Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Shared Water Resources in Lebanon

Litani River - Shared Water Resources in Lebanon
Photo 1: Aerial photo of lake of Qaraoun and Litani River. (Source: Kameel Rayes)

Shared surface and groundwater resources

Lebanon shares three main surface water resources with neighbouring countries. These are the Orontes River in the north, which flows to Syria and ends in Turkey; the El Kabir River, which flows along the northern boundary between Lebanon and Syria; and the Hasbani-Wazzani River in southern Bekaa, which forms one of the tributaries of the Jordan River Basin and discharges into the Dead Sea (Map 1).

Although bilateral agreements exist between Lebanon and Syria regarding the Orontes River,[3] water flows from Lebanon’s rivers to the transboundary rivers with no or very little utilization in Lebanon. It is estimated that the annual discharge from these rivers from the Lebanese side is about 867 MCM.[1]

The shared groundwater with the neighbouring regions is harder to estimate because of the complexity of the groundwater systems. However, it is estimated that around 2,631 km2, which is equivalent to 25% of the Lebanese territory, is shared in groundwater basins. Some hydrological calculations have estimated that the shared aquifers in Lebanon hold roughly 365 MCM of water.[1]

Shared Water Resources in Lebanon
Map 1: Lebanon’s shared surface water resources. @Fanack water

Treaties and agreements

Lebanon has signed and ratified several international treaties and agreements.[2] These are listed below.

  • 1994 Agreement on the Distribution of Orontes River Water Originating in Lebanese Territory, which specifies water allocation between Lebanon and Syria.[3]
  • The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. Lebanon ratified this convention in 1999 and uses its principles as a baseline for its bilateral agreements on water.
  • Protocol on Integrated Coastal Zone Management in the Mediterranean (under the Barcelona Convention); ratified in 2017.
  • Protocol Concerning Cooperation in Preventing Pollution from Ships and, in Cases of Emergency, Combating Pollution of the Mediterranean Sea; ratified in 2017.
  • Protocol Concerning Co-operation in Combating Pollution of the Mediterranean Sea by Oil and Other Harmful Substances in Cases of Emergency; signed in 1977.

Disputed Surface and Groundwater Resources*

* This section has been adapted from the old Lebanon country report (Author: Fanack water editorial team, peer review: Dr. Nadim Farajallah)

Lebanon shares surface and groundwater with its two neighbours, Syria and Israel. The main characteristics of the country’s shared rivers – the Orontes (Al-Assi), the Nahr el Kabir and the Hasbani – are presented in Table 1. Lebanon also shares groundwater with both countries, though there is little information available on the Western Galilee Basin that is shared with Israel. Lebanon ratified the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses in 1999 and uses its principles as a baseline for its bilateral agreements on water.

Orontes (Al-Assi) River
The Orontes or Al-Assi River rises from the Hermel Mountain(s) in the northern Bekaa region of Lebanon, flows northwards through Syria to discharge in the Mediterranean Sea after crossing into Turkey. It is mainly fed by groundwater that originates from snowmelt in Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon. Its main sources are the Al-Labweh, Ain Zarqa (main flow contributor) and Daffash Springs in the Bekaa Valley. Water use in the Lebanese part of the basin is estimated at 21 MCM/yr, and consists of small-scale farming, fish farms and tourism. It is also a popular area for rafting.[4]

Developed in consultation with the Syrian government, the Assi scheme aims to develop water resources in the basin for irrigation, domestic use and hydropower. It consists of the construction of a 27 MCM diversion dam near the Ain Zarqa Spring with three pumping stations and an irrigation network for around 3,000 ha (Phase I), and a 37 MCM dam upstream of the Hermel Bridge to irrigate 3,800 ha as well as a hydroelectric power plant to provide 50 MW/day (Phase II) in the regions of Hermel and Al-Qaa.[5] A Chinese contractor working with a local partner started construction work on the dam (Phase I) in 2005, but the site was bombed by Israel during the 2006 war. This led to a dispute between the Lebanese government and the contractor on compensation for losses. After a special committee was formed in 2011 to address the issue, the Lebanese Council of Ministers renegotiated the work terms to meet the contractor’s demands, and the new contract is currently being finalized.[6] In addition to the planned development schemes, Lebanon has solicited international donors for assistance in water monitoring in the basin. Most recently the Italian Cooperation installed meteorological stations for data collection.[7]

In terms of agreements, Syria and Lebanon announced in 1972 that they had signed an agreement whereby Lebanon would use about 80 MCM/yr, but this agreement never came into force. In 1976 Syria became actively engaged in military activities in Lebanon and occupied positions near the headwaters of the Orontes so that water use from the river was strictly under Syrian control. It was not until September 1994 that the two countries officially signed an agreement granting Lebanon 80 MCM/yr on the condition that the river’s resources within Lebanon reached at least 400 MCM/yr.[8] This agreement was, however, not considered favourable to Lebanon, and an amendment was effected in 1997 which identified and excluded the four sub-basins of Yammouneh, Marjhine, Jabal al-Homr and Orghosh as well as the Labweh Spring from Lebanon’s 80 MCM/yr share, thus allowing the population to use its waters for irrigation.[9] As Syria’s power over Lebanon started to recede, a further amendment was added in 2001 allowing Lebanon to construct a dam on the river.

Table 1: Main characteristics of shared rivers in Lebanon. Source: UN-ESCWA and BGR, 2013; Holst-Warhaft, G. and Steenhuis, T., 2010. Losing Paradise: The Water Crisis in the Mediterranean. Published by Ashgate; FAO, 2009.

RiverAverage annual flowLengthBasin areaRiparian countries
Orontes River1.2 BCM (410 MCM in Lebanon)404 km (40 km in Lebanon)26,530 km (2,016 km in Lebanon)Lebanon, Syria, Turkey
Nahr el Kabir River377 MCM25 km954 km (244 km in Lebanon)Lebanon, Syria
Hasbani River122-140 MCM (combined flow with Wazzani Springs)21 km600 kmJordan River: Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria

Nahr el Kabir River
The Nahr el Kabir is a coastal river that originates from numerous springs including Ain al-Safa in Lebanon, and traces the north-south border between Lebanon and Syria before discharging into the Mediterranean Sea. Water use in the basin in Lebanon is mainly for domestic and irrigation purposes. The construction of the planned joint dam with Syria at Noura al-Tahta/Idlin would allow for the irrigation of around 5,000 ha of land in the Akkar Plain and higher surrounding zones in Lebanon.[10] The 70 MCM capacity dam would also be used for flood management as well as for domestic and industrial water supply. It is a central component of the only agreement between Lebanon and Syria concerning this river. Signed in April 2002 and based on the principles of the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, the agreement mainly stipulates a water allocation based on each riparian’s share of the basin area. According to the agreement, Syria and Lebanon would receive 60% and 40% of the river’s total annual yield respectively. The costs of dam construction and engineering studies are to be divided equally between the two countries.[11] A tender for the dam study, design and construction was awarded to a Swiss contractor along with a local partner, but no further steps have been taken due to the situation in Syria in this border area.[12] The river is severely polluted and water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic weed, has clogged waterways and irrigation canals throughout the river course.[13]

Cooperation modalities between Lebanon and Syria
The Fraternity, Cooperation and Coordination Treaty, which was ratified in 1991 by Lebanon and Syria, establishes the formal basis for cooperation between the two countries in a range of domains including the water sector. The Lebanese-Syrian Joint Committee for Shared Water was established under this treaty, with representatives from the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water and the Syrian Ministry of Irrigation and includes a special joint committee for the Orontes River and another for the Nahr el Kabir River, with several corresponding sub-committees (Figure 1). Members of the sub-committees still hold regular meetings to discuss issues and exchange data related to the basins, despite the ongoing crisis in Syria.[14]

Shared reources in Lebanon - Disputed resources in Lebanon
Figure 1: Cooperation structures between Lebanon and Syria. @Fanack water

The Hasbani and Wazzani springs dispute
The Hasbani River rises in Lebanon and is fed by a number of small tributaries and springs including the Wazzani Spring. It crosses Lebanon’s southern border and forms one of the upper tributaries of the Jordan River, which is shared between five riparians and is one of the most contested river basins in the world. The importance of the Hasbani River and its springs is to a large extent geopolitical and lies in the fact that they are important headwaters of the Jordan River. The use of water resources in the area in Lebanon has been a source of tension for decades, and there is currently no agreement or treaty involving Lebanon on the use of these waters. The river water and springs were the subject of discord between Lebanon and Israel in the 1960s, before they came under full Israeli control during Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon until the withdrawal of troops in 2000. However, tensions remained, particularly once the Lebanese government decided to exploit the water resources around the Hasbani and develop Lebanon’s impoverished south. Lebanon’s installation of two small pumps at the Wazzani Spring in 2001 and a pumping station in 2002, sparked protests and threats from Israel, which qualified these actions as a cause for war.[15] Israel was concerned that abstraction from the Hasbani Basin would affect the downstream flow of the Jordan River and the level of Lake Tiberias, Israel’s main freshwater reservoir. After mediation by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, tensions diminished when it was pointed out that the amount of water to be extracted (a total of around 10 MCM[16]) was negligible compared to Lebanon’s share of Jordan River basin water under the Johnston Plan[17] (35 MCM/yr). The Wazzani pumping stations were subsequently bombed by Israel during the 2006 war.

Currently, Lebanon uses water in this basin mainly for drinking purposes, but also for the irrigation of around 500 ha. The Lebanese government plans to expand irrigated areas to around 3,000 ha in the region with the construction of the Ibl al-Saqi Dam (50 MCM) on the Hasbani River. Lebanon has announced the construction of the dam via the United Nations as per the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (to which Israel is not a signatory), which stipulates that signatories must give “prior notification of planned measures”. The plan is currently pending.[18]

[1] Shaban, A, 2019. Striking Challenges on Water Resources of Lebanon. Chapter in Hydrology – The Science of Water. Javaid, M (ed.).
[2] MoE (Ministry of Environment), 2020. Lebanon State of the Environment and Future Outlook: Turning the Crises into Opportunities (SoER 2020). With UNHCR, UNICEF and UNDP.
[3] UN-ESCWA and BGR (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia; Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe), 2013. Chapter 7: Orontes River Basin. Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia. Beirut.
[4] The Daily Star, 2011.
[5] Data from the Ministry of Energy and Water in Lebanon, 2002. Al-Assi Dam and Al-Qaa-Hermel Irrigation Project Report Issued by the General Directorate of Hydraulic and Electric Resources in Lebanon.
[6] Ministry of Energy and Water, 2015. Personal communication.
[7] UNESCO, 2015. Science Diplomacy and Trans-boundary Water Management: The Orontes River Case.
[8] Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council, 1994.
[9] Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council, 1997.
[10] Ministry of Energy and Water in Lebanon, 2000. Construction of Noura al-Tahta Dam on El Kabir River, Project Summary Report from a Lebanese Perspective. Beirut.
[11] Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council, 2002.
[12] Ministry of Energy and Water, 2015. Personal communication.
[13] Tishreen, 2009; Hassan et al., 2005.
[14] Ministry of Energy and Water, 2015. Personal communication.
[15] BBC News, 2002.
[16] Including extraction from wells, from the Wazzani pumping station (4.4 MCM/yr) and direct use from the river.
[17] The Johnston Plan was proposed in 1953 and endorsed by Israel but never validated nor applied by Arab countries.
[18] MEW, 2015.