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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)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the document1. Introduction
Open this folder and view contents2. Hydrography and history
Open this folder and view contents3. Towards an interdisciplinary approach to water basin analysis and the resolution of international water disputes
Open this folder and view contents4. Interdisciplinary analysis and the Jordan River watershed
View the document5. Summary and conclusions
View the documentAfterword: Parting the waters
Open this folder and view contentsAppendices
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Afterword: Parting the waters

... but let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.— Amos 5:24

There is a certain risk involved in attempting an analysis of contemporary issues recent history seems to be developing a perplexing habit of outpacing publishing schedules. This work is certainly a case in point.

When I began looking at the relationship between water and politics in the Middle East more than seven years ago, I was fairly comfortable that I would be working in a static environment. Modern political conflict between Arabs and Jews in the region had gone back at least a century, after all, and ancient enmities between the two peoples dated back millennia. Certainly the world's intractable conflicts were increasingly finding hidden tractability - nuclear weapons were being destroyed in the crumbling Soviet empire, Blacks were gaining suffrage in South Africa, and pieces from the Berlin Wall were being sold as paperweights in finer boutiques. But the Arab-Israeli conflict felt different; almost divinely intractable.

It wasn't. What I first asked as a hypothetical academic question back in 1988, "What if there were a peace process - what would the water issues be and how might they be resolved?" has been superseded by a blur of stunning images. Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn. King Hussein at the controls of a Royal Jordanian jet circling Jerusalem, being wished Godspeed by Shimon Peres from below. Barbed wire and mine fields being cleared from the banks of the Jordan River to allow the people of the region to cross more freely.

The question I posed is no longer hypothetical. There is a peace process that, to date, has produced a declaration of principles allowing Israelis and Palestinians to recognize one another as legitimate political entities, and a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, formally ending a 46-year state of war between these uneasy neighbours. And water has been a vital, sometimes overriding factor in these agreements. The creation of a Palestinian Water Authority was an important aspect of the Declaration of Principles, and its announcement and acceptance led to a particularly productive round of multilateral negotiations in Oman in April 1994. Conversely, the issue of water rights was identified as the final issue requiring resolution before the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan was able to be signed.

Some updating of chapter 2 is necessary: The Declaration of Principles signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on 13 September 1993 came about as a result of intense secret talks now known as the Oslo negotiations (exploratory contacts for which were reportedly made, incidentally, at the 1992 Israeli-Palestinian conference on water in Zurich). Although the declaration was generally seen as a positive development by most parties, some minor consternation was expressed by the Jordanians about the Israeli-Palestinian agreement to investigate a possible Med-Dead Canal. In the multilateral working group on regional economic development, the Italians had pledged $2.5 million towards a study of a RedDead Canal as a joint Israeli-Jordanian project; building both would be unfeasible. The Israelis pointed out in private conversations with the Jordanians that all possible projects should be investigated, and only then could rational decisions on implementation be made.

Although a bilateral agreement, the Declaration of Principles helped streamline a logistically awkward aspect of the ongoing multilateral negotiations, as the PLO became openly responsible for representing the Palestinians - previously the Palestinian delegation had been affiliated with the Jordanian delegation. By the fifth round of water talks in Beijing in October 1993, somewhat of a routine seemed to be setting in at the multilateral negotiations, whereby reports were presented on each of the four topics agreed to at the second meeting in Vienna - enhancement of data availability; enhancing water supply; water management and conservation; and concepts of regional cooperation and management.!

The sixth and most recent round of talks was held in Muscat, Oman, in April 1994, the first of the water talks to be held in an Arab country and the first of any working group to be held in the Gulf. Tensions mounted immediately before the talks as it became clear that the Palestinians would use the occasion as a platform to announce the appointment of a Palestinian National Water Authority. While such an authority was called for in the Declaration of Principles, possible responses to both the unilateral nature and to the appropriateness of the working group as the proper vehicle for the announcement were unclear. Only a flurry of activity prior to the talks guaranteed that the announcement would be welcomed by all parties. This agreement set the stage for a particularly productive meeting. In two days, the working group endorsed:

  • an Omani proposal to establish a desalination research and technology centre in Muscat, which would support regional cooperation in desalination research among all interested parties. This marked the first Arab proposal to find consensus in the working group;
  • an Israeli proposal to rehabilitate and make more efficient water systems in small sized communities in the region. This was the first Israeli proposal to be accepted by any working group;
  • a German proposal to study the water supply and demand development among interested core parties in the region;
  • a US proposal to develop waste-water treatment and reuse facilities for small communities at several sites in the region. The proposal was jointly sponsored by the water and environmental working groups;
  • implementation of a US/KU regional training programme.

Recent progress made in bilateral negotiations between Jordan and Israel has outpaced the multilateral negotiations. On 7 June 1994, the two states announced that they had reached an agreement on a sub-agenda for cooperation, building on an agenda for peace talks that had been agreed to 14 September 1993, which would lead eventually to a peace treaty. This sub-agenda included several waterrelated items, notably in the first heading listed (in advance of security issues, and border and territorial matters), Group A - Water, Energy, and the Environment:

  1. Surface water basins.
  1. Negotiation of mutual recognition of the rightful water allocations of the two sides in Jordan River and Yarmuk River waters with mutually acceptable quality.
  2. Restoration of water quality in the Jordan River below Lake Tiberias to reasonably usable standards.
  3. Protection of water quality.
  1. Shared groundwater aquifers.
  1. Renewable fresh water aquifers - southern area between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea.
  2. Fossil aquifers - area between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea.
  3. Protection of the water quality of both.
  1. Alleviation of water shortage.
  1. Development of water resources.
  2. Municipal water shortages.
  3. Irrigation water shortages.
  1. Potentials of future bilateral cooperation, within a regional context where appropriate.

[Includes Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal; management of water basins; and interdisciplinary activities in water, environment, and energy.]

On 26 October 1994, Israel and Jordan formalized a peace treaty after resolving the last and most contentious issue - shared water resources. According to Annex II of the accord:

  • Israel will yield 40 MCM/yr. from the Yarmuk plus 10 MCM/yr. desalinated brackish spring water;
  • An additional 50 MCM/yr. will be developed through joint projects, to be determined by a Joint Water Committee;
  • Jordan will store 20 MCM/yr. of winter flood water in the Sea of Galilee, to be returned during summer months - flood water in addition to current uses will be split between the two countries;
  • Two dams will be constructed - one each on the Yarmuk and the Jordan (Israel can use up to 3 MCM/yr. of increased storage capacity).

The pace of conflict resolution in the region puts the predictive aspects of this work in an interesting (if occasionally unsettling) position - many of my conclusions can actually be tested against the real world. Many of the recommendations and con fidence-building measures of chapter 4 are, in fact, being implemented, in roughly the order suggested. (With one conspicuous exception - discussions of water rights have routinely been postponed as too intricate to deal with early. It is recognized, though, that a final arrangement over water resources in the region is not possible without addressing this vital aspect.) While I leave it for future study to determine precisely how close these predictive aspects came to reality, these preliminary results seem to reinforce the methodology described here as a useful tool for integrated water management in other basins with conflicting political interests.

Regardless, the changes in the region are overpowering. The Palestinian flag flies freely over official buildings of the Palestinian Authority. Israelis visit the Nabatean city of Petra, carved into the rose-red sandstone of Wadi Musa. Jordanians swim in the Sea of Galilee. Despite the horrendous efforts of extremists of all sides, the region seems to be moving inexorably towards peace, towards a time when one can take a train from Cairo to Damascus, when military bands practice and perform together, when the boundaries on maps used for water resources planning in the Jordan basin are only those of the watershed itself.

Aaron T. Wolf
November 1994