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History - Water conflict and cooperation

The emergence of agriculture and nationalism
Pre-1923: The shaping of modern nations
1923-1948: Nationalism, immigration, and "economic absorptive capacity"
1948-1964: Unilateral development and the Johnston negotiations
1964-1982: "Water Wars" and territorial adjustments
Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza
1982-Present: Hydrologic limits and peacemaking
Hydroconspiracy theories: The "hydraulic imperative," and "hydronationalism"
Conclusions: Historic summary and lessons for the future

From the origins of civilization in the Middle East, the limits and fluctuations of water resources have played a role in shaping political forces and national boundaries. Water availability helped to determine both where and how people lived, and influenced the way in which they related to each other. Issues of water conflict and cooperation have become especially intense with the growth of nationalist feelings and populations of the twentieth century. These issues are also relevant to current conflict - particularly between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza - but they may offer new opportunities for dialogue as well.

As I describe the relationship between the water resources and political events in the region, it should be kept firmly in mind that nothing described here happened in a political vacuum. Of all the myriad of geopolitical and strategic forces surrounding each of these developments, only those relating water resources to conflict or cooperation have been extracted for examination in this work.

The emergence of agriculture and nationalism

Living as they do in a transition zone between Mediterranean subtropical and arid climates, the people in and around the Jordan River watershed have always been aware of the limits imposed by scarce water resources. Settlements sprang up in fertile valleys or near large, permanent wells, and trade routes were established from oasis to oasis. In ancient times, cycles of weather patterns occasionally had profound effects on the course of history. Recent research suggests that climatic changes 10,000 years ago, which caused the average weather patterns around the Dead Sea to become warmer and drier, may have been an important factor in the birth of agriculture (Hole and McCorriston, as reported in the New York Times, 2 April 1991). The Natufians of the Jordan Valley, it has been suggested, found that by planting wild cereals they could overcome the increasing summertime food shortages of a drying climate.

It is also becoming increasingly accepted that a similar climatic drying around 4,000 years ago was responsible for the movement of groups of pastoralists from the marginal lands of the Syrian and Jordanian steppes as well as the Negev and Sinai deserts, because the marginal land no longer provided enough feed for their herds, into the more fertile coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean. Together, as these groups shifted from sheep herding to agriculture, they coalesced into a political/religious entity later to become known as the Israelites.2

Even in biblical times, variations in water supply had their impact on the region's history. It was drought, for example, that drove Jacob and his family to Egypt, an event that led to years of slavery and, finally, to the consolidation of the Israelite tribes 400 years later (Genesis 41). Even then, the waters of the Jordan were occasionally associated with military strategy as, for instance, when Joshua directed his priests to stem the river's flow with the power of the Ark of the Covenant while he and his army marched across the dry riverbed to attack Jericho (Joshua 4).

National changes are not restricted to a drying climate. In an exhaustive study of the relationship between the ancient peoples of the Middle East and their water, Arye Issar (1990) suggests that favourable climatic conditions, with rainfall in the Negev 50 per cent greater than today's, may have contributed to the success of several national entities in the region from about 200 B.C.E. to 400 C.E. This was a period in which the Roman Empire included much of the Middle East, the monastic Dead Sea sect (possibly the Essenes) thrived around the area of Qumran and, further south, the Nabateans extended their hold over the spice trade routes from Arabia to the ports along the Mediterranean coast. Before the twentieth century, the previously greatest population between the Jordan and the Mediterranean probably was reached during that period as well about one million people during Byzantine rule (fifth century C.E.) (Broshi 1979) (see appendix I, map 6)

The Nabateans, with cities across the Negev Desert and a stunning capital at Petra, were particularly adept at intensively managing each drop from the rare rain events of their arid territory (Issar 1990,178181). Their methods, referred to as "water harvesting," included diverting storm water to their fields and terracing and cultivating ephemeral stream beds. By collecting rocks from the surrounding hillsides into piles, they were also able simultaneously to induce dew out of the night air with the cooler rocks and to increase run-off by "smoothing out" the hill slopes. These techniques are currently studied for applicability to today's marginal lands. Nevertheless, Issar argues, these practices would not have been enough for stable agricultural returns without the more humid climate that he postulates.

Issar concludes his study with the intriguing speculation that, once the climate again began to become drier in the fifth to seventh centuries C.E., the inhabitants of the ever-increasingly desiccated Arabian Peninsula may have found incentive to search for a more hospitable environment, resulting in the Moslem expansion across the Middle East, North Africa, and into Spain:

Was this burning religious zeal of the Moslems made fiercer by the droughts which struck the northern and central parts of their peninsula? Did this drying up also weaken the countries of the Fertile Crescent guarding what was left of the Roman Empire ... ? (Issar 1990, 188)

In the subsequent centuries, the inhabitants of the region and the conquering nations that came and went have lived mostly within the limits of their water resources, using combinations of surface water and well water for survival and livelihood (Beaumont 1991, 1). But just as changing amounts of water availability in the Middle East may have contributed to the formation of both the Jewish and Arab nations millennia ago, conflicting interpretations of how to overcome those limits have also been a factor in competition and conflict as their respective nationalisms began to re-emerge on the same soil in the twentieth century. Lessons from the details of these conflicts are used later in this work to inform strategies for conflict resolution.


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