Climate change and politics threaten water wars in Bekaa

In the shadow of Black Peak Mountain in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, an historic feud over irrigation is being slowly re-ignited, illustrating how increased water scarcity is triggering social conflict in Lebanon.

“Nothing’s profitable to grow here. Twenty thousand dunums [nearly 5,000 acres] of farmland is unused,” said Abdel-Wahab Amhaz, head of a Shia Muslim clan in Nabha, in northern Bekaa, home to some 11,000 people.

The Amhaz own most of the land in Nabha, which is irrigated by the Oyoun Orghosh springs further up the mountain.

But when in 1951 a violent feud broke out between the Amhaz and the Tawk, one of the leading Christian families in Nabha, the Tawk relocated 1km up the mountain, establishing restaurants, cherry orchards and a trout-farm around the spring.

The Amhaz say their water supply was hugely reduced as the Tawk diverted water to their orchards, breaking entitlement laws established under the Ottoman Empire.

Eleven people were killed before the two sides ended their feuding in 1991 with the Amhaz making do with what water still came through to them and Hezbollah, the dominant Shia political party, providing salaried employment for those who had not left to seek work in Beirut.

More on water
 JORDAN: Persistent drought could devastate crops
 GLOBAL: Climate change may drown cities
 GLOBAL: Climate change's threat to water needs more study
 GLOBAL: What we are doing about climate change

Today, however, rising temperatures, spiralling population growth and inefficient irrigation are severely straining resources and threatening renewed economic and social breakdown.

Water, water, everywhere?

Lebanon has the highest annual rainfall in the region, averaging 827mm compared to 630mm in Israel, 252mm in Syria and just 154mm in Iraq, according to a paper on climate change and water in Lebanon in the September 2002 Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management.

Yet experts estimate that demand for water in Lebanon will have increased by more than 80 percent by 2025 as Lebanon’s population is expected to grow from four to 7.6 million. In the same period, as a result of climate change, average summer temperatures in the country are predicted to increase by 1.2 degrees centigrade. Rising temperatures mean more water lost to evapotranspiration (from land to the atmosphere). This, in turn, could boost demand for irrigation in the Bekaa’s rich agricultural farmlands by as much as 18 percent, according to Randa Massad, an irrigation expert at the Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute.

“Water shortage is not a new phenomenon in the Bekaa region,” said Massad. “What is new is that it is occurring in an increasingly changed environment and this makes it more serious and long-lasting.”

Photo: Dalia Khamissy/IRIN
Oyoun Orghosh spring in the mountains flanking Lebanon’s Bekaa valley
has been the source of a decades-long feud between rival families

In 2007, the energy and water ministry said Lebanon could have a water deficit by 2010. The ministry is implementing and developing a 10-year water strategy designed to promote integrated water resources management, including controlling unlicensed wells, updating antiquated distribution mechanisms - such as exposed canals that lose water to evaporation - and addressing the lack of wastewater treatment facilities for water reuse.

About 70 percent of wastewater is dumped into cesspools that are polluting groundwater sources, according to the International Development Research Centre.

In a lecture in January to Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, Hamed Assaf, a professor of water resources engineering at the American University of Beirut, urged regional governments to practice “water demand management”.

High water demand, negligence over water quality and over-pumping are more serious threats to the region's water supply than the potential impacts of climate change, argued Assaf.

Drier days

But up the mountain in Oyoun Orghosh, Milhem Tawk, the family elder, claimed falling rain levels is the main problem. “If the water doesn’t get down to them [Amhaz], it’s not because of us, it’s because it’s not raining,” he said.

Though many households in the Bekaa grow their own fruit and vegetables, the diversion of the Orghosh spring has meant Nabha’s farmers have been unable to grow fruit on a commercial scale since the 1960s.

Across areas of the northern Bekaa with better irrigation, many farmers have turned land over to growing water-thirsty but economically lucrative hashish plants – totalling some 16,000 acres of land, according to the 2007 UN World Drug Report.

Photo: Dalia Khamissy/IRIN
warn that climate change could increase irrigation demands in the Bekaa
by one fifth, triggering further confrontation

Last September, Nabha’s declining water supply triggered demonstrations in front of Baalbek municipality with protesters demanding the government take action to guarantee the fair distribution of Oyoun Orghush water.

“The only people that can solve this problem are the government,” said Bishop Somaan Attala, who has been involved in mediating the dispute. “They have promised to invest in improving the water supply, but they don’t. They should, because tensions are rising.”

The Bekaa is criss-crossed with tribal, sectarian and political faultlines, which water scarcity can easily provoke. The valley is an economically underdeveloped area where more than 40 percent of residents are dependent on agriculture as their main source of living, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

“Lebanon will be very seriously affected by climate change,” said Hussein Amery, an expert on water conflict in the Middle East. “When you have bad blood and a history of conflict, water becomes a trigger.”