Report: U.S. Expert to Ask Lebanon to Delay Wazzani Pumping

Daniel Sobelman, Ha' Agencies
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Daniel Sobelman, Ha' Agencies

Following a test pumping from the Wazzani River in Lebanon on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in Paris for talks with President Chirac, said that Israel would not accept attempts by the Lebanese to divert water from the river, Army radio reported.

Chirac told Peres that he will bring up the matter in his upcoming meeting with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

Lebanon pumped water on Wednesday from the Wazzani River, testing for the first time a project to draw water from the river that also feeds Israel.

The test pumping of the Wazzani water, which both Israel and Lebanon claim they need, was scheduled for Monday, but delayed for "technical reasons". The project director denied that the postponement was due to political considerations. The decision to pump water from the Wazzani to the surrounding villages appears to have the support of all political factions in Lebanon.

"The project can provide between two to four million cubic metres of water annually, depending on whether the pumps are used 12 or 24 hours a day," said Lebanese official Qabalan Qabalan, head of the Council of the South which is responsible for the project.

Israel has said it takes a "grave view" of Lebanese plans to tap the Wazzani, a tributary of the Hatzbani, which feeds the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest freshwater reservoir.

Washington, seeking to avoid a regional flare-up as it readies for a possible strike on Iraq, has sent envoys to Beirut over the past month to try and defuse the row.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher urged both sides on Tuesday not to escalate the dispute.

"It's not in the interest of either side for this to become a source of escalation or provocation or for an issue like basic water needs to be politicised," Boucher said. "We continue to urge both sides... to avoid unilateral steps."

Israel has said it will not agree to water being diverted from its sources. Lebanon says its planned water use - up from seven million cubic metres now - is within its rights under international law.

The government in Beirut has decided to send a dossier to the UN outlining what it sees as Lebanon's right to the water. The file was compiled by a committee headed by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. According to reports from Beirut earlier this week, it was Nabi Beri, leader of the Amal Shi'ite movement, who initiated the Wazzani project.

The Daily Star, considered a liberal paper that has promoted the idea of peace with Israel, devoted its editorial Tuesday to the Wazzani conflict, accusing Israel of racism toward Lebanon. Israel would like its citizens to have water for their lawns when the Lebanese villagers, a few hundred meters away, do not even have drinking water, the paper charged.

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