Cover Image
close this bookCentral Eurasian Water Crisis: Caspian, Aral, and Dead Seas (UNU, 1998, 203 pages)
close this folderPart IV: The Dead Sea
close this folder10. Principles for confidence-building measures in the Jordan River watershed
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentBackground
View the documentHydrography
View the documentInternational water rights law
View the documentCooperative watershed development
View the documentTechnological and management alternatives for the future
View the documentConclusions
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentNotes
View the documentReferences
Expanding the text here will generate a large amount of data for your browser to display


The fluctuating waters of the ancient Middle East have given rise to legend, extensive water law, and the roots of modern hydrology: the flood experienced by Noah is thought to have centred its devastation around the Babylonian city of Ur, submerging the southern part of the Euphrates for about 150 days, while the code of King Hammurabi contains as many as 300 sections dealing with irrigation. The practice of field surveying was invented to help harness the flooding Nile (El-Yussif, 1983). In addition, the waters of the region were occasionally intertwined with military strategy as, for instance, when Joshua directed his priests to stem the Jordan's flow with the power of the Ark of the Covenant, while he and his army marched across the dry river bed to attack Jericho (Joshua 4).

In the centuries since, the inhabitants of the region and the conquering nations that flourished and disappeared have lived mostly within the limits of their water resources, using combinations of surface and well water for survival and livelihood (Beaumont, 1991, p. 1). At the beginning of the twentieth century, as the competing nationalisms of Jews and Arabs began to re-emerge from the ruins of the Ottoman empire, the quest for resources took on a new and vital dimension.

In the years that followed World War I, the location of water resources influenced the boundaries, first between the British and French mandate powers that acquired control over the region, and then between the states that developed subsequently. The Zionist border formulation for a "national home" presented at the Paris Peace Talks in 1919, for example, was determined by three criteria: historic, strategic, and economic, with economic considerations being defined almost entirely by water resources. The entire Zionist programme of immigration and settlement required water for large-scale irrigation and, in a land with no fossil fuels, for hydropower. The development plans, and the boundaries that were required, were "completely dependent" on the acquisition of the "headwaters the Jordan, the Litani River, the snows of Hermon, the Yarmuk and its tributaries, and the Jabbok" (Ra'anan, 1955, p. 87).

Between World Wars I and II, water became the focus of the greater political argument over how to develop the budding states around the Jordan watershed, particularly Israel and Jordan, and what the "economic absorptive capacity" would be for immigration. Development plans included the Ionides Plan (1939), a British study that suggested that water would be a limiting factor for any additional immigration to Palestine, and the Lowdermilk Plan (1944), which suggested in contrast that, with proper water management, resources would be generated for 4 million refugees in addition to the 1.8 million Arabs and Jews living in Palestine at the time. British policy makers came down on the side of the Ionides Plan, invoking "economic absorptive capacity" to limit Jewish immigration and land transfers for the duration of World War II.

As the borders of the new states were defined, sometimes by warfare, in the 1950s and 1960s, each country began to develop its own water resources unilaterally. On the Jordan River, the legacy of the Mandate and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war was a river divided in a manner in which conflict over water resource development was inevitable. By the early 1950s, Arab states were discussing organized exploitation of two northern sources of the Jordan - the Hasbani and the Banias (Stevens, 1965, p. 38). The Israelis also made public their All Israel Plan, which included the draining of Huleh Lake and swamps, diversion of the northern Jordan River, and construction of a carrier to the coastal plain and Negev Desert - the first out-of-basin transfer for the watershed (Naff and Matson, 1984, p. 35).

In 1951, Jordan announced a plan to irrigate the East Ghor of the Jordan Valley by tapping the Yarmuk. At Jordan's announcement, Israel closed the gates of an existing dam south of the Sea of Galilee and began draining the Huleh swamps, which lay within the demilitarized zone with Syria. These actions led to a series of border skirmishes between Israel and Syria, which escalated during the summer of 1951 (Stevens, 1965, p. 39). In July 1953, Israel began construction on the intake of its National Water Carrier at the Daughters of Jacob Bridge (Gesher B'not Ya'akov) north of the Sea of Galilee and in the demilitarized zone. Syria deployed its armed forces along the border and artillery units opened fire on the construction and engineering sites (Cooley, 1984, pp. 3 and 10). Syria also protested to the United Nations and, although a 1954 resolution for the resumption of work by Israel carried a majority, the USSR vetoed the resolution. The Israelis then moved the intake to its current site at Eshed Kinrot on the north-western shore of the Sea of Galilee (Garbell, 1965, p. 30).

Against this tense background, President Dwight Eisenhower sent his special envoy Eric Johnston to the Middle East in October 1953 to try to mediate a comprehensive settlement of the Jordan River system allocations (Main, 1953). Johnston's initial proposals were based on a study carried out by Charles Main and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) at the request of the United Nations to develop the area's water resources and to provide for refugee resettlement.

The major features of the Main Plan included small dams on the Hasbani, Dan, and Banias, a medium-size (175 million m3 storage) dam at Maqarin, additional storage in the Sea of Galilee, and gravity-flow canals down both sides of the Jordan Valley. The Main Plan did not include the Litani River and described only in-basin use of the Jordan River water, although it conceded that "it is recognized that each of these countries may have different ideas about the specific areas within their boundaries to which these waters might be directed" (Main, 1953). Preliminary allocations gave Israel 394 million m3 (MCM) per year, Jordan 774 MCM/yr, and Syria 45 MCM/yr.

Both Israel and a united Arab League Technical Committee responded with their own counterproposals, and Johnston worked until the end of 1955 to reconcile these proposals in a Unified Plan amenable to each of the states involved. In the Unified Plan, Johnston accomplished no small degree of compromise. Although they had not met face to face for these negotiations, all states agreed on the need for a regional approach. Israel gave up on inclusion of the Litani and the Arabs agreed to allow an out-of-basin transfer. The Arabs objected, but finally agreed, to storage at both the Maqarin Dam and the Sea of Galilee, so long as neither side would have physical control over the share available to the other. Israel objected, but finally agreed, to international supervision of withdrawals and construction. Allocations under the Unified Plan, later known as the Johnston Plan, included 400 MCM/yr to Israel, 720 MCM/yr to Jordan, 132 MCM/yr to Syria, and 35 MCM/yr to Lebanon (US Department of State, unpublished summaries, 1955, 1956; see also Naff and Matson, 1984, p. 42).

The technical committees from both sides accepted the Unified Plan, but forward momentum died out in the political realm; the plan was never ratified. Nevertheless, Israel and Jordan have generally adhered to the Johnston allocations, and technical representatives from both countries continue to meet two or three times a year at "Picnic Table Talks" (named for the site at the confluence of the Yarmuk and Jordan Rivers where the meetings are held) to discuss flow rates and allocations (Wolf, 1995).

As each state developed its water resources unilaterally their plans began to overlap. By 1964, for instance, Israel had completed enough of the construction of its National Water Carrier that actual diversions from the Jordan River basin to the coastal plain and the Negev were imminent. Although Jordan was also about to begin extracting Yarmuk water for its East Ghor Canal, it was the Israeli diversion that prompted President Nasser to call for the First Arab Summit in January 1964 of the heads of state from the region and North Africa, specifically to discuss a joint strategy on water.

The options presented at the Summit were to complain to the United Nations, to divert the upper Jordan tributaries into Arab states (as had been discussed by Syria and Jordan since 1953), or to go to war (Schmida, 1983, p. 19). The decision to divert the rivers prevailed at a Second Summit in September 1964, when the Arab states agreed to finance a Headwater Diversion project in Lebanon and Syria and to help Jordan build a dam on the Yarmuk. They also made tentative military plans to defend the diversion project (Shemesh, 1988, p. 38).

In 1964 Israel began withdrawing 320 MCM/yr of Jordan water for its National Water Carrier and Jordan completed a major phase of its East Ghor Canal (Inbar and Maos, 1984, p. 21). In 1965, the Arab states began construction of their Headwater Diversion Plan to prevent the Jordan headwaters from reaching Israel. The plan was to divert the Hasbani into the Litani in Lebanon and to divert the Banias into the Yarmuk, where it would be impounded by a dam at Mukhaiba for Jordan and Syria. This plan would divert up to 125 MCM/yr, cut by 35 per cent the installed capacity of the Israeli Carrier, and increase the salinity in the Sea of Galilee by 60 parts per million (ppm) (US Central Intelligence Agency, 1962; Inbar and Maos,1984, p. 22; Naff and Matson, 1984, p. 43). The Israeli army attacked the diversion works in Syria in March, May, and August of 1965.

These events set off what has been called "a prolonged chain reaction of border violence that linked directly to the events that led to the [June 1967] war" (Safran cited in Cooley, 1984, p. 16). Border incidents continued between Israel and Syria, triggering air battles in July 1966 and April 1967 and, finally, all-out war in June 1967.

With the territorial gains and improvements in geostrategic positioning that Israel achieved in the June 1967 war, Israel also improved its "hydrostrategic" position (see fig. 10.1). With control of the Golan Heights, it now held all of the headwaters of the Jordan, with the exception of a section of the Hasbani, and an overlook over much of the Yarmuk. Together these made the Headwaters Diversion impossible. The West Bank now controlled by Israel not only provided riparian access to the entire length of the Jordan River but it overlay three major aquifers, two of which flow west and north-west into Israel and had been tapped into from Israel's side of the Green Line since 1955 (Garbell, 1965, p. 30). The third flows east to the Jordan Valley. Jordan had planned to transport 70-150 MCM/yr from the Yarmuk River to the West Bank; these plans were abandoned.

When Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the territory it captured included the recharge areas for the three aquifers. The entire renewable recharge of the first two aquifers is already being exploited and the recharge of the third is close to being depleted as well. In the years of Israeli occupation, a growing West Bank and Gaza population, along with burgeoning Jewish settlements, have increased the pressures on the limited groundwater supply, resulting in an exacerbation of already tense political relations. Palestinians have objected strenuously to Israeli control of local water resources and to the development of settlements that they see as being at their territorial and hydrological expense (see, for example, Davis et al., 1980; Dillman, 1989; Zarour and Isaac, 1993). Israeli authorities view hydrological control in the West Bank as defensive. With about 30 per cent of Israeli water originating on the West Bank, the Israelis perceive the necessity to limit groundwater exploitation in these territories in order to protect the resources themselves and their wells from salt-water intrusion (Gwen, 1991).

By 1991, several events combined to shift the emphasis on the potential for "hydro-conflict" in the Middle East to the potential for "hydro-cooperation." The first event was a natural one, but limited to the Jordan basin. Three years of below-average precipitation caused a dramatic tightening in the water management practices of each of the riparians, including rationing, cut-backs to agriculture by as much as 30 per cent, and the restructuring of water pricing and allocation. Although these steps placed short-term hardships on those affected, they also showed that, for years of normal rainfall, there was still some flexibility in the system. Most water decision makers agree that these steps, particularly regarding pricing practices and allocations to agriculture, were long overdue.

Fig. 10.1 The Jordan River: International borders, 1967 to the present, and water diversions (Source: Wolf, 1995)

The next series of events were geopolitical and region-wide. The Persian Gulf War in 1990 and the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a realignment of political alliances in the Middle East that finally made possible the first public face-to-face peace talks between Arabs and Israelis, in Madrid, Spain, on 30 October 1991. During the bilateral negotiations between Israel and each of its neighbours, it was agreed that a second track should be established for multilateral negotiations on five subjects deemed "regional," including water resources. Although the pace of the peace talks has been at times arduously slow,1 a venue does finally exist where grievances can be aired and the issue of water-sharing equity can be tackled. In itself, this may help prevent some of the pressures that have historically led to some of the most bitter water conflicts in the world.