Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Nahr el Kabir River & more

The Nahr el-Kebir River in Lebanon, which is plagued by water hyancinth. Photo: Joelle Comair.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] The river is severely polluted and water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic weed, has clogged waterways and irrigation canals throughout the river course.[4]

The Orontes River in Lebanon. Photo: Joelle Comair.
The Orontes River in Lebanon. Photo: Joelle Comair.

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 (Fig. 8). 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.[5]

Figure 8. Cooperation structures between Lebanon and Syria. Source: Fanack based on UN-ESCWA and BGR, 2013; personal communication with MEW, 2015.
Figure 8. Cooperation structures between Lebanon and Syria. Source: Fanack based on UN-ESCWA and BGR, 2013; personal communication with MEW, 2015.

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.[6] 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[7]) was negligible compared to Lebanon’s share of Jordan River basin water under the Johnston Plan[8] (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.[9]

[1] 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.
[2] Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council, 2002.
[3] Ministry of Energy and Water, 2015. Personal communication.
[4] Tishreen, 2009; Hassan et al., 2005.
[5] Ministry of Energy and Water, 2015. Personal communication.
[6] BBC News, 2002.[7] Including extraction from wells, from the Wazzani pumping station (4.4 MCM/yr) and direct use from the river.
[8] The Johnston Plan was proposed in 1953 and endorsed by Israel but never validated nor applied by Arab countries.
[9] MEW, 2015.