AMSHEET, Lebanon (AFP) – Rose Hatem’s home overlooks the Mediterranean and is just a short distance from one of Lebanon’s longest rivers. But twice a week the 60-year-old has to buy water for her daily needs.

“I have been buying in water since I moved here 14 years ago,” Hatem told AFP in the picturesque village of Amsheet, north of the Lebanese capital Beirut. “In the summer, when demand is high, I’m often left without a drop.” Hers is a story repeated across Lebanon, one of the rare countries in the Middle East considered relatively rich in water.

But many people still have to buy it because of a lack of a proper supply network and effective conservation.

Experts warn that unless Lebanon takes proper measures to protect its precious water resources, little will be left for future generations as the population, which currently stands at four million, increases.

Fadi Comair, who heads hydraulic and electrical resources at the energy and water ministry, said that unless the problem is addressed – and quickly – Lebanon could even run dry within four years.

“There is no miracle solution,” he said. “We need to build dams, artificial lakes, a new network and work hand in hand with the private sector.”

“If you take into account population increase and climate change, we have enough water to last us another four years, until 2015,” Comair said.

It is a warning that hits home hard where it hurts the most.

“As we celebrate World Water Day on Monday we must reflect on the fact that Lebanon should be exporting this resource rather than sitting by and watching it slowly diminish,” said Antoine Issa, head of the local council in Amsheet.

“This is a blessing and we have no idea how to preserve it.” The tiny country bordering Syria and Israel has no fewer than 40 major streams, 2,000 springs and numerous waterfalls that form each year with the melting snow.

But the 1975-1990 civil war and years of political unrest have relegated the water issue to the backburner. Water rights are also a constant source of dispute between Lebanon and Israel, where the resource is even more scarce.

Comair said Lebanon annually has an average 2.1 billion cubic metres of renewable hydraulic resources.

“We use about a billion of that as drinking water or for irrigation and industrial purposes,” Comair said. “The rest – meaning more than half – is dumped in the Mediterranean.” The fact that much of the country’s sewage is channelled into the sea rather than recycled compounds Lebanon’s water problem, he said.

“Not only are we polluting the Mediterranean but this water is very valuable economically and could be used for irrigation or other purposes,” Comair said.

“Instead we end up using fresh water for irrigation, and that’s catastrophic.” Experts also say that many rivers, including the Nahr Al Kabeer and Orontes shared by Lebanon and Syria and the Wazzani and Hasbani shared with Israel, are not exploited, partly because of their strategic location.

“Water is a sensitive political issue and it’s true that any attempt by the state to exploit its rivers in the south would meet with a reaction from Israel,” said Nadim Farajalla, professor of hydrology and water at the American University of Beirut.

“But if we don’t do anything there will come a point where the international community will tell us that we have lost our rights to exploit this water,” he added.

“We lack a global vision as concerns water and badly manage this resource.” A sad example of waste is the northern Akkar region, one of the country’s poorest, where a mere 54 per cent of homes are connected to the public water grid despite the area being rich in underground water.

“Even those connected don’t always have water because the infrastructure is so outdated and there are huge leaks,” said Aisha Mushref, who works with Mada, a non-governmental organisation that carried out a study on the issue titled “Forgotten Akkar”. “People in this region still have to go and fetch water from the river.”