivers do not apply to it. (p. 223)

The example of the Litani symolizes how confusing the situation in the South has been. Because of the Litaniīs location and its “internationalization”, because of geopolitical aspects, for example regional water plans that drew the Litani into a conflict of great scale and because of speculations and rumors, fuel as been constantly added to the flames of the conflict between Lebanon, Israel and Syria.

After the Civil War – the 1990s

When the Civil War ended in 1990, Israel remained in the South and defended its security zone. Needless to say that in South Lebanon the water infrastructure did not profit from the continuing tensions and the departing inhabitants: the Israeli occupation lasted until spring 2000, the Lebanese government did not conduct any research or implement development plans during that time; Hizbollah gained dominance in the South and still keeps on fighting the Israeli forces near Chebaa. 

Water as a conflict issue has dropped into the background. Its importance is ranked behind the Arab-Israeli conflict in general, political disputes or territorial questions, not least because only a few people with less political influence are left in the South (see Appendix). The current situation shall now be discussed in the following chapter.

The Water Issue in South Lebanon Today

The Chebaa Farms

During my two month stay in summer 2001, I had the chance to take a look at the mountain ranges near the Chebaa farms in South Lebanon. The Chebaa farms appear in the news from time to time because of confrontations between Israelīs military (positioned on the mountains nearby) and Hizbollah. On July 1, 2001 it was time again: in retaliation for an Israeli attack on a Syrian radar station in the Bekaa valley the same day, Hizbollah answered with mortar fire and short-range missiles. Seven military positions on and around Mount Hermon were hit. The only difference this time was that I did not hear about it from the news – I was an eyewitness. I was at Fatima Gate at the Lebanese-Israeli border with the group of students I was traveling with, when the first detonation reached our ears. It sounded like a thud, remote bass drum, just like a bombshell. For the first time I heard and saw the evidence that the conflict in South Lebanon, the dispute I had read about in books and newspapers, came to life in front of me, in a distance of approximately four miles. 

Compared to the greatest parts of South Lebanon, the Mount Hermon region near Chebaa is rich in water. Due to precipitation, rain and snow, the level of the groundwaters is high. Cilina Nasser, a reporter for the Cairo Times had the chance to talk to the General Manager of the Litani River Authority, Nasser Nasrallah (Cairo Times; April/May 2001). He estimates that there is a total of 200 mcm crossing the border from Lebanon to Israel – 113 mcm of these are from Hermon. The waters of this region contribute to the Hasbani, Wazzani and Sreid and supply the Jordan river as well. In an arid region like the South, the mountain ranges and valley indeed look like heaven. 

Lebanese representatives like Nasrallah now criticize Israel for occupying the Chebaa region, which originally belonged to Lebanon: “Israelīs occupation […] means that Lebanon is unable to utilize the ground and surface water from the area.” Similarly, Lebanon has not been allowed to use the Hasbani waters. Cilina Nasser mentions a study conducted by Shmuel, Kantor, a former chief engineer and head of the planning department in the Israeli Mekorot Water Company. According to his figures, the Sea of Galilee annually receives about 150 mcm of water from the Hasbani. Further utilization on the Lebanese side would result in a lack of water on the Israeli side and put Israel under pressure. However, the Hasbani undoubtedly belongs to Lebanon as well and Nasrallah said that the losses of approximately US$2 billion were put on a list of compensations Lebanon wants to sue Israel for.

Lebanon, Syria, Hizbollah and Israel

How important then is water as a conflict issue in the South today? Is it of less significance now than in the past? Or is the whole conflict just about water but hidden under another cloak? As I discovered later, it alters permanently: the subject rises to the surface and sometimes even becomes top news in the media, then it disappears again from agendas and political or public debate. However, water has played and most likely will play a major role in politics, negotiations and military confrontations. The following paragraphs highlight how the waters of South Lebanon not only reach across the border but also have to do with every player and many other factors.


Lebanon is a water-rich country in the Arab world. Although it has not implemented major development and infra structure plans – especially in the South – it does not face the same water scarcity as Syria or Israel. Lebanon is far from what is going on in for example Damascus, where the main spring dried up in July 2001 and the capital of Syria is now left with no more than four hours of water every day. And Israel, according to Dr. Majzoub, has used up its groundwater sources completly. Israel drilled so deep and pumped water from such great depth that the springs will never replenish again. Israel now relies on surface water, water coming from outside the country and desalination of sea water only.

On the one hand, the Lebanese government is criticized often for its laxity in implementing infra structure projects in the liberated areas in the South. On June 5, 2001 the Middle East Reporter reports of an article in the conservative An Nahar. Hizbollahīs Deputy Secretary General Sheikh Naim Qassem then stated that “there is absolutely no excuse for the government and its institutions to neglect the reconstruction of those areas.” But on the other hand, Mohamed Abdulrazzak, Chief of the Natural Resources in the UN ESCWA, questioned in a talk with me how the Lebanese government is supposed to support a scarcely inhabited South with less influence?

Undoubtedly, Lebanon has to assume responsibility in the South, also under the prospect of a UNIFIL troop reduction. In July 2001, 1.000 of the total 4.500 soldiers were already withdrawn, said UN spokesman Timor Goksel in An Nahar (Middle East Reporter; June 30, 2001). Kofi Annan in May recommended to cut the troops in half until summer 2002. He was also quoted by the The Daily Star that “[m]ore steps should be taken by the government to ensure the return of effective Lebanese authority throughout the South, including the deployment of its army” (The Daily Star; July 24, 2001). Lebanon objected the decision by the UN to downgrade the troops and turn their role from peace-keepers to mere cease-fire monitors. An Naharīs English Internet portal reported on August 1, 2001 that local media analysts announced in unison “that the Security Council has in effect rebuffed Lebanonīs claim of sovereignty of Shabaa farms and Hizbullahīs legitimate right to wrest the farms from Israeli occupation by guerilla warfare.” The newspaper even lamented that the future outcomes are hard to predict and UNIFIL “is not going to remain a buffer force much longer.” 

Lebanon, however, stands under political and economical pressure. It is in conflict with Israel, but surely canīt afford another war. Currently, the only way the Lebanese government can keep up pressure on Israel legally, is a proposal by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Reuters cited him saying that Lebanon was considering suing Israel for damages for “human and material losses that included tens of thousands of casualties, displaced people, infrastructural damage, the Qana massacre of 1996 and the 1968 Israeli air raid on beirut International Airport.” The case was currently analyzed by law experts, he said. (Middle East Reporter; June 27 & July 3, 2001) 

In addition, Israel still provably threats South Lebanon by violating its air space in the so-called “Sonic War”. In November 2000, wrote that as stated by UN spokesman Timor Goksel Israeli aircraft violated Lebanese airspace 123 times in one month. An agreement to end this provocativeness has not been found yet.

Lebanonīs relation to Syria is of course very different. With the “Treaty of Brotherhood” in 1991 Syria and Lebanon entered a close relationship. Syria is sometimes called the political mentor of Lebanon (Middle East Reporter; July 2, 2001) and Western military experts estimate that there are still at least 25.000 Syrian troops in Lebanon (Middle East Reporter; July 2, 2001). Given the water situation in Syria, it is probable that these bonds are necessary for Syria to ensure access to water sources in the future.

Israelīs Foreign Minister Shimon Peres commented on Lebanonīs relation between Syria and Lebanon, too. On Radio Israel and in several Arab newspapers (An Nahar, As Safir, Al Mustaqbal) he was quoted with: “in fact Lebanon does not exist. It is torn up between Syria and Iranian-allied Hizollah” (Middle East Reporter; July 2, 2001).


As mentioned earlier already, Syria is in a more dramatic situation concerning water. The Middle East Reporter talked of deteriorating circumstances on June 26 and on July 23, when a spring, providing Damascus with water for thousands of years dried up. Since this will not improve futurewise and given the geographical settings, Syria is becoming even more vulnerable. It refuses any multi-lateral meetings where Israel takes part and plans to strike a deal with Turkey and share the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates (The Daily Star; July 27, 2001).

The Golan Heights with its water reservoirs, which in part belonged to Syria before 1967, is a key point in Syriaīs future plans. Syria and Israel are negotiating but an agreement does not seem to be within reach. Here, Israelīs attitude towards Syria of course plays a role. Israel emphasizes it is convinced that Syria is responsible for Hizbollah attacks against its territory. In June, Israel was reported to have sent warnings to Syrian President Bashar Assad that after another Hizbollah attack any retaliation would go in the direction of the Syrian military (Middle East Reporter; June 14, 2001). As the incidents at the end of June and beginning of July proved, Israel is willing to make the statements come true. 

Syria, however, defines its position differently: the Al Baath daily, speaking for the ruling Baath party, said the Assad regime “does support both the Lebanese resistance and the Palestinian resistance. But that does not mean that Syria dictates to either of them” and “Syria will never serve as security cop for Israel.” (Middle East Reporter; July 4, 2001)

Prof. Harik remarks that the water issue explains a lot about the Syrian-Lebanese relation. With its political and military influence on the Lebanese government and Hizbollah, Syria tries to keep both parties “at each otherīs throat”. Lebanon will probably not make any concessions to Israel concerning the Chebaa region and so will Hizbollah – but both donīt get along with each other. Thus, the Syrian run on two tracks: the government has to mend the diplomatic way and stay on it and the military resistance is given by Hizbollah, which runs without governmental interference from the Lebanese side.


Hizbollah as a fundamental Shiīa militia is the dominating force in South Lebanon. Mostafa Haj-Ali, Deputy Head of Hizbollahīs Media Information Center, summarizes its program as follows: to fight Israel is the primary goal, to represent Hizbollahīs interests politically, to support and reconstruct weaker regions, as for example the South and Bekaa, and to keep up a dispute with the government. In An Nahar an unnamed senior military officer added another effort to the program: during the past several months Hizbollah allegedly recruited Israeli Arabs in Israel proper and tried to convince them to support Hizbollah (Middle East Reporter; June 26, 2001).

But in general, Hizbollah is not directly fighting for water as in the example of the Chebaa area mentioned above. Hizbollahīs Member of Parliament Abdullah Qasir in a Cairo Times article from April/May 2001 states that Hizbollah “does not take into consideration the richness of the land in water, soil, or any other economic reason when it comes to liberating the land.” First priority in their case is the fact that Israel still occupies “Lebanese land” and this is enough reason for them to fight.

Despite Hizbollahīs dominance in the South, in Lebanon in general it has lost credibility, says Gebran Tueni, the publisher and editorialist of An Nahar in an interview on July 9, 2001. He criticizes the influence Hizbollah has and the way it shapes the image of Lebanon outside its borders. He asks where in the world another force but the government can so much direct and control “foreign policy”? And in prospect of Hizbollahīs overall aim, to establish an Islamic state in Lebanon similar to the one in Iran, Tueni does not think Hizbollah can impose their attitude on the Lebanese people.


The dependency of Israel on water has been emphasized before. Nonetheless, it is vital to keep in mind the general situation: from the very beginning on Israel was longing for a secure water supply. The gap between actual supply and need respectively expectation has become wider and wider. Dr. Majzoub roughly explained this problem with the unadjusted expectancy of European or Russian Jews in an environment they were and are not used to. Furthermore, the Israeli government presses ahead with new settlements – 300 new homes are planned for the Golan Heights alone (Middle East Reporter, June 27, 2001). Consequently, no easing in the water question can be foreseen yet. Israel has to think about ways to maintain and even expand their water supply. It then appears unlikely that the Lebanese water will be of less interest for them futurewise.

In March 2001, this was highlighted again by the Wazzani incident near the Hasbani at the Lebanese-Israeli border. The Financial Times talked already about a looming `water warī (March 16) when Lebanese villages began pumping water out of the Hasbani. Avigdor Lieberman, Israelīs minister for infrastructure, accused Lebanon to take water needed for settlements near the border and threatened Lebanon with the prospect of military action. I later had the chance to see on the footage from the Associated Press Television News in Beirut that the pipe used by the Lebanese village has a 4-inch diameter. Timor Goksel knew about this, too, and dismissed Israelīs arguments: “Israel appears to be having a water crisis because people are worried they will not have enough water for their swimming pools” (Financial Times). In addition, Goksel stated that Israel had been informed of the projects several weeks before (The Daily Star; July 27, 2001).

Besides, Israel is entangled in the conflict over South Lebanonīs water with Syria and Hizbollah. Hizbollah is considered a terrorist militia, which stands for a constant threat to the national security. In September 2001, tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border have been as high as never before during Ariel Sharonīs legislative period. In means of retaliation in case of a Hizbollah attack, Israel feels constrained to strike at Syria. As stated by Israel, Hizbollahīs guerilla troops, after they hit Israel, hide in South Lebanese villages under the protection of civilians. To attack civilians contravenes Israelīs strategy, thus, since Syria is linked with Hizbollah by Israel, the Syrian military is attacked in retaliation. The vicious circle is closed.


It would be presumptuous and bold to state that one could predict an outcome, solution let alone conclusion of the water conflict in South Lebanon. Surely, in view of the “constantly changing kaleidoscope”, an accord will be difficult to find. Here are two examples that perhaps demonstrate ways to overcome the persistent problems.

A study by the UN and Italy

In summer 2001 the United Nations and the Italian Embassy in Lebanon have started a project to gather more information and data on the Hasbani and Wazzani river “in order to offset future water disputes arising between Lebanon and Israel” (The Daily Star; July 27, 2001). The idea was developed after the March 2001 incidents, when again conflicts arose around the use of Wazzani water. Now, objective data shall be collected to end diverging assertions on how much water is really available. The Lebanese government blessed the study and is eager to dissipate the notion that Lebanon is drawing more water than allocated by international law, reported The Daily Star.

Professor Tony Allan

Professor Tony Allan, professor of geography at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, points out that the belief that water is unlimited is wrong. Water is scarce – to think it is unlimited is a misjudgement and “reinfoces economically and ecologically unsound allocative and management practices” (Isaac & Shuval; p. 375). And in the case of water-richer Lebanon, political problems strongly influence investment and institutional development.

For the whole Middle East he sees another solution for the future: the idea of “virtual water” – water embedded in food. He explains in The Daily Star that the water used in everyday life by drinking, washing or flushing the lavatory makes up a small part of the total amount of water only (for drinking: approx. one cubic meter annually; for domestic purposes: approx. 50-100 cubic meters per year). 90% of all water budgets are devoted to agriculture and finally embedded in foods. Prof. Allan gives an example: to produce flour, which seems perfectly dry, wheat needs to be grown. To produce a ton of wheat takes about 1,000 cubic meters of water. Consequently, a country that imports wheat saves water indirectly.

He also proposes a three-step plan in order to reduce anxiety about water:

1. Bring the issue into the open and secure supplies of virtual water through international food agreements.

2. Reallocate and manage the demand of water to the most profitable use.

3. Use water more efficiently by e.g. reducing waste, improving the infrastructure and irrigation and so on.

Yet, Prof. Allan is aware about the political constraints in the Middle East. To meet water shortage “by importing vast and growing quantities of food – forever – creates feelings of deep insecurity” (The Daily Star; July 27, 2001). But reallocating water sources can be beneficial as well, as a project realized by his own college prooved.

It is to hope that Prof. Allanīs vision of “virtual water” will have a perspective. Taking into consideration the past development of the conflict it would be too naive to predict a solution that can and will be found soon. Anyway, the example of the newly initiated study serves as a good signal and hopefully, the importance of water as a vital element and the fact that war cannot positively influence ecological givens creates cooperation and peace.



Books, Brochures

 United Nations Economic And Social Commission For Western Asia (1997-98). Survey of Economic And Social Developments in the ESCWA Region. New York: United Nations, 1998

 United Nations Economic And Social Commission For Western Asia (2000). Conference on Energy Policy and its relation to the water sector in the Arab World. New York: United Nations, 2000

 Amery, Hussein A.; Wolf, Aaron T.. Water in the Middle East. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000

 Dolatyar, Mostafa; Gray, Tim S.. Water Politics in the Middle East. New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc, 2000

 Sabbagh, Aleef in: Isaac, J./Shuval, Hillel (Eds). Water and peace in the Middle East. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1994

 Dolatyar, Mostafa in: Watkins, Eric. The Middle Eastern Environment, John Adams Publishing Consultants, 1995

 Kolars, John/ Naff, Thomas. The Waters of the Litani in Regional Context. Oxford: Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1993

 Soffer, Arnon. Rivers of Fire – The Conflict over Water in the Middle East. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999

 Hiro, Dilip. The Middle East. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1996


Newspapers, Magazines

 Nasser, Cilina. “War reservoir” in: Cairo Times; April/May 2001, Volume 5, Issue 8

 The Middle East Reporter; editions in 2001:

June 5, June 14, June 26, June 27, June 30, July 2, July 3, July 4, July 9, July 23, July 27

 The Daily Star:

– Associated Press. “UNIFIL strength cut back again” in: The Daily Star July 24, 2001

– Blanford, Nicholas. “Water study aims to avert disputes with Israel” in: The Daily Star; July 27, 2001

– Whitaker, Brian. “Virtual water may be way to fight drought” in: The Daily Star; July 28, 2001

 Morris, Harvey & Smyth, Gareth. “Israel-Lebanon `water warīlooms” in: The Financial Times; March 16, 2001



 CIA – The World Factbook 2000 – Lebanon

Central Intelligence Agency

August 1, 2001

 The Internet portal of An Nahar: <>

– “Security Council Rebuffs Lebanon, Downgrades UNIFIL”; August 1, 2001 (11:41 am)

– “UN Says Israel Violated Lebanese Airspace 123 Times in One Month”; November 9, 2000 (5:14 pm)



During my stay in Lebanon I had the chance to interview the following experts:

 Professor Judith Harik

Professor of Political Science at the American University of Beirut

 Dr. Tarek Majzoub

Judge, Author and Electrical Engineer; specialized on water since 1988

 Gebran Tueni

Publisher and Editorialist of An Nahar

 Mohamed Abdulrazzak

Chief of the Natural Resources in the UN ESCWA

 Mostafa Haq-Ali

Deputy Head of Hizbollahīs Media Information Center



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