Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

1948-1964: Unilateral development and the Johnston negotiations

Once the borders of the new states of the Middle East had been defined in the war of 1948, each country began to develop its own water resources unilaterally. The legacy of the Mandates, and of the war itself, was a Jordan River divided in a manner in which conflict over water resource development was inevitable. The shooting that did break out in the 1950s led, however, to two years of some of the most intense negotiations ever between Arabs and Israelis - the Johnston negotiations.

During the 1948 war, keeping the three zones described above as necessary for a viable Jewish state - the Galilee region with the Jordan headwaters, the coastal zone with the population centres, and the Negev Desert to absorb anticipated immigration - became the focus for the Israeli war effort.

Other than these general emphases, water resources played only a minor role in the strategic thinking of the combatants.

Since 1934, the bulk of Jerusalem's water had been piped from Rosh Ha'ayin, 60 km to the west and 800 m lower in elevation. On 7 May 1948, as part of a general siege of Jewish Jerusalem, the Arab forces had cut this pipeline. The Jewish population of Jerusalem, who had dug, cleaned, and filled cisterns in preparation for the war, were rationed to 10 litres per capita per day - 1 litre for drinking and 9 litres for cooking and sanitary needs. Two separate Israeli operations focused on retaking Rosh Ha'ayin on 11 July. By laying a circuitous pipeline route, using pipes abandoned from a previous project, around to the secret Burma Road, which the Israelis were building to circumvent the siege, water reached Jerusalem by the end of July (U. Dvir in Broshi 1977, 224-235).

The Israelis lost three other strategic points along waterways, though, and the repercussions would be felt through 1967 (see appendix I, maps 20 and 21). During the Mandate negotiations, the French had denied the Zionists the Banias spring because an access road that they needed crossed the waterway about 100 m downstream. However, to guarantee access to the water, a hill overlooking the stream had been included in Palestine. This hill was lost to the Syrians during fighting in 1948, as was El-Hama, a crucial access point to the Yarmuk River (Sachar 1979). Finally, although the Israeli army had occupied a strip of Lebanese territory along the elbow of the Litani, they pulled back to the Mandate borders as part of an armistice agreement, in the unfulfilled hope of gaining a peace treaty with Lebanon (Hof 1985, 31).

As a result of the 1948 war, the Jordan River was even more divided than it had been under the Mandates. The Hasbani rose in Lebanon with the Wazzani, a major spring of the Hasbani, situated only a few kilometres north of the Israeli border. The Banias flowed for five kilometres in Syrian territory before crossing into Israel. The Dan rose and remained within Israeli territory. The confluence of the three, the Jordan River, flowed along the Israeli-Syrian border, often through the demilitarized zone, until it reached the Sea of Galilee. The Sea lay wholly in Israel, with the Syrian border 10 m from the eastern coast. The Yarmuk rose in Syria, then became the Syrian-Jordanian border until its confluence with the Jordan. South of the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River formed first the Israeli-Syrian border, then the Israeli-Jordanian border below the confluence with the Yarmuk, finally flowing wholly into Jordanian territory and the Dead Sea, which was about one-quarter Israeli and three-quarters Jordanian.

The immediate demographic repercussions of the 1948 war were dramatic shifts of population throughout the region. The concept of economic absorptive capacity quietly disappeared as Israel and Jordan each absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees and immigrants. Israel absorbed much of the remnants of European Jewry, many of whom had been kept in Cypriot refugee camps by the British since World War II, as well as the 700,000 Jews from Arab countries who emigrated after Israel's declaration of independence. The Israeli Jewish population increased from 650,000 in 1948 to 1.6 million in 1952 (Naff and Matson 1984, 34).

Jordan was also greatly affected by refugee immigration. Of the 700,000-900,000 Palestinian refugees of the war, 450,000 went to Jordan and the West Bank, which Jordan annexed in 1950. This influx and annexation increased Jordan's population by 80 per cent to 1.85 million (Naff and Matson 1984, 34).

Even as the dust was settling, Syria approached Israel with a secret offer which, for the first time, linked three topics that would define the negotiating issues for the coming decades - peace, refugee resettlement, and water. Colonel Hosni Zaim took control of Syria in a USsponsored military coup in April 1949, with a promise that he would do "something constructive" about the Arab-Israeli problem. That month, he sent a secret message to Israeli Prime Minister David BenGurion, offering to sign a separate peace agreement, establish a joint militia, and settle 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Syrian territory, in exchange for some "minor border changes" along the ceasefire line and half of the Sea of Galilee (Shalev 1989). Ben-Gurion was reluctant to make such an agreement and signed a limited armistice instead. Less than a year later, Zaim was overthrown.

In 1951, several states announced unilateral plans for the Jordan watershed. Arab states began to discuss organized exploitation of two northern sources of the Jordan - the Hasbani and the Banias (Stevens 1965, 38). The Israelis made public their All-Israel Plan, based on James Hays's idea of a "TVA on the Jordan," which in turn was based on the Lowdermilk proposals. The All-Israel Plan 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, 35).

Jordan announced a plan to irrigate the East Ghor of the Jordan Valley by tapping the Yarmuk (Stevens 1965, 39). 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 over the summer of 1951 and prompted Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharrett to declare clearly that "Our soldiers in the north are defending the Jordan water sources so that water may be brought to the farmers of the Negev" (Stevens 1965, 39).

In March 1953, Jordan and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) signed an agreement to begin implementing the Bunger Plan, which called for a dam at Maqarin on the Yarmuk River with a storage capacity of 480 MCM, and a diversion dam at Addassiyah that would direct gravity flow along the East Ghor of the Jordan Valley. The water would open land for irrigation, provide power for Syria and Jordan, and offer resettlement for 100,000 Palestinian refugees. In June 1953, Jordan and Syria agreed to share the Yarmuk but Israel protested that its riparian rights commonly recognized as being due to entities that border a waterway - were not being recognized (Naff and Matson 1984, 38).

In July 1953, Israel began construction on the intake of its National Water Carrier at Gesher B'not Ya'akov, north of the Sea of Galilee and in the demilitarized zone. Syria deployed its armed forces along the border (Davis et al. 1980, 3, 8), and artillery units opened fire on the construction and engineering sites (Cooley 1984, 3, 10). Syria also protested to the United Nations and, though 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, 30).

This was a doubly costly move for Israel. First, as mentioned earlier, water salinity is much higher in the lake than in the upper Jordan. The initial water pumped in 1964 was actually unsuitable for some agriculture. Since that time, Israel has diverted saline springs away from the lake and filtered carrier water through artificial recharge to ease this problem (Stevens 1965, 9). Second, the water from B'not Ya'akov would have flowed to the Negev by gravity alone. Instead, 450 MCM/yr is currently pumped a height of 250 m before it starts its 240 km journey southward (State of Israel 1988, 136).

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 TVA at the request of UNRWA to develop the area's water resources and to provide for refugee resettlement. The TVA addressed the problem with the regional approach that Lowdermilk had advocated a decade earlier. As Gordon Clapp, chairman of the TVA, wrote in his letter of presentation, "the report describes the elements of an efficient arrangement of water supply within the watershed of the Jordan River System. It does not consider political factors or attempt to set this system into the national boundaries now prevailing" (Main 1953). This apolitical, basin-wide approach produced not only the thorough technical report that was to be the basis of two years of negotiations, but also stunning oversize maps that delineate only one border - that of the Jordan River watershed (see appendix I, maps 22 and 23).

The Main Plan had, of course, other motives on the part of the United States, and advantages other than the technical details:

The plan, designed to tempt the Arabs into at least limited cooperation with the Israelis, was a third-rate idea with at least a second-rate chance of success because it had a first-rate negotiator, Eric Johnston, to advocate it. Its only advantage was that it made sense. (Copeland 1969, 109)

The major features of the Main Plan included small dams on the Hasbani, Dan, and Banias; a medium-size (175 MCM 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 excluded the Litani and described only in-basin use of the Jordan River water, although it concedes 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 MCM/yr, Jordan 774 MCM/yr, and Syria 45 MCM/yr (see table 2.6).

Israel responded to the Main proposal with the Cotton Plan, which incorporated many of Lowdermilk's ideas. This plan called for inclusion of the Litani, out-of-basin transfers to the coastal plain and the Negev, and the use of the Sea of Galilee as the main storage facility, thereby diluting its salinity. It allocated Israel 1,290 MCM/yr (including 400 MCM/yr from the Litani), Jordan 575 MCM/yr, Syria 30 MCM/yr, and Lebanon 450 MCM/yr.

Table 2.6 Johnston negoliations, 1953-1955 water allocations to ripanans of Jordan River system

  Allocation (MCM/yr)
Plan/Sourcea Lebanon Syria Jordan Israel Total
Main Plan nil 45 774 394 1213
Arab Plan 35 132 698 182 1047
Cotton Plan 450.7 30 575 1290 2345.7
Unified (Johnston) Plan
Hasbani 35       35
Banias   20   20  
Jordan (main stream)   22 100 375b 497b
Yarmuk   90 377 25 492
Side wadis     243 243  
Total Unified Plan 35 132 720 400b 1287b

Source: Naff and Matson (1984).
a. The Cotton Plan included the Litani as part of the Jordan River system. Different plans allocated different amounts in accordance with differing estimates of the resources of the system. One major variable in the reporting of the planned allocations is the amount of groundwater included in the estimates.
b. According to the compromise "Gardiner Formula," the share to Israel from the main stream of the Jordan was defined as the "residue" after the other co-riparians had received their shares. This would vary from year to year, but was expected to average 375 MCM.

In 1954, representatives from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt established the Arab League Technical Committee under Egyptian leadership and formulated the "Arab Plan." It reaffirmed in-basin use, rejected storage in the Sea of Galilee, which lies wholly in Israel, and excluded the Litani. The Arab representatives also objected to the refugee resettlement as a goal. The Arab Plan's principal difference from the Main Plan was in the water allocated to each state: Israel was to receive 182 MCM/yr, Jordan 698 MCM/yr, Syria 132 MCM/yr, and Lebanon 35 MCM/yr, in addition to keeping all of the Litani.

Johnston worked until the end of 1955 to reconcile these proposals in a Unified Plan amenable to all of the states involved. His dealings were bolstered by a US offer to fund two-thirds of the development costs, and given a boost when a land survey of Jordan suggested that that country needed less water for its future needs than was previously thought.

Johnston addressed the objections of both sides, and accomplished no small degree of compromise, although his neglect of groundwater issues would later prove an important oversight. Though they had not met face to face for these negotiations, all states agreed on the need for a regional approach. Israel no longer insisted on integration of the Litani and the Arabs agreed to allow out-of-basin transfer. The Arabs objected, but finally agreed, to storage at both the Maqarin Dam and the Sea of Galilee, as 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 (unpublished summaries, US Department of State 1955,1956).

The technical committees from both sides accepted the Unified Plan, and the Israeli Cabinet approved it without vote in July 1955. President Nasser of Egypt became an active advocate because Johnston's proposals seemed to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian problem simultaneously. Among other proposals, Johnston envisioned the diversion of Nile water to the western Sinai Desert to resettle two million Palestinian refugees. President Sadat would make this offer again 22 years later on his historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977.

Despite the forward momentum, in October 1955 the Arab League Council decided not to accept the plan, and the momentum died out. In a 1955 letter lobbying against acceptance of the plan, the Arab Higher Committee for Palestine explained part of the underlying reluctance to enter into agreement:

The scheme is another step made by imperialists and Zionists to attain their ends, territorial expansion in the heart of the Arab homeland, under the attractive guise of "economic interests." (Cited in Medzini 1976, 487)

Although the agreement was never ratified, both sides have generally adhered to the technical details and allocations, even while proceeding with unilateral development. Agreement was encouraged by the United States, which promised funding for future water development projects only as long as the Johnston allocations were adhered to (Wishart 1990). Since that time to the present, Israeli and Jordanian water officials have met two or three times a year at so-called "Picnic Table talks" at the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers to discuss flow rates and allocations.

However, as individual projects progressed, and hydrologic limits began to be approached, the pressures quickly went from possible cooperation to impending conflict.

Contents - Previous - Next