Water and the Arab-Israeli conflict


[Extracted from a paper prepared by the MEDEA Institute and delivered by Gerard COLLINS, Former Foreign Minister of Ireland, Member of the Dail Eireann and the European Parliament, before the Diplomatic Institute of Oman on 14 October 1997.]

Some experts have suggested that rumours of Jordanian and Syrian plans to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River were the principal cause of the 1967 war between Israel and the Arab states. Others believe that Israel's systematic exploitation of the water resources of the West Bank has been the main reason for its reluctance to consider a peace agreement based on the exchange of land for peace, and that the control of the flow of the Litani River is the real reason for Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon.

Three rivers are involved in the Arab-Israeli struggle for water: the Jordan, the Yarmuk and the Litani. But water is not only running in rivers and the control of the Palestinian Aquifer is definitely another strategic and vital case of dispute.

The main flow of the Jordan River has now been all but totally preempted by Israel's diversions. All the headwaters' flow is now collected by Israel and pumped out of the Jordan Basin, across the mountains, for use in irrigation or municipal water along the Mediterranean littoral of Israel.

The planning for diverting the Jordan River water by the Israelis started as early as the 1940s, but the very idea of capturing it is even more ancient. Much of the design of the civil works for capturing the Jordan River was completed in the 1950s, and they succeeded in diverting the entire volume of sweet water from the Upper Jordan by the late 1960s, when construction of the National Water Carrier system was completed. Pumps lift Jordan River water out of Lake Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee, and convey it across the watershed. The diverted flow is then pumped to Israeli consumers on the Mediterranean coast and down into the northern Negev.

The second river involved in this conflict is the Yarmuk, a tributary of the Jordan River which rises in southeastern Syria and flows into the Jordan a few kilometers downstream of Lake Tiberias. Exploitation of the Yarmuk was part of Jordan's development plans in the 1960s. The project was blocked by the Israelis, who wanted to preserve the flow for their own downstream preemption. Israeli aircraft blew up Jordan's Khalid ibn Walid dam site works and obstructed later efforts by Jordan to construct the Mukhaiba Dam a few kilometers upstream. Today the waters are de facto partitioned: Syria extracts increasing volumes near the headwaters, and Israel allows some offtake by Jordan, capturing the rest for itself. This situation would change dramatically if Israel goes ahead with its plans - announced a few weeks ago - to build a dam on the Yarmuk at a place bordering the occupied Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights, overlooking both the Jordan and Yarmuk, are a strategic region overlooking the Damascus plain eastwards. Israel's main interest there, however is the source of water it provides as 35% of the water consumed in Israel comes from the rivers bordering the Heights. Minister Yigal Allon in his book "Israel, the Struggle for Hope" wrote in 1970 that "the global strategic needs of Israel require the control of the Golan Heights as we have to defend our main water sources." First, seizure of the area by Israel blocked Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian efforts to mobilize the headwaters of the Jordan River. Israel's control of the Golan Heights is key to preventing any new efforts by these upstream states to use the water. Second, occupation of the Golan Heights was an initial step toward Israel's assault on the Litani River, securing the eastern approaches to the proposed diversion works.

The Litani, located entirely within Lebanon, derives its hydro-political importance from the fact that it runs within easy tunneling distance to the present Israeli-Lebanese border. It runs actually less than 10 kilometers from the Israeli controlled upper reaches of the Jordan. Israel had hoped to connect the Litani with the Jordan, thus enabling it to pump those waters into Israel proper. The plan to seize the Litani has a long history. It had been articulated for the first time in the 1920s by one of the Zionist organisations but the objective became more serious following the 1967 war, as Israel wanted more water than had been garnered from the war. The timing for the capture of the Litani in 1978 was logical: if South Lebanon were secured at the time, the waters of the Litani would be available for Israeli use by some point in the mid-1980s, when Israel anticipated that the waters captured in the 1967 war would be fully used up and more water needed. However, as things stand now, the coveted waters of the Litani remain undeveloped for Lebanon and in limbo for Israel.

On the whole, the 1967 war secured the capture of about 900 mcm/y of water for the Israelis, or nearly half of their water use. These waters are now so many arguments against any kind of settlement with the Palestinians which would involve restitution of that water.

To make things even more difficult, there is another source of extra-boundary water that Israel diverts for its own use, albeit less obviously. The amount of water that Israel take from the underground of the West Bank is almost as important as the water diverted from the Upper Jordan Valley. This could surprise as the West Bank appears to be quite dry much of the year. In fact it receives more rain than the coastal plain, mostly in wintertime. As the soil is extremely porous much goes into the ground and thus into the aquifers underneath which is now pumped by the Israelis. This subsurface flow of water is a major contributor to Israel's water balance, representing with its 400 mcm/y of water just over 20% of total Israeli consumption. This explains why Palestinians have not been allowed to dig new wells since 1967 and why their water consumption was constantly restricted by the occupier: the hegemony over the West Bank is critical for Israel's water supply.

So, the issue of water resources in the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours is caught in a vicious circle. There can be no basic agreement on an equitable distribution of water resources until a formal Middle Eastern peace settlement has been concluded; but no such settlement can be concluded until an agreement on a balanced distribution of water has been reached.