THE LITANI RIVER OF LEBANON
By HUSSEIN A. AMERY
Source: Geographical Review, Jul93, Vol. 83 Issue 3, p229, 9p.
ABSTRACT. This article examines the hydropolitics of the Middle East, through a case study of the Litani River of Lebanon. The main thesis is that the desire to obtain additional water sources has been a primary influence on geostrategic interactions of Israel and its Arab neighbors. Israeli efforts to utilize the waters of the Litani help explain the establishment of the security zone in southern Lebanon. The apparent decision by Israel to retain access to the river makes it difficult for Lebanon to regain political stability and economic viability.
More forcefully than ever, politicians and analysts assert that the next casus belli in the Middle East will be control and use of water. Security of water supply is becoming at least as important as territorial security. Thus resolution of water-related issues is essential for the success of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Many Israeli policymakers view the water supply from the Litani River as a promising solution to their country’s impending water crisis. However, the Litani River, whose entire basin is in Lebanon (Fig. 1), is crucial for rebuilding and effectively integrating that country in the post-civil-war period. Specifically, the waters of the Litani are essential for agricultural and industrial development of southern Lebanon. This competition for water, a prized resource in a water-scarce region, makes the river a potential source of serious international conflict in the future and complicates the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The conceptual premise of the analysis presented here is that countries suffering from resource scarcities, be they perceived or real, tend to reach beyond their borders. If access to foreign resources is obstructed or denied, countries with superior capabilities seek to establish such access by pressures that may range from peaceful interactions such as trade agreements to coercive actions involving the military (North 1977; Gurr 1985).
HYDROPOLITICS OF THE MIDDLE EAST
The regional context is one of potential conflict between states in the basins of the Jordan, Nile, Euphrates, and other rivers. Riparian states share a substantial percentage of their surface water resources with neighboring states. The diverse and opposing ethno-religious groups, which include’ Turks, Arabs, and Israeli Jews, exacerbate the situation. For example, in the late 1970s, a water pipeline from the Nile River to the barren Israeli Negev desert was proposed by Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. However, that gesture . of peace prompted negative responses in Egypt, Israel, Ethiopia, and Sudan. In Egypt, planners asserted that the waters of the Nile would be insufficient to meet their own country’s future needs. Although many Israelis were optimistic about the proposal, some officials objected because they thought it was dangerous to depend on a former enemy and untried friend for such a vital resource (Gerti 1979). Ethiopia reacted by declaring its intent to construct dams on the Blue Nile, the largest tributary of the Nile, which led Sadat to threaten military intervention (Starr 1991). Relations between the two countries were tested again in 1989, when it was rumored that Ethiopia, with Israeli aid, was building dams on the Blue Nile. The recent end of the civil war in Ethiopia and the potential settlement of the conflict in southern Sudan bode ill for Egypt, a downstream state. Political stability and rapid population growth in drought-prone upstream countries will likely result in further efforts to harness the Nile drainage to improve their agricultural and manufacturing sectors.
The Euphrates River rises in Turkey and crosses both Syria and Iraq before emptying into the Persian Gulf. All three countries depend in some measure on the river for economic development, Iraq and Syria perhaps more so than Turkey, simply because the latter has significantly more alternative surface water resources. Turkey recently completed the mammoth Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates, the first in a series of seven dams on that river (Kolars and Mitchell 1991). Relations between the three riparian states deteriorated when Turkey diverted the water from the Euphrates during January 1990 to fill the massive reservoir. Consequences of that action in Syria and Iraq included power shortages, water rationing, and failed crops. In 1975 Iraq mobilized its armed forces against Syria, and war was narrowly averted, when Syria reduced the flow of the Euphrates to fill the al-Thawra Reservoir.
If Turkey and Syria implement all their development plans along the Euphrates, at least fifteen billion cubic meters of water may be extracted for irrigation. In effect, this will deny Syria 40 percent of the water it once received from the river (Jerusalem Post 1990a) and Iraq an amount that ranges between 55 and 90 percent (Jerusalem Post 1990a; Roberts 1991). It is projected that Syria will require one billion cubic meters of water by 2005 and that Iraq will need an additional two billion cubic meters to meet the minimum requirements of their populations and economies. Substantial water deficits could seriously worsen relations between riparian countries and intensify the distrust that was rekindled by the recent Gulf conflict and the ensuing Kurdish rebellion.
ISRAEL AND WATERS OF THE WEST BANK
The long-disputed Jordan River has headwaters in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel. The river constitutes a main source of fresh water for both Israel and Lebanon. The issue of fresh water is especially acute in rapidly developing Israel, which obtains approximately 35 percent of its water supply from the Jordan River. Israel is consuming virtually all its replenishable annual water potential of 1.9 billion cubic meters, as well as an additional 400 million cubic meters from desalination plants and diminished aquifers. Sixteen senior Israeli hydrologists recently reported that the country is using its water reserves 15 percent faster than they can be replenished each year (Jerusalem Post 1990a). On a per capita basis, Israelis consume seven to ten times more water than do Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and approximately two to three times more than do their Lebanese and Jordanian neighbors.
In winter 1990, water in the Sea of Galilee dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded, which led the Israeli water authority to consider emergency measures to restrict water discharge to prevent a decrease below the crucial level of 212.5 meters below sea level. For the last five years, Israel has implemented water-rationing schemes that mainly affect the politically powerful farming sector, which consumes more than 70 percent of the country’s water supply.
The migration of East European and former Soviet citizens to Israel has resulted in a vast increase of its population. Consequently, it has begun to build one hundred thousand new houses, many of which are on the West Bank, and it is making long-term plans to boost output of electricity. This situation exerts additional strain on the already overextended water supply. A lack of water resources is alleged to be one of the motives for the 1967 war, in which Israel occupied the West Bank (al-Bargouthi 1986; Saleh 1988). The water supplies from the West Bank constitute as much as 40 percent of the water consumed in Israel. The primary sources of this water are two aquifers that originate in the West Bank but extend into pre-1967 Israel.
The vision of a Greater Israel, held by some Israeli political factions, encompasses the currently occupied territories with their vital resources. Use of this vision as a governmental policy has been an obstacle to the land-for-peace formula on which the current Arab-Israeli peace talks are based. The outcome of that formula would be a gradual end of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which some Israelis call Judea and Samaria, in exchange for the peaceful coexistence of Israel and Arab countries. A geographical application of the policy was demonstrated in a full-page advertisement that the Ministry of Agriculture placed in leading Israeli newspapers (Jerusalem Post 1990b). The advertisement argued that a Palestinian state on the West Bank, whether sovereign or autonomous, would draw on the water resources that are vital to the survival of Israel. Relinquishing the land to a potential Palestinian state would likely result in the repatriation of Palestinian refugees, whom the advertisement referred to as poverty-stricken humanity, from surrounding Arab countries. That in-migration “would generate an impossible strain on the already over-extended water supply and inadequate sewerage system, endangering even further Israel’s vulnerable and fragile source of life.” The commentary concluded with the assertion that “it is difficult to conceive of any political solution consistent with Israel’s survival that does not involve complete, continued Israeli control of water and sewerage systems, and of the associated infrastructure, including power supply and road network, essential to their operation, maintenance and accessibility” (Jerusalem Post 1990b).
These statements accent old and new realities. They strongly underscore an Israeli feeling of great dependence on the water resources of the West Bank not only for everyday use by Israel but also for its continued national existence. The advertisement also gives credibility to previous reports arguing that, although territorial physical security was a concern for Israel in 1967, the water resources were at least one, and perhaps the prominent, factor in Israeli strategic calculations. Moreover, this advertisement amounts to an official policy shift that binds territorial and resource security. Relinquishing the water-rich western slopes of the West Bank would be perceived by Israel as surrender of its water sovereignty and a threat to its national existence. This position could seriously complicate the peace process and set resource security as the new context for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
ISRAEL AND THE LITANI RIVER
Because of current Israeli utilization of all its renewable water resources and the predicted annual water deficit of 500 to 600 million cubic meters, Israeli occupation of the water-rich area in southern Lebanon raises questions about Israel’s hydrological imperative. Israel has had historical interest in the Litani River, whose entire flow is within the borders of Lebanon. The river rises in the northern Biqa’a Valley and runs southward to Beaufort Castle, where it turns westward to the Mediterranean Sea. Diverting the Litani’s water southward is an old proposal, first suggested in 1905 by an engineer who concluded that the waters of the Jordan basin would be insufficient for the future needs of Palestine (Saleh 1988). He recommended that waters from the Litani River be diverted into the Hasbani River, a tributary of the Jordan.
Prestatehood Jewish interests in the Litani River were made explicit in letters from Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organization (wzo), to various British governmental officials in 1919 and 1920 (Weisgal 1977). In a letter to Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Weizmann argued that Lebanon was “well watered” and that the river was “valueless to the territory north of the proposed frontiers. They can be used beneficially in the country much further south.” Weizmann concluded that the WZO considered the Litani valley “for a distance of 25 miles above the bend” of the river essential to the future of the Jewish “national home” (Weisgal 1977, 267). Nevertheless, the British and the French mandate powers retained the Litani basin entirely in Lebanon. David Ben-Gurion, a leading Zionist and the first prime minister of Israel, suggested to a 1941 international commission on the question of Palestine that the Litani be included in the borders of the future Jewish state. The commission recommended that seven-eighths of the river’s waters be leased to Israel (Saleh 1988).
Access to the Litani River was a concern during Israel’s formative years. The diaries of Moshe Sharett, an Israeli prime minister during the mid-1950s, reveal that Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, chief of staff and defense minister, were strong advocates of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon to the Litani River (Rabinovich 1985). In the wake of the 1967 war and in view of Israeli territorial gains from three of its four neighbors, Dayan reiterated his long-standing opinion that Israel had achieved “provisionally satisfying frontiers, with the exception of those with Lebanon” (Hof 1985, 36).
Decision makers who perceive scarcities in their own state will meet demands by using their specialized capabilities to control territory and people farther and farther from its boundaries (Choucri and North 1972, 90). Specialized capabilities, including political influence, economic performance, and military skill and hardware, tend to determine the type of peaceful or coercive pressure that a resource-deficient but capability-rich state can apply to improve its access to foreign resources. Israel’s water scarcity is leading to high-risk strategies that it can use with confidence because its military, economic, and political capabilities are superior to those of Lebanon.
The hyrdostrategic significance of southern Lebanon is rarely considered as an explanation of current Israeli occupation of the security zone there. The zone stretches along the northern border of Israel and straddles the westward bend of the Litani River. Israel unilaterally established the zone in 1978, after Israeli troops invaded and remained as a hegemonic occupier. Although there are between one and two thousand Israeli troops in the zone, it is controlled and administered by a Christian Lebanese army general who heads the South Lebanese Army (SLA). Trained, equipped, and paid by the Israeli government, the SLA is nonetheless a quasi-militia, composed of Lebanese. The zone has 850 square kilometers, with 85 villages and a population of approximately 180,000.
Shortly after establishing the zone, the Israeli army prohibited drilling of wells there (al-Bargouthi 1986). Moreover, after the 1982 invasion, Israeli army engineers carried out seismic soundings and surveys near the westward bend of the river, probably to determine the optimum place for a diversion tunnel, and confiscated hydrographical charts and technical documents of the river and its installations from the Litani Water Authority offices in the Biqa’a and Beirut (Cooley 1984, 22). Israel also controlled most or all of the waters from the Hasbani and Wazzani rivers, which rise in Lebanon. Over the years, there have been reports of water siphoning from the Litani into the Jordan River basin, a distance of less than ten kilometers (Cooley 1984; al-Bargouthi 1986; Saleh 1988; Abu Fadil and Harrison 1992; Gemayel 1992).
The average annual flow of the Litani River is estimated at 920 million cubic meters, of which an estimated 480 million cubic meters is measured at the Khardali Bridge near the westward bend of the stream. Before the river empties into the Mediterranean Sea, an estimated 125 million cubic meters of water is consumed in the Kasmieh irrigation project. Permanent occupation of southern Lebanon and continued access to the Litani could augment the annual water supply of Israel by up to 800 million cubic meters, or approximately 40 percent of its current annual water consumption. This volume is attainable only if Israel reoccupies the Karaoun Dam, as it did between 1982 and 1985, and if the zone’s subterranean springs, aquifers, and the Wazzani water flow are included (Baalbaki and Mahfouth 1985; Al-Nahar 1986). The Karaoun reservoir has a storage capacity of 220 million cubic meters, which is used for irrigation, domestic and industrial water supply, and hydropower. Furthermore, the largest single withdrawal from the Litani is the diversion of 236 million cubic meters annually through the Markaba tunnel to the Awali River for hydroelectric generation to supply Beirut and other coastal areas. In fact, 35 percent of Lebanon’s total production of electricity comes from the Litani waters directly or from the Markaba-Awali diversion.
Another attraction of the Litani River is the high quality of its water. The salinity level is only 20 parts per million, whereas that of the Sea of Galilee is 250 to 350 parts per million. Many aquifers in Israel are stressed, especially along the coast, and the water in them is increasingly brackish. The water of the Litani would lower the saline level of the Sea of Galilee, from which the National Water Carrier channels water to much of the country. “It is this purity that makes the Litani very attractive to the Israelis, who have developed their National Water Carrier System with a view towards potable (as opposed to irrigation quality) water” (Naff and Matson 1984, 65).
Water production by desalination is costly, and cloud seeding to induce precipitation is not always controllable. Turkey proposed a peace pipeline to meet the needs of numerous southern water-deficient countries, including Israel, but importation over hundreds of kilometers of unfriendly territory is seen in Israel as untenable and easily subverted, thus a threat to national security. It is therefore becoming increasingly evident that the only feasible solution, in terms of water quality, volume, and proximity of the resource, to Israel’s growing water problem is to tap a nearby source, namely the Litani River.
No one can yet document categorically that the Litani waters are being diverted, because large tracts of land near the crucial westward bend of the river are cordoned off by Israeli troops, which prevents researchers, journalists, and United Nations observers from approaching the area (al-Bar-gouthi 1986; Al-Nahar 1990). Independent water analysts, however, have reported that Israel has been diverting some water from the Litani River into the Jordan River (Collelo 1989, 117) by tapping the massive underground water resources. Hence the measured flow of the Litani is not affected (Cooley 1984, 22-23).
The weak post-civil-war Lebanese government and Israel’s continued occupation of the security zone make it difficult to prevent an Israeli role in the use of Litani waters. This could be accomplished either through a unilateral water-diversion scheme, which appears to be the solution now, or through bilateral negotiations, in which the security zone would be used as a bargaining pawn to reach a water-sharing agreement with Lebanon (Amery and Kubursi 1992a).
LEBANON AND THE LITANI RIVER
The Litani River basin is predominantly inhabited by Shia Muslims, the largest sect of the country, who are estimated to number more than 850,000. The largely rural Shia community has historically complained that the Christian-led central government neglects it. This is partially due to the central government’s distrust of the Shias, who over the centuries have maintained strong ties with their coreligionists in Iran. Moreover, the political instability in the south, primarily the result of Israeli and Palestinian presences, has given the Lebanese government even less incentive to assert its authority and a justification for the absence of development projects in this largely agricultural area.
The Litani Project, planned in the early 1950s, envisaged the irrigation of 20,000 hectares in the south and 10,000 hectares on the Biqa’a plain. Electrical power for much of Lebanon was to be provided by six hydroelectric stations. The project is decades behind its planned completion date. The northern portion of the project, located in the western Biqa’a administrative unit, is more or less complete, but the government has yet to implement the southern part of the project. Currently, fewer than 50,000 hectares are under irrigation in all of Lebanon, which is a very small area compared with the estimated need of 360,000 hectares (al-Bargouthi 1986). A Ministry of Irrigation study also reported that the south and the Biqa’a provinces require one billion cubic meters of water annually, of which 800 million cubic meters would be used for agriculture, 85 million cubic meters for domestic consumption, and 115 million cubic meters for industry. Harnessing the water of the Litani is essential to the industrial and agricultural development of southern Lebanon. Development of the agricultural sector and investment in agriculturally related schemes may mitigate the Shia community’s feelings of alienation and strengthen their sense of national allegiance.
The Lebanese government is under increasing pressure to assert its sovereignty over the entire country, and it may ultimately have to concede to Israeli demands of water in exchange for territory. But that would precipitate a new Lebanese crisis. Diverting the Litani would stunt the economic development of the country, frustrate the postwar nation-building process, and strengthen the hands of groups calling for the cantonization or Islamization of the country.
Without the Litani waters, irrigation would be virtually impossible in the south, and much of the region would become desert (Cooley 1984, 24). Denying the Shia of southern Lebanon water for domestic and agricultural uses would aggravate their frustrations with the central government. For example, rumors in 1974 that the Litani waters were to be diverted to Beirut to meet forecast shortages sparked massive antigovernmental demonstrations.
Any current or future scheme to divert the river from its basin violates the principles of international law. “Water within one catchment area should not be diverted outside that area–regardless of political boundaries–until all needs of those within the catchment area are satisfied” (Cooley 1984, 10). In the province of Biqa’a, immediately north of the springs where the Litani rises, twenty-two villages lack domestic running water, and in the south there are at least thirty-six such villages. If Israel shared or unilaterally diverted the river, the hand of the antigovernment forces would be strengthened, especially the fundamentalist movement. The result would be continued instability in Lebanon (Amery and Kubursi 1992b).
Transboundary water resources in the arid Middle East have long been the source of conflict. The modern quest for industrial and agricultural development rests on greater generation of hydroelectric power and on higher levels of water consumption for irrigation. Occupation of the West Bank and the security zone in southern Lebanon provides Israel with the political and territorial conditions necessary to mitigate the effects of the rapidly approaching water crisis. Israel is interpreted as being motivated largely by environmental prudence in extending its sphere of influence into southern Lebanon. Israeli desire to gain access to the Litant water resources serves its national interest, but to the detriment of Lebanon. If, in an effort to exercise authority throughout the country, the Lebanese central government agrees to any sort of sharing of the Litant waters, Lebanon might face another challenge to stability.
* This article benefited from comments by J. D. Booth, B. Carment, A. A. Kubursi, B. Sallouk, and W. D. Swearingen.
MAP: FIG. 1–Hydrostrategic significance of the Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon.
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The Litani river of Lebanon