Heightened Israeli-Lebanese Tensions Over Jordan's Headwaters

by Nicholas Blanford | published September 30, 2002

A new source of tension between Lebanon and Israel has brought to an abrupt end what had been a generally calm summer along the flashpoint border between the two countries. Lebanon is close to implementing a plan to pump water from the Wazzani springs, the principal source of water for the Hasbani river. The Hasbani runs for 25 miles in Lebanon before crossing the border and joining with the Banias and Dan rivers, which flow from the Golan Heights, to form the River Jordan which in turn runs into the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest source of fresh water. Israel has vowed to stop what it claims is a unilateral and illegal diversion of Israel's water resources. The Lebanese maintain that the amount of water being pumped is insignificant and that the scheme is legal under international law. The crisis between Lebanon and Israel over the Hasbani, the third in 18 months, has led to an international mediation effort, amid concerns that the disagreement could spark a Middle East water war.

Despite the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000, the area has remained a locus of periodic conflict since the Lebanese Shia resistance movement Hizballah launched its campaign to oust Israeli troops from a remote strip of mountainous territory called the Shebaa Farms, running along Lebanon's southeastern border with the occupied Golan Heights. Israel has repeatedly threatened—but so far declined—to mount a wide-ranging assault on Lebanon in an attempt to neutralize Hizballah's military activities. Instead, Israel has relied on diplomacy, mainly through Washington's mediation, to ensure that any violence along the border remains restricted to the Shebaa Farms. The diplomatic approach has been complemented by an unrelenting campaign waged in the Israeli and international media against Lebanon, Syria and Hizballah. Israeli accusations that Hizballah and its patron Syria are manipulating the waters of the Wazzani can be regarded as a continuation of this strategy.

History of Conflict

The allocation of the Jordan's headwaters began to be taken seriously in the 1930s when increased Jewish immigration into Palestine created a need for sustained water management for agricultural development and drinking. Five separate plans for managing the Jordan's waters were proposed between 1939 and 1953 alone. Lebanon initially based its right to draw water from the Hasbani on a 1920 treaty between Britain and France covering aspects of their mandates over Syria (including Lebanon) and Palestine. Article 8 of the treaty permitted Palestine to make use as it saw fit of the Jordan's headwaters passing through its territory "after satisfaction of the needs of the territories under the French mandate [Lebanon and Syria]." The Lebanese argued that Article 8 allows Lebanon unrestricted use of water from the Hasbani; Israel is entitled to whatever is left.

The most comprehensive arrangement on sharing the waters of the Jordan was the 1953 Main Plan, more commonly known after Eric Johnston, an American ambassador who negotiated the agreement during four trips to the region between 1953 and 1955. Johnston persuaded Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to permit Israel to channel some of the Jordan's waters to the Negev Desert in the south, technically an illegal out-of-basin transfer. Israel agreed to drop its demand that the Litani river—which flows wholly in Lebanon—should be incorporated into a final water sharing agreement. In the final arrangement, Lebanon was granted 35 million cubic meters (mcm) a year to irrigate 8,700 acres in the district of Hasbaya. Syria gained 132 mcm and Jordan 480 mcm. Israel won 400 mcm, or 40 percent of the total, which, according to Johnston, represented a "radical concession by the Arabs."

Perhaps too radical, as the plan was never ratified by the governments of the four countries. Instead, Israel embarked in 1959 on a unilateral scheme to channel water from the Jordan to the Negev. In response, the Arab League decided to implement a ten year-old plan to divert the Jordan's headwaters, including the Hasbani, away from Israel. The Arab diversion project began in 1965. Israel bombed the works, setting in motion a chain of cross-border skirmishes that culminated two years later in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel destroyed Lebanon's original pumping station and eight-inch pipe located beside the Wazzani springs during the 1967 war, denying Lebanon the use of the spring water for 34 years. In 1978, Israel invaded Lebanon, securing a strip of territory along the border which included the Wazzani springs. In the early 1980s, Israel attempted to annex a corner of southeast Lebanon east of the Israeli town of Metulla which would have included the Wazzani. The scheme was dropped after objections from Saad Haddad, commander of the Israeli-allied Army of Free Lebanon. However, the Israelis were able to make use of the Wazzani by pumping drinking water from the springs via a four-inch pipe to supply Ghajar, a village populated by Syrian Alawites which was occupied by Israel in 1967 and is located on the east bank of the Hasbani.

Of Pumps and Pipes

Following the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000, the Lebanese government began assessing the water needs of the area. In March 2001, the state-run Council of the South installed a pump and four-inch pipe beside the Wazzani springs to supply drinking water to several impoverished villages in the immediate vicinity. Israel's reaction was out of proportion to the scale of the scheme.

Uri Saguy, head of the Israeli Mekorot water company and former head of Israeli military intelligence, warned of a "war or forceful confrontation" if understandings were not reached on water allocation. For two weeks, the specter of a Middle East water war was invoked in the Lebanese and Israeli media. The fuss only died down when United Nations peacekeepers in south Lebanon pointed out that the pipe was only four inches in diameter, and that the Israeli authorities had been informed of the project several weeks in advance.

Four months later, threats and counter-threats flew once more across the border when a Lebanese farmer installed a pump and eight-inch pipe one mile downstream from the Wazzani springs to irrigate his fields. The UN contracted an Italian hydrological firm to conduct measurements along the Hasbani in Lebanon to provide accurate data on the quantity of water. The project was described as "preventative diplomacy" to offset any future arguments over the water usage from the Hasbani. The data, however, has not been made public.

Ironically, a de facto water sharing agreement already exists between Lebanon and Israel. Despite years of protests by the Lebanese authorities that Israel was stealing water from Lebanon, the two Israeli pumps beside the Wazzani springs which were installed in the early 1980s have been allowed to continue ferrying some 1.5 mcm of water per year to Ghajar. At the same time, Israel has continued to supply up to 400,000 cubic meters per year of drinking water to several Lebanese border villages, a legacy of an arrangement that existed during Israel's occupation of south Lebanon.

Casus Belli?

The latest crisis began in August when the Council of the South began its most ambitious water pumping project at the Wazzani springs to date. The plan entails pumping some 10,000 cubic meters of water per day from the springs and conveying it via a 16-inch pipe to a reservoir near the village of Taibe, six miles to the west of Wazzani. Up to 60 villages in the border district will be supplied with drinking water.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that the scheme represented a "casus belli." Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, traveled to Washington and New York to warn of Lebanon's plans to "divert" the Hasbani river. Some Israeli environmental and water experts said that the Wazzani project would have a detrimental effect on the nature reserves of northern Israel, through which the Hasbani flows, and would reduce the level of the Sea of Galilee by three quarters of an inch and increase its salinity. Numerous Israeli officials claimed that Lebanon cannot be allowed to change the status quo governing the flow of the Hasbani. "We made our position clear and unequivocal. We will not accept dictates. We will not accept the Lebanese bringing in machinery and changing the status quo... We have a red line—I won't tell you what it is, but we have one," said Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri.

Lebanon insisted that it was entitled to draw water from the Wazzani springs and the Hasbani river, and vowed that the scheme would proceed. Washington dispatched a water expert to Lebanon to assess the Wazzani project, concerned that the dispute could ignite sparks of tension between Lebanon and Israel at a time when the US is attempting to rally support for an attack on Iraq. The UN and the European Union are also debating sending envoys to Lebanon. The Lebanese government has established a committee, headed by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, to draw up a case for Lebanon's exploitation of the Hasbani. The committee's report is scheduled to be released toward the end of October.

Legalities

In the absence of a bilateral water sharing agreement between Lebanon and Israel on the Hasbani, both sides have recourse to international law. Lebanon and Israel are riparian states of a transnational waterway, the Jordan, and are therefore subject to a series of rulings enshrined in the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. Although the convention has not been formally ratified, the rulings represent binding customary international, or jus cogens, practice, according to law experts.

The basic principle of the convention calls upon riparian states "to utilize an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner." In other words, a state is free to use as much water as it requires providing it does not adversely affect the interests of other states downstream. The Lebanese water authority estimates that some seven mcm is presently being drawn from the Hasbani, which will rise to approximately ten mcm once the latest Wazzani pump commences operation. This figure is still less than one third the amount allocated by the 1953 Main Plan.

Even some Israeli water experts agree that the amount of water presently being removed by the Lebanese from the Hasbani is small and does not pose a threat to Israel's own supply. Micky Simhai, the director of Israel's water authority in the north, said the amount being taken by the Lebanese "does not have any effect on Israel's agriculture, industry and drinking water. The Israelis waste many times more water than the quantity Lebanon seeks to use for drinking for its local population."

Deterring Whom?

Israel's seemingly exaggerated wrath over the three pumping projects along the Hasbani in the past 18 months has less to do with concerns over a diminishing water supply than with deterring Lebanon from mounting a more ambitious unilateral plan for the river, such as a genuine diversion or constructing a dam. Either one of the latter options could have implications for Israel's continued water supply.

In the hot summer months, the Wazzani springs are the only source of flowing water in the Hasbani. Upstream from the Wazzani, the river is dry. Lebanese hydrologists maintain that the waters of the Hasbani are not being harnessed efficiently, and argue that a dam needs to be constructed to capture the plentiful winter waters. Yet they acknowledge that Israel is unlikely to permit such a plan to go ahead, which suggests that Israel's overstated threats—coupled with the 1965 Hasbani diversion precedent—have to an extent worked. The Israeli water expert most critical of the Wazzani project, Noah Kanarti, is employed by the Israeli Defense Ministry as an adviser, indicating the strategic importance Israel attaches to its water resources.

But Israel's insistence on including Hizballah among those it blames for the latest dispute means that the overstated threats may backfire. Hizballah has several outstanding grievances with Israel by which to justify military action, including the occupation of the Shebaa Farms and the continued detention of Lebanese in Israeli jails. Water, until now, has not been featured on Hizballah's list of casi belli. Contrary to Israeli accusations, Hizballah was not involved in any aspect of the Wazzani project. The Council of the South, which is carrying out the pumping scheme, is controlled by Nabih Berri, Lebanon's parliamentary speaker and leader of the Amal movement, Hizballah's Shia Muslim rival. But Israel's warnings over the Wazzani project have spurred Hizballah into action. Unarmed fighters monitor construction work along the border and Hizballah's leadership has warned it will "cut off the hand" of anyone attempting to block the project. Diplomats in Beirut believe that Israel, instead of deterring the Lebanese, has instead given Hizballah a new excuse to heighten tension along the border.

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