Contents - Previous - Next

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

1982-Present: Hydrologic limits and peacemaking

By the mid-1980s, each of the countries riparian to the Jordan River began to approach its hydrologic limits, and the potential for either conflict or cooperation took on new urgency, both in the region and abroad.

The fundamental tenet of ecologic systems is "Everything is connected to everything else" (Holling 1978, 26). An addendum, for those dependent on a watershed approaching the limits of available water, might be "Everything you do will affect someone else." As the riparians to the Jordan River watershed began to run out of hydrologic room to manoeuvre, this tenet became increasingly apparent.

In 1985, plans for a deep well near Herodian in the West Bank were made public. This project, funded by an American fundamentalist Christian group, would have brought 18 MCM/yr to both Arabs and Jews on the West Bank. Wary that the size and depth of the project might undercut their wells, some Palestinians had international pressure brought to bear on the Israelis and Americans involved, and the project was halted (Caponera 1991).

Meanwhile, the Syrians, who had lost access to the Banias springs in 1967, began a series of small impoundment dams on the headwaters of the Yarmuk in its territory in the late 1970s. By August 1988, 20 dams were in place with a combined capacity of 156 MCM/ yr (Sofer and Kliot 1988, 19) (see appendix I, map 27). That capacity has since grown to 27 dams with a combined storage of about 250 MCM/yr (Gwen 1991, 24; interview, Shmuel Cantor, December 1991). According to George Gruen (1991, 24), the Syrians have plans to expand this storage to 366 MCM/yr by 2010. These Syrian impoundments are in contradiction to their 1953 agreement with Jordan, which allocates seven-eighths of the water of the Yarmuk to Jordan in exchange for two-thirds of the hydropower from the planned Maqarin Dam (Caponera 1991, 10).

Because the Maqarin, or Unity, Dam was never built, winter runoff, most of which Jordan cannot now capture for use in its East Ghor Canal, flows almost unimpeded downstream to Israel. This situation has allowed Israel to use more than the 25 MCM/yr allocated to it from the Yarmuk by the Johnston accords.

Against this backdrop, Jordan in 1989 approached the US Department of State for help in resolving the dispute. Ambassador Richard Armitage was dispatched to the region in September 1989 to resume secret indirect mediation between Jordan and Israel where Philip Habib had left off a decade earlier. The points raised during the following year were as follows:

By fall of 1990, agreement seemed to be taking shape, by which Israel agreed to the concept of the dam, and discussions on a formal document and winter flow allocations could continue during construction, estimated to take more than five years. Two issues held up any agreement: first, the lack of Syrian input left questions of the future of the river unresolved, a point noted by both sides during the mediations; second, the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991 overwhelmed other regional issues, finally pre-empting talks on the Yarmuk. The issue has not been brought up again until recently in the context of the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. Agreement on this issue is a prerequisite to building the Unity Dam. The World Bank has agreed to help finance the project only if all of the riparians agree to the technical details.

With these developments during the 1980s, the United States, which had initiated both the Johnston negotiations in the 1950s and the water-for-peace process during the 1960s, became convinced anew of water's potential for conflict. By the end of the 1980s, comprehensive studies on the strategic aspects of water in the Middle East and the potential for conflict had been conducted by the US Defense Intelligence Agency (Naff and Matson 1984), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Starr and Stoll 1987; 1988), and the Israeli Foreign Ministry (Sofer and Kliot 1988); in addition, the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East had held a hearing on Middle East water issues (US Department of State, House of Representatives, June 1990). Each concluded not only that the water resources of the region had great potential for conflict but also that, of the Middle East water basins, the Jordan presented the most likely flashpoint.

In the thinking of the Defense Intelligence Agency:

Water ignores artificial political boundaries; in an undeveloped environment it flows according to the terrain. When man - in order to make better use of water for himself - changes the natural distribution system' he also changes traditional use patterns. This can be extremely disruptive and upsetting to other riparian users. The result is often political conflict if not outright military action. Military factors are often the de facto determinants in resolving riparian relationships in the Middle East. (Personal communication, 3 July, 1991)

By 1991, several events combined to shift the emphasis on the potential for "hydroconflict" to the potential for "hydrocooperation."

The first event was natural. Three years of below-average rainfall in the Jordan basin caused a dramatic tightening in the water management practices of each of the riparians, including rationing, cutbacks to agriculture by as much as 30 per cent, and restructuring of water pricing and allocations. 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.

The next series of events were geopolitical in nature. The 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 on 30 October 1991.

While the region was still in the throes of drought, water was mentioned as a motivating factor for the talks. Jordan, as has been mentioned, is squeezed hydrologically between two neighbours attempting to reinterpret prior agreements, but otherwise has no major territorial disputes with Israel. A researcher at the Middle East Studies Center in Amman therefore suggested that "Jordan is being pushed to the peace talks because of water" (interview, Mohammed Ma'ali, November 1991). Mohammed Beni Hani, the head of Jordan's water authority, is one of Jordan's 12 delegates to the peace talks. At the opening ceremonies in Madrid, Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the head of the Palestinian delegation, included in his opening remarks a call for "the return of Palestinian land and its life-giving waters."

During the bilateral negotiations between Israel and each of its neighbours, it was agreed that a second track be established for multilateral negotiations on five subjects deemed "regional." These subjects included ecology, energy, economic cooperation, arms reduction, and - water resources.

With the opening of peace talks, the emphasis in international arenas quickly went from the potential for conflict over water to its potential as a vehicle for cooperation. Seminars and conferences were held throughout the early 1990s in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East on the possibilities for cooperation over water resources. The World Bank held a seminar on the topic, as did the US Department of State, and the Center for Foreign Affairs. Increasingly, both Arab and Israeli academics and policy makers have taken part together in these conferences.

Nevertheless, old patterns have been slow in changing. As part of the Global Water Summit Initiative, Joyce Starr, who two years earlier had organized a "water summit" for African states, attempted a similar summit in the Middle East, scheduled for November 1991. Despite early signs of participation on the part of several states in the region, and despite official invitations to 50 countries, including 22 Arab nations, from Turkish President Turgut Özal, Syria refused to attend if Israel were invited, and called for other Arab countries to follow its position. The US State Department suggested that, if Israel were not invited, the United States would not attend either. Faced with this impasse, the summit was finally cancelled (press reports, August-November 1991).

In Israel, at the same time, the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies of Tel Aviv University asked two researchers (Yehoshua Schwartz, the director of Tahal, Israel's water planning agency, and Aharon Zohar, also at Tahal at the time) to undertake a study of the regional hydrostrategic situation and the potential for regional cooperation. The result, a 300-page document entitled Water in the Middle East: Solutions to Water Problems in the Context of Arrangements between Israel and the Arabs (Schwartz and Zohar 1991), was one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind. It examined a number of possible scenarios for regional water development, including possible arrangements between Israel and Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza. Scenarios were included both for regional cooperation and for its absence. Evaluations included hydrologic, political, legal, and ideological constraints. The impacts of potential global climatic change were also considered. The study showed, in the words of Joseph Alpher, the Director of the Jaffee Center, "the potential beauty of multilateral negotiations" (interview, Joseph Alpher, December 1991).

Some of the findings of the study contradicted government policies at the time, however. In the sections on possible arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and Syria, maps of the West Bank and Golan Heights included lines to which Israel might relinquish control of the water resources in each area, without overly endangering its own water supply. The line in the West Bank, which was based on studies dating back to the late 1970s (as is discussed in the next section and in chapter 4), suggested that Israel might, with legal and political guarantees, turn control of the water resources of more than twothirds of the West Bank over to Palestinian authorities without threatening Israel's water sources from the Yarkon-Taninim (western mountain) aquifer (see appendix I, map 29). These maps contradicted the position of the Ministry of Agriculture, headed by Rafael Eitan of the right-wing Tzomet party. The Ministry's position was that, to protect Israel from threats to both the quantity and quality of its water, Israel had to retain political control over the entire West Bank. (The apparent contradictions in these positions are examined later in this chapter and in chapter 4.)

On 12 December, 1991, 70 copies of the report were sent throughout Israel for review, including copies to the Ministry of Agriculture. Calling the maps mentioned above "an outline for retreat," Rafael Eitan and Dan Zaslavsky (whom Eitan had recently appointed Water Commissioner) insisted on a recall of the review copies and a delay in the release of the report. In January 1992, the Israeli military censor backed the position of the Ministry of Agriculture and, citing sensitivity of the report's findings, censored the report in its entirety (interviews, Yehosua Schwartz, October 1991; Joseph Alpher, Aharon Zohar, December 1991; personal communication, Aharon Zohar, January 1992).

Entrenched positions notwithstanding, the two sides have continued to move towards cooperation with increasing momentum. In Jerusalem, the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) began holding round-table discussions and simulated negotiations on water in December 1990. In October 1992, IPCRI cosponsored, with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Applied Research Institute in Bethlehem, the "First Israeli/Palestinian International Conference on Water."

On a larger scale, the first round of multilateral negotiations on water were held in Vienna in May 1992. At that meeting, each party agreed to compile a programme for regional development, which would then be examined in the United States for any commonalities that could be exploited to induce cooperation. This same approach is being taken by the World Bank, which commissioned similar studies from the states in the region. In conjunction with the peace talks, less-public and less-official dialogues, called the "Track 2 talks," have been held between Israelis and Arabs in the United States.

These breakthroughs in water talks may have repercussions on negotiations on other topics as well. In the words of Munther Haddadin, a Jordanian delegate, "Water seems to be leading the Peace Talks."

As in 1919, the peace talks of the 1990s have included the mutual impact of water on political decision-making. Seventy years of regional water development, however, have both heightened the political stakes of water issues and left less hydrologic room for manoeuvrability. However, given that an important political precedent has been set in Madrid - public face-to-face negotiations, the lack of which has precluded explicit cooperation in the past and given the lessons learned through 70 years of "hydrodiplomacy," a new potential for regional planning and cooperation may have been reached. One can hope that, after 70 years, the lessons have been learned.

Contents - Previous - Next