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Water dispute in an arid region
On Wednesday, an Israeli water official warned of a 'confrontation' if Lebanon continues pumping.
By Nicholas Blanford Special to The Christian Science Monitor
HASBANI RIVER, SOUTHEAST LEBANON
For someone who is being credited with sparking the next "Middle East water crisis," Hussein Abdullah looks remarkably unruffled.
Sipping a tiny cup of Turkish coffee in the shade of his riverside restaurant in southeast Lebanon, Mr. Abdullah explains that he intends to pump water from a nearby river through a steel pipe, six inches in diameter, to irrigate some 3 million square yards of farmland. He wants to plant olive and walnut trees, and a variety of vegetables.
But Abdullah's plan has aroused deep suspicion in Israel, just a few miles to the south. For the river from which the Lebanese farmer intends to siphon is the Hasbani, a tributary of the Jordan River, which in turn feeds the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest source of fresh water. With the Jewish state facing a grave water shortage this summer, every drop counts.
STAFF The amount of water in question may seem small. But tensions are boiling over another patch of land just two miles from here, called the Shebaa Farms.
Lebanon accuses Israel of clinging to the territory, and the Lebanese Hizbullah organization fights a sporadic guerilla campaign to oust the Israeli army from the mountainous district. The dispute over Shebaa Farms is widely regarded as the spark that could ignite a regional war.
On Wednesday, Uri Saguy, the head of the Israeli Mekorot water company and a former head of military intelligence, warned of a "confrontation" if Lebanon continues to draw water from the Hasbani unchecked. He insisted that Lebanon and Israel should reach "some sort of arrangement" on water sharing.
Lebanese parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri said on Wednesday that while he takes Israeli threats seriously, "We will continue to use our water resources ... especially in the south.
"We will use the Wazzani springs to satisfy people's needs in drinking water and water for agriculture," he said, referring to springs that feed the Hasbani River one mile upstream from Abdullah's restaurant. One mile south of here, the Hasbani crosses the border into Israel, where it becomes the Upper Jordan.
Other water agreements Day by day, Abdullah is building the pipeline down to the river. He hopes to begin pumping next week. Meanwhile, Israeli army patrols routinely stop opposite Abdullah's restaurant and peer through their binoculars at the steel pipe snaking down the gorge, inching a little closer to the river's edge each day.
But Abdullah is indifferent to all the fuss. "All I'm doing is making something good so that people can come to the south," he says.
"I'm not taking anything away from Israel. They should be pleased to see something constructive happening here."
Abdullah harbors grand plans to turn his little riverside oasis into a thriving tourist concern, with swimming pools brimming with running river water, an expanded restaurant, and possibly a hotel overlooking the gorge.
"By the end of the year, everything should be ready," he says.
Israel's saber-rattling notwithstanding, Qabalan Qabalan, the president of the Council of the South, a Lebanese government development agency, says Lebanon has several projects to exploit the Hasbani. "And we do not have to review them with Israel," he adds.
Ironically, Lebanon and Israel already have a tacit bilateral water arrangement. Two Israeli pumps, installed beside the Wazzani springs during the years of occupation in south Lebanon, feed a small village partially occupied by Israel on the eastern bank of the Hasbani.
Lebanese officials routinely accuse Israel of stealing water from the springs. But, even though the pumps are on the Lebanese side of the frontier, no one has switched them off.
Similarly, Israel still supplies some 14 Lebanese border villages with drinking water free of charge; a continuation of an arrangement that existed during Israel's occupation of the area. Israel has said it will keep channeling water across the border until the Lebanese government connects the villages to a new water network now under construction.
But the prospect of tensions between Lebanon and Israel expanding from the disputed Shebaa Farms to water-related issues has prompted the United Nations to take action.
Keeping dispute in perspective
The UN has launched a project to collect data on the water flow of the Hasbani River and Wazzani springs.
The idea arose in March, when the Council of the South installed a small pump beside the Wazzani springs to provide drinking water to an impoverished Lebanese village.
The move drew harsh condemnation from Israel, fueled by rumors that Lebanon was preparing a major water diversion project. The crisis ended when the UN pointed out that the pipe carrying the water was only four inches in diameter.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN secretary-general's personal representative to south Lebanon, says the project to assess the Hasbani River and Wazzani springs is to prevent a repeat crisis.
"The idea was to take some preventative measures ... to prepare some objective data for future tensions," he says.
Timur Goksel, the spokesman for the UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon, said that the Israeli threats are "mostly posturing."
"Things get blown out of proportion too easily," he says. "You have a guy who wants to irrigate his land and fill a couple of swimming pools, and the story gets blown up until it's the next Middle East water crisis."
But given the prevailing tensions in the region, Mr. Goksel says, "You can't rule out an escalation."
Water tensions are the last thing on Abdullah's mind, however. He continues to pour cups of coffee for anyone willing to traipse down into the blistering heat of the Hasbani River gorge and tell them of his dreams of bounteous vegetable crops, dense olive groves, and bustling hotels
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 03, 2001