The Litani river of Lebanon and  the desire of Israel to obtain additional water sources.

Author: Wadih El Khazen.


More forcefully than ever, it has become evident that the next casus belli in the Middle East will be control and use of water. Security of water supply is becoming at least as important as territorial security. Thus resolution of water-related issues is essential for the success of the Arab-Israeli peace process which is now at an ,almost, complete halt. Many Israeli policymakers view the water supply from the Litani River as a promising solution to their country’s impending water crisis. However, the Litani River, whose entire basin is in Lebanon , is crucial for rebuilding and effectively integrating the country in the post-civil-war period. Specifically, the waters of the Litani are essential for agricultural and industrial development of southern Lebanon. This competition for water, a prized resource in a water-scarce region, makes the Litani river a potential source of serious international conflict in the future and complicates the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The conceptual premise of the analysis presented here is that The Sate Of Israel, suffering from water resources scarcities, will try to reach those waters beyond its  borders using all sorts of pressures including coercive actions  involving the military.

This article  examines the hydropolitics of the Middle East, through a case study of the Litani River of Lebanon. The main thesis is that has been a primary influence on geostrategic interactions of Israel and its Arab neighbors. Israeli efforts to utilize the waters of the Litani help explain the continued tension  in southern Lebanon. The apparent intention of Israel to retain access to the river makes it difficult for Lebanon, at this stage, to regain political stability and economic viability


Because of current Israeli utilization of all its renewable water resources and the predicted annual water deficit of 500 to 600 million cubic meters, the water-rich area in southern Lebanon raises questions about Israel’s hydrological imperative. Israel has had historical interest in the Litani River, whose entire flow is within the borders of Lebanon. The river rises in the northern Bekaa Valley and runs southward to Beaufort Castle, where it turns westward to the Mediterranean Sea. Diverting the Litani’s water southward is an old proposal, first suggested in 1905 by an engineer who concluded that the waters of the Jordan basin would be insufficient for the future needs of Palestine, he recommended that waters from the Litani River be diverted into the Hasbani River, a tributary of the Jordan basin.

Prestatehood jewish interests in the Litani river were made explicit in letters from Haim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) , to various British governmental officials in 1919 and 1920 . In a letter to Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Weizmann argued that Lebanon was "well watered" and that the river was "valueless to the territory north of the proposed frontiers. They can be used beneficially in the country much further south."


 Weizmann concluded that the WZO considered the Litani valley "for a distance of 25 miles above the bend" of the river essential to the future of the Jewish "national home"

Nevertheless, the British and the French mandate powers retained the Litani basin entirely in Lebanon. David Ben-Gurion, a leading Zionist and the first prime minister of Israel, suggested to a 1941 international commission on the question of Palestine that the Litani be included in the borders of the future Jewish state. The commission recommended that seven-eighths of the river’s waters be leased to Israel.

Access to the Litani River was a concern during Israel’s formative years. The diaries of Moshe Sharett, an Israeli prime minister during the mid-1950s, reveal that Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, chief of staff and defense minister, were strong advocates of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon to the Litani River . In the wake of the 1967 war and in view of Israeli territorial gains from three of its four neighbors, Dayan reiterated his long-standing opinion that Israel had achieved "provisionally satisfying frontiers, with the exception of those with Lebanon" .

Decision makers who perceive scarcities in their own state will meet demands by using their specialized capabilities to control territory and people farther and farther from its boundaries. Specialized capabilities, including political influence, economic performance, and military skill and hardware, tend to determine the type of peaceful or coercive pressure that a resource-deficient but capability-rich state can apply to improve its access to foreign resources. Israel’s water scarcity is leading to high-risk strategies that it can use with confidence because its military, economic, and political capabilities are superior to those of Lebanon.

The hyrdostrategic significance of southern Lebanon is rarely considered as an explanation of past Israeli occupation of the security zone there. The zone stretched along the northern border of Israel and straddled the westward bend of the Litani river. Israel unilaterally established the zone in 1978, after Israeli troops invaded and remained as a hegemonic occupier. Although there were between one and two thousand Israeli troops in the zone, it was controlled and administered by a Christian Lebanese army general who headed the South Lebanese Army (SLA). Trained, equipped, and paid by the Israeli government, the SLA was nonetheless a quasi-militia, composed of Lebanese. The zone had 850 square kilometers, with 85 villages and a population of approximately 180,000.

Shortly after establishing the zone, the Israeli army prohibited drilling of wells there . Moreover, after the 1982 invasion, Israeli army engineers carried out seismic soundings and surveys near the westward bend of the river, probably to determine the optimum place for a diversion tunnel, and confiscated hydrographical charts and technical documents of the river and its installations from the Litani Water Authority offices in the Bekaa and Beirut .Israel also controlled most or all of the waters from the Hasbani and Wazzani rivers, which rise in Lebanon. Over the years, there have been reports of water siphoning from the Litani into the Jordan River basin, a distance of less than ten kilometers .


The average annual flow of the Litani River is estimated at 920 million cubic meters, of which an estimated 480 million cubic meters is measured at the Khardali Bridge near the westward bend of the stream. Before the river empties into the Mediterranean Sea, an estimated 125 million cubic meters of water is consumed in the Kasmieh irrigation project. During the occupation of southern Lebanon and continued access to the Litani, The Israeli government tried to increase the annual water supply of Israel by up to 800 million cubic meters , or approximately 40 percent of its current annual water consumption without any major success due to the difficulties that arised with the intensification of guerilla fares of the Hezbollah.

Another attraction of the Litani River is the high quality of its water. The salinity level is only 20 parts per million, whereas that of the Sea of Galilee is 250 to 350 parts per million. Many aquifers in Israel are stressed, especially along the coast, and the water in them is increasingly brackish. The water of the Litani would lower the saline level of the Sea of Galilee, from which the National Water Carrier channels water to much of the country. "It is this purity that makes the Litani very attractive to the Israelis.

The weak post-civil-war Lebanese government and Israel’s continued occupation of the security zone made it difficult to prevent an Israeli role in the use of Litani waters. This could be accomplished through bilateral negotiations.


The Litani River basin is predominantly inhabited by Shia Muslims, the largest sect of the country, who are estimated to number more than 850,000. The largely rural Shia community has historically complained that the central government neglects it. Moreover, the political instability in the south, primarily the result of Israeli and Palestinian presences, has given the Lebanese government even less incentive to assert its authority and a justification for the absence of development projects in this largely agricultural area.

The Litani Project, planned in the early 1950s, envisaged the irrigation of 20,000 hectares in the south and 10,000 hectares on the Bekaa  plain. Electrical power for much of Lebanon was to be provided by six hydroelectric stations. The project is decades behind its planned completion date. The northern portion of the project, located in the western Bekaa administrative unit, is more or less complete, but the government has yet to implement the southern part of the project. Currently, fewer than 50,000 hectares are under irrigation in all of Lebanon, which is a very small area compared with the estimated need of 360,000 hectares. A Ministry of Irrigation study also reported that the south and the Bekaa provinces require one billion cubic meters of water annually, of which 800 million cubic meters would be used for agriculture, 85 million cubic meters for domestic consumption, and 115 million cubic meters for industry. Harnessing the water of the Litani is essential to the industrial and agricultural development of southern Lebanon.




Any future scheme to divert the river from its basin violates the principles of international law. Water within one catchment area should not be diverted outside that area regardless of political boundaries until all needs of those within the catchment area are satisfied. In the Bekaa , immediately north of the springs where the Litani rises, twenty-two villages lack domestic running water, and in the south there are at least thirty-six such villages. If Israel shares or unilaterally diverts the river, the result would be continued instability in Lebanon .


Transboundary water resources in the arid Middle East have long been the source of conflict. The modern quest for industrial and agricultural development rests on greater generation of hydroelectric power and on higher levels of water consumption for irrigation.

 Occupation of the West Bank and the convoitise of the Litani area in southern Lebanon provides Israel with the political and territorial conditions necessary to mitigate the effects of the rapidly approaching water crisis.

Israel is interpreted as being motivated largely by environmental prudence in re-extending its sphere of influence into southern Lebanon. Israeli desire to gain access to the Litani water resources serves its national interest, but to the detriment of Lebanon.

 If, in an effort to exercise authority throughout the country, the Lebanese government agrees to any sort of sharing of the Litani waters, Lebanon might face another challenge to stability.



Beirut, 15th December 2001.



Wadih El Khazen.