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Tensions Overshadow Inauguration of Lebanon's Water Pump Project - 2002-10-16


Lebanon has inaugurated a controversial project to pump water to villages in southern Lebanon. The move drew an immediate warning from Israel, which says the project will limit the water that flows into the Sea of Galilee - Israel's biggest freshwater reservoir.

As more than 7,000 Lebanese and a group of international observers looked on, Lebanon Parliament speaker Nabih Berri said, "In the name of the Lebanese people, I declare the opening of the pumping station."

Within minutes, Israel's foreign minister, Shimon Peres, told parliament in Jerusalem that Israel would not tolerate unilateral measures by Lebanon. The foreign minister said Israel reserves the right to defend its water resources.

Lebanon plans to pump about 10 million cubic meters of water annually from a spring that feeds into the Wazzani River. The drinking water will be diverted to 40 Lebanese villages along the Israeli border.

Israel is alarmed because the Wazzani is a tributary of the Jordan River, which feeds into Israel's main fresh water source, the Sea of Galilee. Israeli officials argue Lebanon does not have the right to divert the water. Israel has said water could be pumped from Lebanon's Litani River that does not have any impact outside of Lebanon.

Last month, after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon threatened war over the pumping project, U.S. officials were dispatched to the region in an effort to calm tensions over the project.

The U.S. officials sought to get Lebanon to agree to postpone the project, but Lebanon refused and began pumping water.

Representatives from France, Britain, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations attended the ceremony to begin pumping, along with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. U.S. officials did not attend.