Advertisement Close

Disputes Over Water and The Jordan River

posted on: May 27, 2021

Disputes Over Water and The Jordan River
Jordan River basin. Photo: Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia

By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer


Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century as tons of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, changing the climate at an unforeseeable pace.  Millions would be affected and new problems will arise, one of them is the lack of water leading to one of the most serious issues due to climate change, the potential conflicts over water known as water wars.  These disputes over water will cause major fighting around the world from India and Pakistan to Egypt and Ethiopia.  However, another major theatre related to these new water wars, and one that has been happening over the past few decades is the dispute over the Jordan River by Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Israel.  

History of the Jordan River Pre-1967

Disputes Over Water and The Jordan River
Image of the Jordan River by

This conflict first started after the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 as Jordan, Israel, and Syria all unilaterally took water from the Jordan River and its tributaries with Jordan trying to divert this water to the tributary Yarmouk River for irrigation purposes through the construction of the East Ghor Canal, and Israel diverting its water as well as water from Lake Tiberias to irrigate the Negev Desert.  A major factor contributing to the failure to discuss water-sharing agreements was the continuing hostility between Israel and the Arab states of Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon from the 1948 war.  One of these disputes involved Israel digging a diversion canal inside the demilitarized zone that was established after the 1948 war.  The Syrians were alarmed by this and went to the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) stating that the demilitarized zone didn’t mean it was Israel’s territory to exploit water from and was worried about the remaining waters of the Jordan that would be left to the Arabs.

The UNTSO chief of staff agreed with Syria’s assessment and pressured Israel to leave the demilitarized zone.  Events such as these convinced the United States to send U.S. special envoy, Eric Johnston, to the Middle East in order to have a multilateral water-sharing agreement between the countries over the river.  However, Johnston’s efforts failed, and after this the Israelis would then start their National Water Carrier Project, siphoning water from Lake Tiberias as mentioned earlier.  This action would then lead to an Arab League response as during the Arab Summit League in January 1964, they proposed diverting the Jordan River’s headwaters towards the Yarmouk for it to be used by Syria and Jordan, and soon clashes would erupt between Syria and Israel over such water disputes.  These factors combined with an Egyptian mobilization, and an Israeli preemptive attack led to the 6-day war

The Golan Heights and Other Water Sources in the Present Day

Disputes Over Water and The Jordan River
Image of the Golan Heights by

This water conflict would take on a new dimension after the 6-day war as the Israelis would take not only the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank from Jordan, but also the Golan Heights from Syria.  This occupied Syrian territory is a rocky and mountainous plateau, which forms the headwaters of the Jordan River giving Israel access to the downstream of the Jordan River, and would also allow them to take full control of Lake Tiberias after Syria lost its northeastern shore to the Israelis.  This occupation has led to extensive use of the Golan Heights’ water by Israel as the 200 or so streams and springs have been made into reservoirs for the Israeli settlements there, and there has also been the construction of eight deepwater wells leading to 2.6 million gallons to be extracted from this region.

However, despite this, there would soon be agreements between these neighboring riparian states such as the Oslo II agreement where Israel recognizes the right of the Palestinians with regard to the Jordan River waters, or the 1991 Madrid Conference where Israel agreed to divert some water from the Jordan River to the Yarmouk in order for Jordan to meet its water needs. However, despite some agreements in the past few decades, there is still much conflict over water as Syria and Lebanon don’t have an agreement with Israel, and the Israelis have been taking most of the water from the Palestinians in terms of not just the Jordan River but the water beneath them.  Currently, around 80% of the water in the aquifers of the Israeli-occupied West Bank is diverted to Israel, which makes up 40% of their water supply while only 20% goes to the West Bank Palestinians according to the World Bank.

Meanwhile, Gaza has had a much more difficult time as they lack efficient water sanitation leading to outbreaks of diseases such as cholera.  The potential for future water wars has been compounded by the official recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights by the U.S., and Israel’s subsequent reluctance to hand over this region.  All of this combined with the devastating impacts of climate change causing more unpredictable rainfall patterns leading to less water to go around has increased the potential of conflict in the region over water.  Hopefully, there is a way that everyone can drink enough water in the face of climate change and prevent future water wars before they have a chance to begin. 

Check out Arab America’s blog here!