Water diplomacy
in the Middle East

by Mostafa Dolatyar
University of Newcastle

This paper © Mostafa Dolatyar

Paper reproduced from
The Middle Eastern Environment
published by St Malo Press
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Protection and optimal use of the environment have in recent years moved so rapidly into the mainstream of international affairs that some politicians claim democracy, prosperity, security, international co-operation, and the environment are all interconnected. There is also a consensus that no country acting alone can have a significant effect on global and regional environmental problems and that the failure of collective action will curb any achievement. In the Middle East, access to water has always been a key environmental factor in the politics of the region. In the context of policy proposals made by Middle Eastern countries in the last three decades, environmental considerations have deeply influenced both domestic and foreign policies within the region. While the resource geopolitics of the region has been dominated by oil - the most plentiful natural resource of the region and one which affects international relations throughout the world - water, the scarcest natural resource of the region, affects relations between Middle Eastern countries even more than oil does. Indeed, so vital to the region is fresh water that the lack of adequate supplies has forced Middle Eastern leaders into strange and sometimes unwanted alliances and confrontations. This is mainly because the predominance of trans-national rivers and aquifers in the Middle East limits the extent to which water problems can be resolved at an intra-state level.

As a cardinal environmental issue, the lack of water has critically shaped the foreign policy of Middle Eastern countries in their mutual relationships. This is what is known as “water diplomacy”. Since the most serious water conflicts in the region have centred on control of the tributaries and groundwater reservoirs of the Jordan-Yarmouk River basin and since its water resources are still an integral part both of the on-going conflict and of the current peace process, this paper focuses on water politics in this basin and deals only with Israel and its neighbours. The aim of the paper is to introduce a new interpretation of water diplomacy in which water is seen as an important factor in determining a country’s foreign policy, one which has caused war and featured peace, but which is unlikely to cause a new war.

The struggle for the possession of land and water has been the two-pronged basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The conflict began in this basin as a result of the rise of early Zionism with its aim of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine and the area has been the centre of intense interstate conflict since the establishment of Israel in 1948. As soon as the Zionist movement started settling the Jews in Palestine, it took an intense interest in water. Its aspiration to “make the desert bloom” (Ben Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister) reflected the ideological view that water was the “lifeblood” of the system, “a prerequisite for a new society” and a “nation rooted in its land”. While water carries ideological weight for Israelis, as Naff and Matson clearly point out, it has also been linked to the crucial matter of settlements which are seen as essential for security purposes: useful as a first step in consolidating territory and in providing frontier resistance - and thus time - in case of attack. Water has been so strongly related to the national interest through agriculture, security, and ideology that the former prime minister Moshe Sharett declared: “Water to us is life itself.” These observations led some analysts such as Naff and Matson to conclude that “reshaping the basic Israeli view of the water problem would thus be extremely difficult”.

By 1991, however, events had combined to shift the emphasis from competition and confrontation over water to potential co-operation. The first event was a long drought in the 1980s as years of below-average rainfall generated an atmosphere of emergency among policy-makers. Water tables dropped, shallow wells dried, and the Sea of Galilee - which had been supplying almost one-third of Israel’s demands - reached its lowest level for 60 years. State Comptroller Miriam Ben Porat issued a special report in January 1991, confirming that “in practical terms, Israel has no water reserves in its reservoirs”. Ben Porat blamed the Agriculture Ministry for allocating too much water to farmers while ignoring warnings of shortages. “Today, there is a real danger that it will be impossible to provide water in enough quantity and quality even in the short term,” she stated. This situation caused a dramatic tightening in the water-management practices of each of the riparian states including rationing, cut-backs to agriculture, restructuring of water pricing and allocations, and searches for alternative supplies. Further events were world-wide in nature, but clearly crystallised in the Middle East. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, together with the Gulf War of 1990-1, caused a realignment of political alliances in the Middle East which finally enabled the first public face-to-face peace talks between Arabs and Israelis to take place in Madrid on October 30, 1991. During the Madrid Talks, Israel insisted on multilateral negotiations concerning five subjects deemed “regional”, including water resources, the environment, economic development, arms control, and refugees.

Since the Madrid negotiations, which were co-sponsored by the US and Russia, and since the launch of multilateral talks in Moscow in January 1992, there have been numerous seminars, conferences, and papers concerning the scarcity of water resources in the Middle East and the impact of that scarcity on the region’s politics. Discounting the political rhetoric from all sides, many writers and analysts have claimed that given the natural circumstances, “multilateral co-operation” is the region’s only choice to avoid the coming water crisis erupting into wars. Some observers have gone further, quoting from Jean-Jacques Rousseau that “water does not ‘belong’ to any one person or one country, but to humankind” and they conclude that “the water in the Middle East belongs to the region and its peripheral areas”. Expressing his anxiety about the future, Shimon Peres declared that “the water shortage proves the objective necessity of establishing a regional system”. Otherwise, he cautioned, “the Yarmouk basin may again become the source of dangerous hostility. Yet, he rightly confirmed that like all wars in the political and strategic reality of our times, wars fought over water do not solve anything. Gunfire will not drill wells to irrigate the thirsty land, and after the dust of war has settled, the original problems remain. No war can change geographical givens.” While it is true that the water shortage is worsening, neither Peres nor others have mentioned the real reason for such a new emphasis on co-operation for the establishment of a regional water policy. What really has motivated the policy-makers of a country, whose origins are rooted in war and confrontation, to advocate co-operation instead of confrontation and integration instead of fragmentation? A brief examination of Israel’s water policy discloses how far its ideologically motivated policy - the quest for water to green the desert - has changed its tactics.

A glance at the history of Israel’s water policy reveals how its tactical emphasis has shifted while its dominant strategy has never changed. Israel’s water policy has passed through four stages. The first stage is distinguished by bargaining for water. The second stage can be characterised as the development of national and shared water resources. The third stage is marked by Israeli occupation of the region’s head waters. And the fourth stage is a return to bargaining tactics. During these four stages, Israel has maintained a single master policy: to increase its water resources and overcome environmental constraints in “making the desert bloom” and to make the Jewish homeland meet the needs of an ever-increasing population which seeks improved economic and social conditions. These stages are detailed as follows:

1) Period of bargaining for water (1918-48)
From the early years of Zionism as a political movement, water has been centrally important in the quest for land and in delimiting the desired territories without regard to “biblical” promises and claims. Soon after the first world war in 1918, and following Balfour’s promise of the national home for the Jews in Palestine, Zionist leaders demanded that the allied countries alter some of the borders mentioned in the Sykes-Picot accord to include the headwaters and tributaries of the Jordan River, the Lower Litani, and the Lower Yarmouk, embracing all the Palestine lands, southern parts of Lebanon and Syria, and the Jordan valley.

Chaim Weizman, the Zionist leader who eventually became Israel’s first president, raised this issue in his letter to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, following the San-Remo accord. He said that “the accord draft France proposed not only separates Palestine from the Litani River, but also deprives Palestine from the Jordan River sources, the east coast of the Sea of Galilee and all the Yarmouk valley north of the Sykes-Picot line. I am quite sure you are aware of the expected bad future the Jewish national home would face when that proposal is carried out. You also know the great importance of the Litani River, the Jordan River with its tributaries, and the Yarmouk River for Palestine.” When the Zionist leaders failed to secure the Litani and the River Jordan’s headwaters, they tried to establish settlements in Syria and Lebanon, but French opposition stymied these attempts as well.

The French position, though, did not prevent comprehensive hydrological investigation and assessment of the region. Among several studies which were conducted in this field - e.g., Ionides’s report in 1939, Hayes’s report in the same year, the Lowdermilk’s report in 1944, the Klab study in 1949, and McDonald’s in 1950 - “the Zionists welcomed Lowdermilk’s plan and considered it as their water constitution”. Lowdermilk proposed using the waters of the Jordan, Yarmouk, Banias, Hasbani, Dan, and Zarqa - a river in East Jordan - in a comprehensive plan to irrigate the Jordan Valley, much of northern Galilee, and northern Palestine. He also suggested diverting the Litani in southern Lebanon to form an artificial lake in northern Palestine whose waters would be pumped southward to irrigate the Negev Desert. An early version of the Med-Dead Canal was also included in his proposals.

By the end of the second world war, the problem of accommodating the needs of the native Palestinians and the new Jewish immigrants crowding into Palestine became acute and the Arab-Israeli wars of 1947-8, which resulted in Israel’s creation, complicated the efforts for a regional water solution. With sovereignty came the power to control water resources. The Zionist leaders abandoned the idea of regional development of water resources and shifted to planning at the national level. The new state of Israel thus became determined unilaterally to tap, develop, and exploit any available water resource.

2) Period of developing national and shared water resources (1948-67)
Having established their own state in their promised land 47 years ago, Zionists were determined to “make the desert bloom.” After the Law of Return was passed in 1950, allowing world Jewry permanent residence in Israel, waves of Jewish immigrants swept into the country. The expected immigration required massive water resources to meet rising demand, but the amount of water in Israel was insufficient to meet the needs of the newcomers. The Jordan-Yarmouk watershed was then shared by four sovereign states and any development of it had to be a zero-sum game. Arab waters were not a surplus. They were instead sources upon which the development projects of Israel and its neighbours depended. From this time onwards, water gained one more dimension. In addition to its links with demographic change, nationalism, security, economic development, and ideology, water was now a matter of foreign policy.

The failure of several proposals for regional water-sharing in this period, confirms the claim that water was now involved in the foreign policy-making both of Arab countries and of Israel. For instance, in 1952 when the American engineer M.G. Banger presented an UNWRA-initiated proposal to use Yarmouk water to alleviate water shortages in Jordan and Syria, Israel related every solution to her sharing the water to the issue of direct or indirect recognition of the Jewish state by the Arabs. President Eisenhower’s special envoy Eric Johnston also failed to reach an agreement on a regional water-sharing arrangement because Israel rejected it as long as the Arabs approved it. Conversely, when Syria and Lebanon no longer approved the proposal because of internal political changes, Israel announced her “conditional agreement”. Israel’s tactics were aimed at frustrating any proposal which did not serve her strategic interests. She responded to the Arabs’disapproval of the proposal by starting a new project - the National Water Carrier -to divert waters which originated from Arab countries.

To the Arabs, Israel’s National Water Carrier became a symbol of aggressive expansionism to which they responded with their own diversion plans. Israel, in turn, considered the Arab response a danger to its national security and decided to use all its powers - including military - to impede it. Arabs, likewise, took the same stand. The first military action by the Palestinian National Liberation Movement al-Fatah targeted the Israeli National Water Carrier. When Israel used its military power to hit the Syrian construction sites, a series of skirmishes occurred which eventually led to war in June, 1967. After its battle for existence in 1948, Israel had to fight for a secure access to water resources. Ariel Sharon, later Israel’s defence minister, explained that “people generally regard 5 June, 1967 as the day the six-day war began, that is the official date. But in reality, it started two and a half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan.” Sharon’s remarks were, indeed, a new version of Ben Gurion’s earlier assertion that the Jews and the Arabs would battle over water and the consequences of the battle would determine Palestine’s future.

Regardless of other aims that triggered the war between the Arabs and the Jews, victory enabled Israel to fulfil much of its strategy aimed at controlling waters not only in Palestine, but also in Jordan, southern Lebanon, and southern Syria.

3) Period of developing the Occupied Territories’ water resources (1968-90)
For Israel, the central problem following the 1967 war was to preserve its diminishing domestic water supplies and to make efficient use of water resources captured from its neighbours. Water in the Arab farmers’ wells in the West Bank became a key element. From the beginning of Israeli occupation, military authorities prohibited West Bank Arabs from drilling new wells without special permission which, according to John Cooley, was almost impossible to obtain. The occupying authorities likewise blocked or sealed many existing wells and determined Arabs’ access to water by a very restrictive consumption quota. In a report to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., Joyce Starr and Daniel Stoll wrote that “the main water potential of the West Bank is exploited in a ratio of 4.5 per cent to the West Bank and 95.5 per cent to Israel”. Israel also began to divert the Jordan River’s flow by 50 per cent or 75 per cent, depending on whether one accepts Israeli or Arab figures. Today, Israel’s National Water Carrier diverts most of the water that once passed down the Jordan valley. It is the new man-made River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee has become its holding tank.

Even as Israel mobilised its potential to exploit all accessible water resources, its agriculture became more dependent upon irrigation such that demands for water likewise steadily increased. Irrigation in Israel’s crop-producing region increased from 15 per cent in 1950 to about 64.2 per cent by the late 1980s. During this period, the average water use/unit area fell by one-third with the introduction of more efficient water application techniques, such as drip systems. Nevertheless, water demand steadily rose as more immigrants arrived, more land was cultivated and the population of the country grew. The situation in other riparian states has always been the same as in Israel. Ever-growing population, expansion of agriculture, and over-utilisation of the drainage basin by these countries made some writers describe the Jordan River as a “carrier of a saline trickle to the Dead Sea”.

By the early 1980s it was quite clear that the Negev Desert reclamation could not be achieved without additional water resources. Given water scarcity, the high costs of desalinisation and other unconventional methods of supplying water, and the pollution of surface and ground waters, Israel sought other natural supplies of water from the Litani. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 under the pretext of security. But as Hewedy states, “the broader incentive for the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was to secure the waters of the Litani River. The avowed objective to protect the northern borders from Palestinian attacks is not convincing to most military observers. Rather, the thrust appears directed at finally seizing control of Litani River.” Many view Israel’s retention of southern Lebanon as an extension of its persistent efforts to secure the Litani waters. That view is supported by what Moshe Sharett wrote in his diary: “The Israeli army will enter Lebanon, will occupy the necessary territory and will create a Christian regime that will ally itself with Israel. The territory from the Litani southwards will be totally annexed to Israel and everything will be all right.”

Because of the unexpected resistance it faced in Lebanon, however, Israel withdrew its forces. But need for the Litani River made Israel establish a security zone which secured access to the water. The amount of water that Israel diverts from Litani is a matter of controversy. Nevertheless, Israel’s planners concluded that the appropriation of the Litani waters even to the extent of adding some 500 million cubic metres to Israel’s water supplies can be conceived of only as a short-term solution, given the present structure of water policy and economy, and given the average increase of Israel’s water consumption by one per cent per year. Israel’s planners have admitted that present supplies can scarcely meet the country’s current needs - let alone meet the expected level of consumption beyond the year 2000 - unless the country concentrates on expensive desalination plants or finds ways to increase substantially the recycling of waste water. But a huge desalination program would require enormous capital investment. The cost of supplying 700 million cubic metres/year, for instance, ranges between $1.2 billion and $1.8 billion per year, an amount which Israel cannot afford and the US is not ready to pay.

To meet Israel’s long-term water requirements, the best answer appeared to lie in harnessing a proportion of the major rivers of the Middle East - the Nile, the Euphrates or the Seyhan and Ceyhan rivers in Turkey. Getting access to the waters of the Nile was part and parcel of the Camp David talks. According to John Bulloch, Israeli delegates suggested during negotiations that there should be co-operation on water projects. In particular, they wanted about one per cent of the Nile flow to be diverted into a pipeline to the Negev. President Sadat, however, was eventually forced to abandon this idea because of severe domestic opposition to it. Because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which also had hydrological implications, was still unsettled, the Arabs likewise rejected Turkey’s 1987 proposal of the “Peace Pipeline” to carry its excess water to Israel and to other water-scarce countries of the region.

Table 1 Israel’s water supply sources and consumption for 1990/1 (Source: Zarour, 1993)

SourceMillion cubic metres
Golan Heights 280
West Bank 415
Lebanon, Syria, Jordan 215
Total 1,655
Israel annual consumption 1,655

In 1991, some 55 per cent of Israel’s total water supplies came from non-Israeli sources (Table 1). At the same time, Syria planned to divert 40 per cent of the Yarmouk’s flow into its irrigation system, a plan which threatened Jordan’s water supplies. The Syrian plan would seriously reduce downstream supply and increase its salinity. These threats of water shortage and the possibility of new conflicts over water heralded both a basic change and a breakthrough in the region’s water diplomacy. The ending of the Cold War and the Gulf War of 1990-1 facilitated this breakthrough.

4) Period of return to bargaining tactic (1991- present)
The break-up of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War of 1990-1 reshaped the basic political order of the Middle East. This US-backed change made most of the Arab countries reassess their attitude toward Israel. For its part, Israel seized upon this opportunity to offer a series of bilateral peace negotiations with its immediate neighbours and multilateral talks with other Arab countries to build “the New Middle East”. Water and other environmental issues have been among the most important key points in such bilateral and mulitlateral negotiations. For example, the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, signed on October 26, 1994, includes five annexes, two of which address water and environmental issues. Negotiations between Israel and Syria have been very sluggish, mostly because of the importance of the Golan Heights’ water supplies for both parties. About 25 per cent of Israel’s water supplies are taken from the Sea of Galilee and channelled through the water carrier to the central and southern Israel. Israeli leaders view maintaining access to this water-rich area as a security problem. This fact led Prime Minister Rabin to state that “should a peace treaty including a significant withdrawal on the Golan Heights be negotiated with Syria, the proposed treaty will be put to a national referendum before it is signed”.

In bilateral talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the issue of water has been the thorniest factor. Since the water resources of the Occupied Territories have been over-exploited for a long time - as much as 200 million cubic metres/year - many writers believe “it is water that determines the future of the Occupied Territories and thereupon will determine peace and security”. In a final settlement, Israel would have to give up the West Bank which provides about 25 per cent of its fresh water supplies and gives it control of the southern portion of the Jordan River. But Israel seems unlikely to agree to this. The concept of “soft borders”, initiated by Israel’s Foreign Secretary, indicates that Israeli leaders are not ready to return water resources of the West Bank. Instead, they see “soft borders” as “the only way to equitably solve the problem of distributing water, and the most efficient way to develop agriculture and industry that can compete successfully in world markets”. There is no doubt that such a development depends on having access to more water supplies. Extensive economic co-operation between the Israelis and the Palestinians played an important role in the joint Declaration of Principles, signed on September 13, 1993. Needless to say, however, co-operation implies sharing and sharing means that some parties will at times be worse off than they now are. This is what neither the Israelis nor Palestinians are ready to accept. The question now is whether to treat the water resources as a “zero-sum game” or as a means to make all parties much better off. Multilateral negotiations may hold the solution to this question.

Since the inauguration of the Madrid talks, the Israelis have been busy working on two multilateral proposals. One proposal is to establish a regional system to transfer water from areas of plenty to areas of need. The second proposal is for desalination. The Israelis are well aware that over-development will aggravate the water problem (Peres, 1993) and argue that, because the region’s people cannot live with the status quo for another 10 to 20 years, an alternative must be found. The best alternative, they suggest, is an integrated regional development initiative. Indeed, Peres envisages a new Middle East that would develop on similar lines to NAFTA, ASEAN or the EU. He suggests that the Arab oil-producing countries should donate one per cent of their revenues towards regional development that would stretch from Eritrea and Yemen, through the Persian Gulf to Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and, of course, Israel. New trans-national railways and roads would be built, water piped, canals constructed, oil distributed, and at the final stage the desert would turn from brown to green [Emphasis added].

On the second proposal, some Israelis think that if a general peace is reached in the Middle East, Arab oil money and Israeli technology may combine to find an economic nuclear or solar means of desalinating sea water. In theory, it seems likely that peace would end Arab-Israeli rivalry over water, but it is just as likely that water would prevent peace. With peace, the scene could definitely change as investment is unlocked, but it is the very desire to maximise the use of resources such as water that has helped lead Israel and its neighbours into conflict. Current peace negotiations seem to offer a new bargaining table on water issues for both parties. On the one hand, Arabs are trying to regain the land and water they have lost while on the other hand - acknowledging that the continuing struggle of the past decades is fruitless - Israel is haggling to obtain access to new supplies of water without losing its regional dominance. Israel’s continued determination to prevent the creation of an independent Palestinian state and to retain full control over Jerusalem is a powerful reaffirmation of its desire to maintain regional dominance.

Water policy in the Middle East has been subject to significant pressure in recent years from environmental and political forces. Water diplomacy appears to provide an example of the difficulties of managing a multi-actor policy environment where new players induce new behavioural norms. A study of the evolution and dynamics of Israel’s water diplomacy indicates that its policy-makers - having understood the limitations of their arid environment - are looking both to the sea and to the region’s wetter lands to generate more water instead of coming to accept the need to live within their hydrological means. It is true that the idea of making the desert of Palestine bloom was one of the founding pillars of the Zionist movement, but that dream has become perverted. It is also true that the agriculture lobby is very effective and has considerable influence in Israel’s politics. But there must be a just distribution of the region’s water to its people. Arnon Soffer, the water advisor at the Israeli Foreign Ministry offers a more realistic view, saying that the day must soon come when the Israeli policy-makers begin “to allocate water according to economic rather than political priorities”. He further believes that Israel could decide against allocating more orange orchards and could instead direct its energies towards, e.g., making computers. It seems, however, that Israel continues to pursue its old strategy of looking by itself for additional resources that could be found more easily in a shared water project funded by Arab capital in conjunction with international and Israeli technology.


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