Shebaa Farms "real issue" is water

11 September 2009

BEIRUT (IRIN) - The politics of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms, a rugged sliver of mountainside wedged between Lebanon, Israel and Syria, have long overshadowed what some Lebanese environmentalists call “the real issue” of the disputed area: its water resources.

Now activists are calling for hydro-diplomacy to take precedence over political maneuvering as the most effective solution to one of the key stumbling blocks to Middle East peace.

“Rising Temperatures Rising Tensions,” a report published in June by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), funded by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, considers water to be a major trigger for conflict in the Middle East, the world’s most water-scarce region.

Lebanon and Syria say the Shebaa Farms, measuring just 22 square kilometers, is Lebanese territory, though the UN has ruled it part of the Syrian Golan Heights, which lie just to the east, across water-rich Mount Hermon.

Both the Golan and Shebaa were occupied by Israel during the 1967 War and the Israelis say disengagement from Shebaa can only come under a peace deal with Syria and withdrawal from the Golan.

However, Fadi Comair, director-general of Hydraulic and Electric Resources at the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water, argues there is more to Israel’s occupation of Shebaa than military-strategic concerns: “Israel’s occupation of the Shebaa Farms has to do with control of its water.”

Hizballah, the Lebanese resistance group that fought Israel to a bloody stalemate in 2006, has the liberation of Shebaa as one of its strategic objectives.

Water scarcity

Meeting the water needs of their rapidly growing populations has long been an existential challenge for the governments of the arid Middle East. Climate change is making that challenge more urgent and acute.

Israel, Jordan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) all fall well below the internationally accepted threshold of 1,000 cubic meters of water per person per year (cmwpy). According to the IISD, Israel has natural renewable water resources of 265 cmwpy, Jordan 169, and OPT just 90. Only Lebanon and Syria have water surpluses, with Lebanon having a potential of 1,220 cmwpy and Syria 1,541.

Yet supply is dwindling rapidly. By 2025 water use in Israel is estimated to fall to 310 cmwpy, while the country’s own Environment Ministry has warned that water supply may fall by 60 percent of 2000 levels by 2100.

River Jordan

The IISD report goes even further, warning that the River Jordan, which is the key supplier of water to Israel, Jordan and OPT, could shrink as much as 80 percent by the end of the century.

Such drastic scarcity makes securing water supplies vital. The River Jordan rises in Mount Hermon, fed by tributaries in the Golan Heights and Shebaa Farms, and flows into the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberius, before continuing south where it forms the boundary between Jordan, to the east, and the West Bank. After 320 kilometers it empties into the Dead Sea.

Major tributaries of the river include the Hasbani, which flows into Israel from Lebanon, and the Banias, which flows from Syria. The River Dan, which also supplies the River Jordan, is the only river originating in Israel.

Water wars

The absence of hydro-diplomacy reflects conflict in the region. In 1965, Syria and Lebanon began the construction of channels to divert the Banias and Hasbani, preventing the rivers flowing into Israel. Israel attacked the diversion works, the first in a series of moves that led to a regional war two years later.

In 2002, when the Lebanese constructed a pipeline on the River Wazzani intended to supply households in southern Lebanon with water, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared the action a causus belli. In the July War of 2006, Israeli warplanes targeted southern Lebanon’s water network.

Bassam Jaber, a water expert at Lebanon’s Ministry of Energy and Water, argues the Shebaa is critical to Israel’s water needs, “especially because fresh water is critical when all sources within Israel are salty. The flows from the area help to regulate the saltiness of Lake Tiberius.”

And it is not just the direct overland flow that the Shebaa provides Israel. According to the Lebanese Water Ministry’s Comair, 30 to 40 percent of the River Dan’s water flows into it through underground supplies originating in the Shebaa. “Israel is worried that if Lebanon gains control of the Shebaa, it can then control the flow to the Dan river,” said Comair.

Hydro-diplomacy

As one of only eight states to have ratified the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, Lebanon is calling on Israel to do the same.

“Israel is not a signatory to the relevant conventions on water, which is a big problem since they are at the center of the issue of equitable use of water and reasonable sharing,” said Comair.

Israel has already shown that water can play a role in peacemaking. Its 1994 peace agreement with Jordan included a commitment to transfer 75 million cubic meters of water per year to Jordan in return for secure borders to the east.

Lebanon’s Ministry of Energy and Water is now calling for a regional water basin authority for the River Jordan, which would include Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the OPT. “How can you reach any agreements on the equitable sharing of international watercourses if there is no cooperation?” asked Comair.

Water solutions for all?

Not all are convinced Israel’s occupation of Shebaa is primarily about securing water.

“Water is no doubt one aspect of the socio-political conflict, but it is not the main driver,” said Mutasem el-Fadel, director of the Water Resources Center at the American University of Beirut.

He points to several projects currently being studied that could solve Israel’s water needs, without requiring continued occupation of the Shebaa, such as the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal Project, the Mini-Peace pipeline from Turkey, wastewater reclamation plans and desalination projects.

“All combined they can be the water solution for all five countries in the area,” said el-Fadel.

But in the absence of hydro-diplomacy between Israel and Lebanon, the continued Israeli occupation of the Shebaa Farms will remain a key trigger to renewed conflict between the two countries.

“There will not be enough water for our generation or the next,” said Comair. “We will see social, economic, political and military conflicts — and in that order — within the next 20 years.”

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