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close this bookHydropolitics along the Jordan River. Scarce Water and Its Impact on the Arab-Israeli Conflict (UNU, 1995, 272 pages)
close this folder2. Hydrography and history
close this folderHistory - Water conflict and cooperation
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentThe emergence of agriculture and nationalism
View the documentPre-1923: The shaping of modern nations
View the document1923-1948: Nationalism, immigration, and "economic absorptive capacity"
View the document1948-1964: Unilateral development and the Johnston negotiations
View the document1964-1982: "Water Wars" and territorial adjustments
View the documentIsrael, the West Bank, and Gaza
View the document1982-Present: Hydrologic limits and peacemaking
View the documentHydroconspiracy theories: The "hydraulic imperative," and "hydronationalism"
View the documentConclusions: Historic summary and lessons for the future

Conclusions: Historic summary and lessons for the future

In 1876, John Wesley Powell, the leader of the first organized expedition down the Colorado River, submitted his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States to Congress. Among his observations on US settlement policies in the desert south-west was his belief, as described by Marc Reisner, that state boundaries were often nonsensical ... In the West, where the one thing that really mattered was water, states should logically be formed around watersheds ... To divide the West any other way was to sow the future with rivalries, jealousies, and bitter squabbles whose fruits would contribute solely to the nourishment of lawyers. (Reisner 1968, 49)

The same might belatedly be said about the national boundaries of the Middle East. The difference, of course, is that, in that region, conflicts between states have deep historical roots and are more often settled on the battlefield than in the courtroom.

The Jordan River watershed, with all its competing national and economic pressures, provides a clear example of the strategic importance of water as a scarce resource. What follows is a brief summary of the history of water conflict and cooperation between the riparians of the Jordan River, as presented in previous pages.

1915-1926. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the location of water resources, particularly the headwaters of the Jordan River, helped to influence the boundaries of the French and British Mandates, later the borders between Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

1930s and 1940s. As populations and economies grew against hydrologic limits, so, too, grew the dangers of conflict over water. In the 1930s and 1940s water was a focus of several reports that tried to determine the economic absorptive capacity of the land. These reports influenced British, Arab, and Jewish attitudes and policies towards immigration and land settlement.

1948-1953. Unilateral development, occasionally infringing on demilitarized zones, led to brief armed conflict between Syrians and Israelis.

1953-1955. Johnston negotiations. Eric Johnston, special envoy to US President Eisenhower, worked for two years to hammer out a water-sharing agreement between the riparians of the Jordan River. Although unratified for political reasons, the allocations agreed to by Arab and Israeli technical committees have generally held, with recognized modifications. Moreover, both Israel and Jordan agreed to send technical representatives to regular "Picnic Table talks" to determine day-today hydrologic operations. These talks, named for the site at the confluence of the Yarmuk and Jordan rivers where the meetings reportedly take place, have proved fruitful over the years in reducing minor tensions.

1964-1967. "Water Wars." Beginning with the Arab decision to build an AllArab diversion of the Jordan headwaters to preclude the Israeli National Water Carrier, and ending three years later when Israeli tank and air strikes halted construction on the diversion, this was a period of the most direct water-related conflict.

May 1967. Even as tensions were leading to the following week's outbreak of the Six-Day War, the US Departments of Interior and State convened an "International Conference on Water for Peace" in Washington, D.C., which attracted 6,400 participants from 94 countries, including Israel, Egypt (then the WAR), Jordan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia.

June 1967. The Six-Day War changed regional riparian positioning. Israel acquired two of the three Jordan River headwaters, riparian access to the entire river, and the recharge zone for mountain aquifers that currently constitutes about 40 per cent of Israel's freshwater supply. Israel also destroyed the "All-Arab" diversion scheme of the Jordan headwaters, which would have reduced Israeli water by 35 per cent.

6 May 1977. Only ministerial-level meeting between Jordanians and Israelis to discuss joint watershed planning.

June 1982. The Israeli war in Lebanon reportedly had a minor hydrologic component.

1980s. Philip Habib helped to renegotiate Johnston allocations based on political and demographic changes, and tried to reach arrangement over "Unity Dam."

1967-Present. Ownership and management conflicts between Israel/West Bank, Israel/Gaza, Israel/Jordan, and Jordan/Syria.

1989-1990. Richard Armitage led US State Department indirect mediations to reach arrangement over "Unity Dam."

1991-Present. Impetus towards cooperation grows as regional peace talks develop.

Again, it should be kept firmly in mind that none of the events described above in this historical section happened in a political vacuum. Of all the geopolitical and strategic forces surrounding each of these events, only those relating water resources to strategic decisionmaking have been culled for inspection in this work. However, in an analysis of this sort, one must be careful of overzealous reductionism. It is not being suggested that water is the prime motivator in the history of the people of the Jordan River watershed, nor even that water, of itself, has been the cause of conflict. In a section on "hydroconspiracy" theories, I examined two theories, "the hydraulic imperative" and "hydronationalism," and found both lacking in hydrologic (and therefore in political) legitimacy.

My contention is only as follows:

  1. That water, as a strategic resource, has played a larger role in regional conflict than is generally known;
  2. That water issues have precipitated some conflict and added to existing tensions in the region;
  3. That occasionally, water issues have led to dialogue and attempts at cooperation.

If emphasis is placed on easing regional water tensions, some breathing space might be gained, allowing for more complex political and historical difficulties to be negotiated. In fact, because the water problems to be solved involve all of the parties at conflict, and because these issues are so fundamental, the search for regional solutions may actually be used as a tool to facilitate cooperation. It has been shown that people who will not talk together about history or politics do, when their lives and economies depend on it, talk about water.

Before proceeding to examine possible solutions to the Middle East water conflict, we might look to history for lessons that may be applicable to the future. The above discussion of regional hydropolitics offers several lessons that could be useful in helping to formulate options for solutions to waterinduced tensions, as follows:

  1. Observation: The link between water resources and political alternatives is inextricable, with water scarcity leading directly both to heightened political tensions and to opportunities for cooperation.
    Implication: For negotiations for a political settlement to be successful, they will also have to address solutions to the water conflict. Similarly, workable solutions to the problems of regional water shortage should also address the constraints posed by regional politics.
  2. Observation: Water has historically been a factor in Middle East population distribution, including some border considerations.
    Implication: Successful negotiations over Jewish immigration or Palestinian "right of return" will have to incorporate the hydrologic limitations of the region.
  3. Observation: No dispute between Arabs and Israelis, on water or on any other issue, has ever been resolved without third-party (usually United States) sponsorship and active participation. and
  4. Observation: The better a state's "hydrostrategic" position, the less interest it has in reaching a water-sharing agreement.
    Implication: Strong third-party involvement will be necessary for successful negotiations. The United States, or other sponsor of negotiations, should be prepared with a comprehensive strategy to induce cooperation, with particular emphasis on the upstream riparians.
  5. Observation: Projects of limited and implicit cooperation have been successful even in advance of political solutions between the parties involved (e.g. Picnic Table talks, water-for-peace process). Nevertheless, explicit cooperation (e.g. Maqarin Dam), has not preceded political relations. and
  6. Observation: The more complex a proposal is technically, the more complex it is politically.
    Implication: In the context of regional talks, progress in negotiations over water resources may encourage dialogue on other, more contentious, issues. While water continues to "lead" the peace talks, projects to induce cooperation can be designed in a stepwise fashion beginning with "small and doable," and leading to ever-increasing integration, always remaining on the cutting edge of political relations.
  7. Observation: The two conditions at the core of political viability of watersharing are equity of the agreement or project (that is, how much each participant gets), and control by each party of its own primary water sources (or, where it comes from, and whose hand is on the tap).
    Implication: These two contentious issues will have to be addressed fairly early in negotiations. Unless a water-sharing agreement is worked out, with each party having its historic as well as future needs addressed, any negotiations over intricate cooperative projects will be building on accumulated ill will.

If one accepts that conflict can come about in part because of scarce water resources, and understands that, as populations and economies continue to grow against hydrologic limits, so do the dangers, the logical question is, "What is to be done?" In the following chapter, I survey the literature of several disciplines to develop an interdisciplinary model for evaluating water basin development and international water conflicts. In chapter 4, I use the model developed in chapter 3, and incorporate the guidelines from history outlined above, to suggest a process of ever-increasing cooperation for development of the Jordan River watershed.