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Abstract The El-Kabir River watershed is the largest in western Lebanon and is shared between Lebanon and Syria. The river forms most of the northern boundary of Lebanon with Syria, being characterized by water flow throughout the year. The characteristics of the river and its variable hydrologic properties are the result of abrupt changes in land physiography. Until recently, data on Lebanese rivers was inadequate, especially for rivers shared with other countries. The El-Kabir River watershed typifies this situation, particularly when the river has undergone many changes, including water pollution and declining discharge because of changing climate and increased pollution. This study was implemented in the context of a large investigation of the watershed which was funded by the International Development Research Council, Canada, for the purpose of improving the baseline data and knowledge required to effectively manage this important resource. Within the water cycle, ≈ 250 × 106 m3 of precipitation falls on the Lebanese side. Of this volume, ≈ 50% is lost as evaporation and transpiration, while 5–50% of the remainder infiltrates to ground water, with the residual becoming land run-off. An obvious decline of ≈ 40% of the total river discharge of the river has occurred over the last 50 years. It can be explained by climate change and by water extraction associated with dramatic increases in population and associated land uses. The hydraulic configuration and characteristics of the river have two major orientations; namely, NE–SW and E–W. These orientations are the product of geological structure and lithologies. Furthermore, each has different hydrologic properties related to watershed size, elevation, slope, catchment shape and orientation, although both orientations are directly inter-related.