Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Lebanese-Israeli Water Conflict Threatens to Boil over ; A Lebanese Facility That Opened Last Week Can Supply Water to 60 Villages

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Lebanese-Israeli Water Conflict Threatens to Boil over ; A Lebanese Facility That Opened Last Week Can Supply Water to 60 Villages

Article excerpt

A tranquil stretch of shallow water some 20 yards across strewn with black basalt boulders and shaded by oleander and eucalyptus trees, the Wazzani springs seems an unlikely focus for a possible war between Lebanon and Israel.

Yet a Lebanese plan to draw water from the springs has provoked Israel to threaten to destroy the pumping station, which was officially activated last week. And as the United States gears up for a possible war against Iraq, the water crisis between Lebanon and Israel has raised the possibility of a final showdown in the coming months between the Israeli army and its bitter foe, the Lebanese Hizbullah organization.

Given its scarcity in the Middle East, water has a powerful strategic value. The Wazzani springs feed directly into the Hasbani river, a tributary of the River Jordan. The Hasbani crosses the border into Israel two miles downstream from the springs and runs into the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest source of fresh water. Lebanon intends to pump some 350,000 cubic feet per day from the springs to eventually supply up to 60 impoverished villages along the border with drinking water.

If the pumps operate 24 hours a day, they will still take less than 10 percent of the Hasbani's total annual flow, a clearly acceptable amount under international law, the Lebanese argue.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has described the project as a causus bellum, adding Israel cannot allow the project to proceed.

Diplomats in Beirut and UN officials believe that the threats do not signal a serious intention to destroy the waterworks. "They want to dissuade the Lebanese from launching a more ambitious project for the Hasbani, such as building a dam or diverting the river," says a European diplomat. Israel's intimidation seems to be working. Kamal Awaida, an engineer with the state-run Litani River Authority, says that Lebanon's agricultural needs require a dam being built along the Hasbani to capture the plentiful winter waters for irrigation during summer.

"But the Israelis won't let us," he says. "Look at all the fuss they are making over a tiny little pump. What do you think they would do if we built a dam?"

South Lebanon is still recovering from the devastation caused by Israel's 22-year occupation, which ended in May 2000. Go for a drive along the Lebanese-Israeli border, and the physical contrast between the two countries is clearly apparent. On the Israeli side, dense apple orchards extend right up to the border fence. Pine forests carpet the hills and the numerous fishponds in northern Galilee shimmer like sheets of beaten silver in the brilliant sunshine.

The Lebanese side, however, is marked by a barren landscape of rocky hills, sun-bleached grass and dusty olive groves. The international community has encouraged the cash-strapped Lebanese government to pay greater attention to the economic needs of southern Lebanon, hoping that increased prosperity in the area will weaken Hizbullah, which effectively controls the border district. …

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