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Israeli strikes on Lebanese watersheds questioned

Kim Murphy

Originally published August 10, 2006

QASMIYA, Lebanon // Israeli bombing has knocked out irrigation canals supplying Litani River water to more than 10,000 acres of farmland and 23 villages in southern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, raising accusations here that Israel is using its war on Hezbollah to lay claim to Lebanon's prime watersheds.

Heavy fighting and a series of targeted strikes on open water channels and underground water diversion pipes has effectively suspended much of Lebanon's agricultural use of the Litani River along the coastal plain and in parts of the Bekaa Valley near Qaraon dam, according to water engineers who have surveyed the south.

The damaged or broken facilities include a pump station on the Wazzani River, whose inauguration by Lebanon in 2002 prompted Israel to threaten military action because it diverted waters only a few hundred meters from the Israeli border, in a watershed that feeds the Jordan River, officials here said. At the time, Hezbollah vowed to defend the facility.

The strikes went largely unnoticed by the outside world in the nearly monthlong air assault on Hezbollah guerrilla strongholds in southern Lebanon. But Lebanese point to the extensive damage to their irrigation and drinking-water system as evidence that border security and water issues remain intertwined in a region short on both.

"Whenever Israel throughout history has thought of its northern border, they don't talk, for example, of the mountains as a border. They always think of the valley of the Litani," said Mohammed Shaya, dean of the college of social sciences at Lebanese University.

Israel has said repeatedly that it has no designs on Lebanon's water. "There's a policy decision at the highest level not to target those water pumping stations," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry. "We don't claim an inch of Lebanese sovereign territory. We don't claim a gallon of Lebanese water. We have no hostile intentions whatever towards Lebanon as a country, towards the Lebanese people or towards Lebanese natural resources."

But the enduring suspicion here that Israel regards the waters of the Litani as its own, and the lands to its south as a security perimeter help explain Lebanon's reluctance to accept any U.N. cease-fire resolution that does not call for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from the region.

At a minimum, Lebanese officials fear that the repeated attacks against water facilities - as well as bridges, highways, power plants and roads - signal an intent to debilitate Hezbollah-dominated southern Lebanon and enable a long-term Israeli presence there.

"They started [bombing] with the Litani water reservoir, the Litani dam. And we all know that the Litani has a special place in this country," said Fadl Shalaq, president of the Council for Reconstruction and Development. "It's a big reservoir of water, and the Israelis don't hide it that there are several parts of the Litani that they would like to take for themselves."

Officials in southern Lebanon said the attacks have hit not only bridges, but open water canals, crippling irrigation to thousands of acres in the Tyre region and in the Bekaa Valley.

During fighting near the Wazzani springs, a guard at the pump station was killed, the pump was knocked out of service and the underground pipes through which water is transported were heavily damaged, said Hussein Ramal, an engineer for the Litani Authority, which operates irrigation systems in the region. "Now every one of these villages is without water," he said.

The Litani flows 102 miles, entirely within Lebanon. It courses south through eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, before turning sharply westward two miles from the Israeli border, to head through the coastal plain to the Mediterranean, north of Tyre.

Israel has always argued that much of the Litani flows wasted to the sea.

A large portion of the river's flow is diverted to a series of hydropower dams, leaving relatively little for irrigation in southern Lebanon. But the Lebanese government had planned to bid a $200 million contract this summer to irrigate major new sections of southern Lebanon.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times


:: Article nr. 25674 sent on 12-aug-2006 00:55 ECT

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