On the geopolitics of water scarcity in the Middle East

Jordan River Basin

The Wazzani-incident in the summer of 2002 - a phoney war?

By Stefan Deconinck, July 2006.

In 2001, Lebanon attempted to construct a pipe on the Wazzani river, in the south of the country and close to the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan. Together with the Hasbani River, the Wazzani contributes 150 million m of water to the Upper Jordan River, which is a main source of fresh water for Israel. Therefore, Israel was greatly concerned about these Lebanese activities, fearing the future supply of water to its national water system. From 1982 to 2000, this southern part of Lebanon was under Israeli occupation. During a period of 18 years, Israel was in full control of the area, securing its access to one of the main sources of the Jordan River. The Israeli government was repeatedly accused of diverting water from the Litani River basin into the rivers flowing to Israel, through tunnels and pipe lines that cross the water dived between the two systems. After the Israeli withdrawal in the summer of 2000, no evidence was found that could support these accusations. When the Lebanese authorities returned to the area, new plans were laid out to enhance the standard of living in the villages along the Israeli-Lebanese border by supplying them with water.

Israel issued its first concerns in March 2001, when a first pipe line was laid. According to Ministry of Defense spokesperson Shlomo Dror, Israel "wouldn't be quiet over it". The newspaper Hatzofeh saw the hand of Syria behind it, and challenged Prime Minster Ariel Sharon to show his resolution. At that time, the Israeli government added no further consequences.

In June 2002, Lebanon restarted new infrastructure works. According to the Lebanese Authorities, the works were intended to connect 60 communities to running water for domestic use, supplying them with 10.000m of water for domestic purposes a day (or 3,65 million m a year). The works were planned by the Council of the South (headed by Qabalan Qabalan of the Amal party), under supervision of the Litani River Autority.
To Israel, these unilateral Lebanese acts were totally unacceptable. According to the Israeli government, it was a violation of international law, and a threat to the water safety of the country. Lebanon argued that its moves were perfectly sound, referring to the 1953 Johnston Plan, which allotted Lebanon a share of 35 million m of the Jordan (Hasbani) River headwaters. Lebanon also referred to the principle of equitability in its water share, basing its claim also on international water law.

In September 2002, the situation hardened when the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared that the diversion of water by Lebanon would constitute a casus belli, even when the amount of water used for the project counts for less than 0,5% of the annual Israeli water consumption. Israel felt threatened in its existence and seemed to be prepared to take up arms to convince the Lebanese authorities to refrain from increasing its lot. It was feared in Tel Aviv that Lebanon would take more initiatives like that, so action on this issue was urgent.
The Israeli reaction to the construction of the pipe line also turned this case into an important political matter in Lebanon. Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri headed an impressive committee that prepared a dossier to defend the Lebanese case before the United Nations. Speaker of the Parliament Nabi Berri from the Amal party hailed the construction of the pipe as an act of Lebanese national pride against the Zionist enemy, Hezbollah called it a "great victory" and president Emile Lahoud announced to be present when the first water would be pumped through the pipe in the middle of October.

As the construction site lies only a few kilometres from the border with Israel, the Israeli threat of a military intervention caused great concern; after all, Ariel Sharon referred to similar plans that in his view led to the outbreak of the Six-day War of 1967. Suddenly, a simple pipe filled with water became an object of a severe international crisis. As the date of inauguration of the facilities came nearer, diplomatic activity became more intense. The American government despatched a technical team to investigate the matter in an attempt to find a compromise for the claims of the two parties. The Israeli minister of foreign affairs Shimon Peres went to Washington and Paris to defend the Israeli case. UN-envoy Terje Larsen arrived in Beirut to discuss the developments and report his findings to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. An EU-mission suggested a development plan for the south of Lebanon, including a long-term rational water use of water. A Russian diplomat visited the construction site together with a water expert of the US State Department. Finally, on the 16th of October, the facility was inaugurated by president Lahoud and parliament speaker Berri together, in the presence of other high ranking government dignitaries; ambassadors of the European Union and UN-officials acted as a human shield to deter possible Israeli attacks during the event. President Lahoud proclaimed the construction of the water facility "a second step in the liberation of the south", to be completed with the liberation of the Israeli-held Shebaa Farms. A group of officers of the Israeli Defence Force observed the ceremony on high ground on the Israeli side of the border, while members of Amal and Hezbollah planted their flags on the new pipes.

What can we learn from this episode?
It is clear that Israel is not willing to cede a part of the water it is actually consuming, however small the amount. At least not without getting something in return, as is the case for the peace agreement between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan of 1994: in this agreement Israel agreed to transfer a net amount of 75 million m a year to Jordan as a price for safe borders and a reliable neighbour in the east. Such a scheme does not yet exist between Israel and Lebanon.
So why didn't Israel respond to this casus belli with an armed strike? Was this all some phony war, a drle de guerre? As water is so strategically important to maintain the national Zionist ideology, we know the reason why Israel is considering the water from Lebanon as a security issue, and why its government reiterated its position with regard to it only one day after the inauguration of the Wazzani pumps.
We can only guess why Israel did not respond. Probably the American preparations of the war against the regime of Saddam Houssein in Iraq had something to do with it - we saw that the US was very quick to send a technical team into the area to investigate the Israeli and Lebanese claims. Maybe Israel thought the time not ripe to start an open conflict in Lebanon against the Hezbollah, with Syria still present in the country. This was still a very different situation compared to the events of July 2006 (with the Syrian army retreated from Lebanon since april 2005 and a Security Council resolution 1559 calling for the dismantling of militias), when the abduction of Israeli soldiers was enough to trigger a massive attack on Hezbollah combatants and the destruction of Lebanese civilian infrastructure.
Did the Wazzani pumps, in Israeli eyes a symbol of Hezbollah provocation, survive this military campaign?

A chronology of the crisis