Friday, September 5, 2008

Oyoun Orghosh and Nabha: water feud in the making

In the shadow of the great wall of Dahr el Qadeeb, on the eastern side of Lebanon's highest range, sit the ponds of Oyoun Orghosh. They accumulate the water of the springs (oyoun) emerging from the foot of the steep hill, at 2000m altitude. They are located north of the Yammouneh region, very close to Aynata, along the Yammouneh fault. As in Yammouneh, the Orghosh springs are fed by snowmelt percolating from the huge karstic cuvettes of the hilly summit plateau that include the peaks of Jabal al Mekmel and Qornet al Sawda, both above 3000m.

Oyoun Orghosh is extremely beautiful, or at least it was beautiful 20 years ago. I don't have any photo, but I found this thumb print on the net. I used to go there with my friends and distant relatives, members of the Amhaz `ashira (clan or tribe), who live in the village of Nabha, 1000m downslope, at the limit between the mountain and the Biqa` plain. We used to spend days among the juniper trees, fishing wild trout from the ice cold water. Oyoun Orghosh was uninhabited most of the year, as the snow prevented access for at least 6 months. There were no asphalted roads, and the few people who made it there were either herders and beekeepers from Nabha and the surrounding villages, or pilgrims coming to visit the small church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The water from the ponds was diverted downstream into canals and provided drinking and irrigation water to the villages around Nabha, all the way into the plain, near Harbata. Although located at some distance from Nabha, the region of the Oyoun was considered as part of the masha` of the village, its public grazing lands. However, the church was maintained by people from Bsharreh, on the other side of the mountain. They also considered the Oyoun to be part of their masha`. Usually, this is a recipe for deadly conflicts. Every now and then, the Amhaz and the Tawk, (a big family from Bsharreh), both supported by their allies, would fight in the mountains. A few people would be killed, then a reconciliation would be called and the dead buried. The last feud happened in the early 90's, when the Tawk and the Amhaz shot at each others in the mountains using long range sniper guns. One person was killed from each side, and the local elders called for a truce and obtained it with the help of the Syrian army. Pax Syriana kept things quiet for many years, and the Tawk established their hold on the Oyoun, where they built a number of little restaurants, serving hatchery trout, bad chicken and gunpowder arak, the whole seasoned with loud, distorted Arabic pop. The Tawk also planted apple orchards around the region of the Oyoun and diverted the water to irrigated them. The Nabha lands became dry, and the local people had to truck drinking water in from the deep wells of the plain. As agriculture was dying, and the price of a water truckload was still affordable, things did not evolve beyond the occasional insult match between the Tawk and the Amhaz around a diverted canal or a blocked weir.

Nahbha is a mixed village: the majority of its inhabitants belong to the Shi`a Amhaz `ashira, but there was a significant number of Maronite christians, many of whom belong to the Keyrouz family, which is established in Bsharreh. Around Nabha, there are also a number of small Christian villages, such as Harfoush, which was almost exclusively inhabited by members of the Maronite Tawk family, originally from Bshareh. Incidentally, Harfoush was the name of the Shi`a tribal princes of Baalback, who were defeated and exiled in the 17th century. I guess the Tawk arrived after that and too their place. During the 1975-1991 episode of the Lebanon wars, I think in 1976, most the Keyrouz and the Tawk of Nabha and its surroundings villages who belonged to the Phalanges (right wing Christian party) were attacked and banished from the area, and one village (I think it was Harfoush) was pillaged and many houses burned. The political limits between the warring factions were drawn around the Oyoun, which gave a politico-sectarian dimension to the tribal water war.

The history of water conflicts in this region of the Biqa`-Mount Lebanon is interesting, and repeats itself in different locations of the eastern slope: in Yammouneh and Dar al Wase`a and Bouday, and in Shlifa and Dayr al Ahmar, as well as in Oyoun Orghosh and Nabha. At the basis of the conflict lie the attempt by governing authorities to maximize water efficiency by using water to irrigate the best lands in the plain. I will tell first the story of Yammouneh, because it is better documented than that of Nabha and Orghosh.

In Yammouneh, the French invested, during the mandate in the early 20th century, in a tunnel and a canal network the would carry the water from the Yammouneh springs all the way to the better lands of the plain where annual crops like wheat could be produced. The decision to convey the water rather than use it for irrigating the mountain lands was sound from a regional planning perspective. The most profitable crops were cereals and grain legumes, with a bit of potatoes. These could be produced much more efficiently in the plain. Fruit trees of the mountain such as apples and pears were very rare, and their market limited. Moreover, the hilly lands were not reclaimed into terraced and therefore almost useless. To encourage investment, the French allocated irrigation water from the Yammouneh canals to each parcel in the plain, and included this allocation in the land records, so that people could purchase or rent water and land in one go.

Things worked until the 1960s and 70s when cereal culture declined due to the dumping of subsidized grain on the local market. Concurrently, the cultivation of fruit trees in the mountain lands picked up due to the specialization and export-orientation of the new Lebanese agriculture. So the water started being demanded upstream, nearer its source, while, legally, it still belonged to the downstream user. During the long wars of Lebanon and until the early 90s, things degenerated and there were many feuds between the Shreif family of Yammouneh (Shi`a), the Jaafar clan of Dayr al Wasea (Shi`a) and the families of the villages on the plain (Shi`a and Maronites). Eventually, as is always the case, the upstream parties prevailed and took most of the water by force.

In the 1990's the mood was for reconstruction. Lebanon borrowed many millions of $ from the World Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development and proceeded to rehabilitate the major irrigation schemes, including the Yammouneh scheme. They encouraged the creation of Water User Association as per the textbook, but the water still refused to flow. There was simply not enough water for everybody, and the rehabilitation project could not change the water rights of the people of the plain, it could just encourage them to give part of their water willingly to the upstream farmers. This is very difficult in the real world. While downstream has state law of their side, upstream has the birth law on theirs: where the water sees the light, they say, is where it must be used. The conflict continues, but it is better controlled because the laws are recent and the water rights are integrated into the current land records.

In Nabha and the area around it, the only available records of water rights go back to Ottoman times. It appears that, before the French, the Ottomans tried to organize and regulate land use and allocate water rights to land parcels. They included this information in the "tabu", the land records kept in Istambul. A copy was made for the local tribal chief, and it is kept in Nabha till this day, carefully preserved under a glass frame.

It is this manuscript that the people of Nabha were brandishing yesterday, under the Baalbak municipality, when they demonstrated demanding their share of water, for irrigation and for drinking. I suspect that part of the need is triggered by the fact that we are nearing the end of the cannabis season both in the plain and in the foothills; and that a good dose of water would certainly improve yields significantly. Of course, there is also the fact that people have gotten poorer and the price of fuel has caused the cost of bringing water to the houses to be doubled or tripled. The water is being controlled and blocked, they say, by the Tawk who have established orchards in the mountain and need to irrigate them, and who also must have a few hectares of cannabis tucked into the small flats between the hills. In response to the demands from the people of Nabha, the Tawk are asking for full return and indemnities for the village of Harfoush before they let the water flow. "You have been welcome to come back for many years, and we attend the church service with you in Harfoush" said the Nabha porte-parole according the the article, "but war indemnity, in Harfoush as elsewhere in Lebanon, is the responsibility of the government, not that of citizen". "If the water does not flow again soon after our peaceful demonstration, we will use other means to get what is our right".

Not good.

1 comment:

Ms Levantine said...

Tks for the excellent post.

It is easier to fight with the Anhaz than the Jaafars I guess. At least water fights are not sectarain: there is also a conflict bet. Hasroun and Bazoun in the Bsharreh region for eg.

With global warming it is snowing less in Lebanon, and raining more. Rain water is difficult to channel in our montainous country, so there is less water for everyone.

I have never seen so many water trucks in Beirut than in the last few months.

Lebanon comes from Laban the white color of the mountains in the winter No snow, no water, no Lebanon.

The solution is a plan of small dams, reservoirs and wells, along with a water management policy. Failure to act immediatley will lead to numerous conflicts.

There should be enough water for both highlanders and lowlanders. It is feasable with the right investements.

Then again, you must be the only person living in a 20 kms radius from Beirut who actually cares.


PS: Nabha is North of Yammouneh, on the Southern tip of the Yammouneh fault.