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Water: The other key to Mideast peace

How water, or the lack of it, fuels conflict among neighbors in Lebanon and beyond


BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon — Camille Fakhry sips coffee beneath the fig trees in his hilltop garden and points to a concrete water canal beveled into the adjacent slope. Built in the 1930s by the French, the canal—which runs between Btedi, a Maronite Christian village of 20,000, and Chlifa, a slightly bigger Shia town—delivers fresh water from Lake Yammouneh.

Until the early 1990s, Christians, Shia and Sunni clashed regularly over water in the Bekaa, Lebanon's primary agricultural region. There were scores of fatalities. Today, farmers in Chlifa and Btedi split the water 60/40, with the Lebanese Army on site 24 hours a day to enforce the accord.

"We don't fight over water anymore," said Fakhry, a farm equipment sales representative who also serves as mayor of Btedi. "But there are more and more people moving here every year, more fields to irrigate and less rain falling. I don't know how we'll manage in the future."

Water has long been a source of conflict in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. Skirmishes between Israeli and Arab forces in 1964 over Jordan River tributaries in Lebanon and Syria were a decisive prelude to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In 1974 Syria and Iraq massed troops at their common border when the Al Thawra dam in northern Syria throttled the Euphrates' flow into Iraq. Egypt has repeatedly declared it would consider attempts by southern neighbors to divert the Blue Nile as an act of war.

Several factors, including spiking regional water demand and slumping supplies, make the current situation even more explosive.

U.N. estimates show the population around the southern Mediterranean basin to be growing at nearly 3 percent a year. Climate models project a regional mean temperature bump of between 3.6 and 4.8 degrees Farenheit by 2025. Both Syria and Iraq are experiencing severe droughts that have created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

"Governments don't ever mass their troops or go to war for a single reason," said Hussein Amery, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines and an expert on water and conflict in the Middle East. "But given these trends, water will play an increasingly critical role in stability and security in this region."

In addition to climate change and expanding populations, Amery believes that changing lifestyles will also strain the region's tenuous supplies and further ramp up tension. "Many people in the region want to improve the quality of their lives," he said. "They want lush lawns, swimming pools, McDonald's. They may not realize how much water that lifestyle requires, or that you need 15,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef."

The water outlook in Lebanon is particularly grim. At current growth rates, the population is expected to jump from 4 million to 7.6 million by 2025, with supplies of fresh water diminishing by as much as half. Lebanon's water usage is highly inefficient; nearly 70 percent of used water is dumped into sewers and cesspools, from where it flows into the sea. The looming drought could spark hostilities in a country already torn by sectarian violence and squeezed by hostile neighbors on its southern and northern borders.

Lebanon has undertaken an ambitious 10-year plan that includes the construction of dams and reservoirs, more efficient irrigation techniques, water treatment plants and public conservation efforts. But as Lebanon shares its water sources with its regional neighbors, the country's leaders know their unilateral efforts cannot suffice.

"We need to create a Jordan River basin water authority," said Fadi Georges Comair, director general of hydraulic resources in Lebanon and the author of the 10-year-plan. "We need to establish a concept of equitable sharing and reasonable use throughout the region, involving Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel."

Comair proudly cites recent bilateral negotiations with Syria, which helped amend a previous and unfair division of the shared Orontes River, as an example of how cooperation might improve life in the region. He is less sanguine about Lebanon's dealings with Israel, a country that neither Lebanon nor Syria recognize. "At the moment, 90 percent of the Jordan basin water volume goes to Israel," Comair said. "We are not even using 1 percent of the tributaries on our land. And if we dare use more, Israel threatens us with military strikes. This is not equitable sharing."

Not everyone in Lebanon blames Israel or Syria or climate change for the scarcity of water. Many point to government corruption and inefficiency, both in part products of Lebanon's long civil war and subsequent military occupations by Syria and Israel.

"In the late 1970s, I paid a tax for my house to be hooked up to a pipeline from springs in Anjar, just 30 kilometers away," said Sleiman Abu-Zour, mayor of Tannoura, a Druze village in the south Bekaa Valley. "Then the war broke out. I'm still waiting."

Seated in his garden, the retired army officer's eyes focus on nearby Mt. Hermon, whose multiple peaks straddle Lebanon, Syria and Israel. He recalls a time when the mountain snowcover lasted through summer. Now it melts by late May.

"I have to buy water twice a month from cistern trucks," he said. "My wife uses the same water three times, first to bathe, then to wash clothes, then to wash the floor. Our government hasn't done anything for us. If Israel is building dams and tapping rivers so its people can have water in their homes, I say good for them."