The storms that wracked Lebanon in mid-December were among the most severe in several years. While they helped douse the epidemic of late season brush fires and allowed nervous ski resort owners to open the pistes for the first time, the welcome rainfall could not disguise the fact that Lebanon and the region in general is experiencing a worsening drought.
While the concept of “water wars” in the Middle East has been articulated for many years, the looming crisis over the lack of water is certain to lead to greater competition for resources, fuelling not only inter-state tensions but domestic upheavals between the haves and have-nots.
Before the first rains fell in earnest in December, Lebanon’s meteorological office had registered just 51.2 milli meters (2.01inches) of rain since September. That compares to 214.8 milli meters (8.45inches) for the same period in 2009.
Years of war and government mismanagement have wasted Lebanon’s most prized natural resource, the envy of much of the region, particularly Israel to the south which has coveted Lebanese waters since the notion of a Jewish state in Palestine was first suggested more than a century ago. An Arab League project in the early 1960s to divert the Hasbani River from flowing into Israel indirectly led to the 1967 Arab-Israel war, in which Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria and the West Bank from Jordan.
Since then, Israel has exploited both territories for their water reserves. The Mountain Aquifer in the West Bank, which produces some 600million cubic meters of water per annum, is supposed to be a shared resource for Israelis and Palestinians. But Israel exploits about 80 percent of the aquifer for its own needs. Israelis on average consume three times as much water as Palestinians. The Coastal Aquifer in Gaza once kept the Jewish settlements watered and provided some 18 percent of Israel’s water supply. But years of over-pumping emptied the aquifer ,allowing salt water to seep in, so that by the time Israel abandoned its settlements in Gaza in 2005 there was little water left for the Palestinians to exploit.
The sensitivities between Lebanese and Israelis over water resurfaced nearly 10 years ago when several minor pumping projects in the Hasbani river to provide water for certain villages and to irrigate some farmers’ fields prompted the Israeli government to threaten war against Lebanon. A four-year drought in north eastern Syria has left an estimated 2million to 3 million people living in what the United Nations terms “extreme poverty.” Thousands of inhabitants of the Jazeera region in Syria’s north east have migrated toward Damascus, living in ad hoc settlements in the hope of finding work. With once productive arable land turning into desert, Syria has gone from a net exporter of wheat to a net importer.
Lebanon boasts some 40 major rivers and 2,000 springs, but the UN estimates that half of the annual flow of 1,150 million cubic meters is lost to the sea or neighboring countries. A World Bank study concluded that Lebanon could be experiencing chronic water shortages by 2020 due to over-consumption, over-pumping, pollution and poor management. Much of Lebanon’s water is used for agricultural irrigation, particularly in the relatively arid Bekaa. But the lack of sustainable irrigation techniques places a burden on local water resources with ever more wells drilled and a consequent lowering of the water table. A 1999 plan to harness water resources called for investments of $1.5 billion to construct dams and reservoirs. The plan was supposed to be completed this year, but it has hardly got off the ground due to the failure of successive governments to allocate funds for the project.
If action is not taken soon, water shortages could provoke social unrest, especially given the expanding divide in Lebanon between the wealthy and poor. In recent months, residents of the Bekaa and the north, the two poorest regions in the country, have had to purchase water from tankers because the state supply ran out. In 1992, the collapse of the Lebanese lira sparked riots in the streets of Beirut, which ended up toppling the then-government of Prime Minister Omar Karami. Those protests were dubbed the “bread riots.” The next could be over water.
Nicholas Blanford is the Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science
Monitor and The Times of London