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The other key to Mideast peace

How water, or the lack of it, fuels conflict among neighbors in Lebanon and beyond.

BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon — Camille Fakhry sips coffee beneath the fig trees in his hilltop garden and points to a concrete water canal beveled into the adjacent slope. Built in the 1930s by the French, the canal — which runs between Btedi, a Maronite Christian village of 20,000, and Chlifa, a slightly bigger Shia town — delivers fresh water from Lake Yammouneh.

Until the early 1990s, Christians, Shia and Sunni clashed regularly over water in the Bekaa, Lebanon’s primary agricultural region. There were scores of fatalities. Today, farmers in Chlifa and Btedi split the water 60/40, with the Lebanese Army on site 24 hours a day to enforce the accord.

“We don’t fight over water anymore,” said Fakhry, a farm equipment sales representative who also serves as mayor of Btedi. “But there are more and more people moving here every year, more fields to irrigate and less rain falling. I don’t know how we’ll manage in the future.”

Water has long been a source of conflict in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. Skirmishes between Israeli and Arab forces in 1964 over Jordan River tributaries in Lebanon and Syria were a decisive prelude to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In 1974 Syria and Iraq massed troops at their common border when the Al Thawra dam in northern Syria throttled the Euphrates’ flow into Iraq.

Egypt has repeatedly declared it would consider attempts by southern neighbors to divert the Blue Nile as an act of war.

Several factors, including spiking regional water demand and slumping supplies, make the current situation even more explosive.

U.N. estimates show the population around the southern Mediterranean basin to be growing at nearly 3 percent a year. Climate models project a regional mean temperature bump of between 3.6 and 4.8 degrees Farenheit by 2025. Both Syria and Iraq are experiencing severe droughts that have created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

"Governments don’t ever mass their troops or go to war for a single reason," said Hussein Amery, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines and an expert on water and conflict in the Middle East. "But given these trends, water will play an increasingly critical role in stability and security in this region."

In addition to climate change and expanding populations, Amery believes that changing lifestyles will also strain the region’s tenuous supplies and further ramp up tension. "Many people in the region want to improve the quality of their lives,” he said. "They want lush lawns, swimming pools, McDonald’s. They may not realize how much water that lifestyle requires, or that you need 15,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of beef."

The water outlook in Lebanon is particularly grim. At current growth rates, the population is expected to jump from 4 million to 7.6 million by 2025, with supplies of fresh water diminishing by as much as half. Lebanon’s water usage is highly inefficient; nearly 70 percent of used water is dumped into sewers and cesspools, from where it flows into the sea. The looming drought could spark hostilities in a country already torn by sectarian violence and squeezed by hostile neighbors on its southern and northern borders.