ICE Case Studies

Case Number: 6

Case Identifier: JORDAN

Case Name: Jordan River Dispute

Case Author: Lilach Grunfeld, Spring 1997



1. Abstract

The struggle for fresh water in the Middle East was a primary cause of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and has contributed to other military disputes in the region. Like other conflicts that revolve around scarce environmental resources, there are ways to determine the likelihood of water issues escalating into a large scale multi-national conflict. The probability that the degree of scarcity of water to a region, the need of several nations to share one fresh water source, the military or economic power of the state that controls the water, and existence of other fresh water sources aids the ability to predict the causes and possible solutions for these conflicts. Perhaps the clearest example of a region where fresh water supplies have had strategic implications is the Middle East (Gleick, p.84). This study will examine the relationship between environmental resources and conflict using the ongoing dispute between Israel and Jordan over water supply of the Jordan river as an example.

2. Description

The Middle East region is known not only for its ideological, religious, and geo-political differences and disputes but also for the fact that it is extremely arid.

The scarcity of water is connected to meteorologic, geographic and demographic factors. Throughout most of the Middle East region rainfall is irregular. The rainy season is short, between 6-8 months a year, and rainfall varies between 250-400 mm annually, which is insufficient for basic agriculture which requires at least 400 mm of regular rainfall. Irregated agriculture is further restricted because there are only few major rivers in the Middle East - the Jordan River and the Nile among them. Furthermore, there is the issue of the vastly expanding population in the Middle East. This population growth stems from two sources, in Jordan the population increase is due to the birthrate and in Israel the large waves of immigrants in recent years have increased the population (Tall, p.69). According to recent statistics, the population of Jordan in 1990 was 3696 (thousands) and is predicted to be 6.5 (millions) in 2010. The population of Israel (including the West Bank and gaza) in 1990 was 6.7 (millions) and suppose to grow into 10.9 (millions) in the year of 2010 (Bar-El, p.5).

The Jordan River supplies Israel and Jordan with the vast majority of their water. Some hydrologists have identified 1000 cubic meters per person per year as a minimum water requirement for an efficient moderately industrialized nation. Inside Israel's border, the availability of water per-capita in 1990 was 470 cubic meters. It is estimated that by the year 2025 this availability will be reduced to 310 cubic meters (Glace, p.101). As such, over 50 percent of Israel's water sources rely on rain which falls outside of the Israeli border. Israel depends on water supply which either comes from rivers that originates outside the border, or from disputed lands.

For the State of Jordan, the Jordan River supplies about 75 percent of its needs (Tall, p.171). In contrast to Israel, only 36 percent of the total river flow originates outside the Jordanian border. However, in terms of water availability for the year of 1990, Jordan had only 260 cubic meters per capita, which is almost 1/4 less than the minimum water requirement for an industrial nation. Moreover, by the year 2025 it is estimated that Jordan will only have 80 cubic meters per capita per year (Glace, p.101).

Jordan and Israel are highly dependent upon the Jordan River. Jordan, however, is facing another environmental problem which increases the state's dependency on the water of the Jordan River. The main rivers in Jordan are the Jordan, the Yarmouk, and the Zarqa. While the the water quality of the Jordan and the Yarmouk Rivers considered to be good, the Zarqa River, flowing entirely within Jordan's borders, faces a pollution crisis that prohibit both access and the use of its water (Abu-Taleb, p.36).

The need for water and the continuing hostility between Israel and the surrounding Arab states, has placed the Jordan River as a central bargaining chip since Israel's establishment in 1948. The Israeli War of Independence was rooted in the fact that the Arab countries considered the State of Israel to be illegitimate. Connected to these declarations, the Arab states have persistently denounced the unilateral diversion of the Jordan River as completely illegal. The Israeli response has been that the surrounding Arabs nations were never willing to let Israel exist in peace. These historical disagreements intertwine with the dispute between Israel and Jordan in which the Jordan River plays a main role.

In order to understand the core of the conflict between Israel and Jordan around the Jordan River, it is important to note the different perceptions of water between the two countries. Jordan, as part of the Arab world, percieved the water problem as part of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Therefore, for Jordanian, water was always a matter of an Arab national pride (Copaken, p.84). For Israel, as a young country, water seemed to be an integral part of territory and a necessary resource for development (Copaken, p.56).

As the population of Israel grew, the reliance on the Jordan River grew to over 50 percent of their water wage. In the early 50's Israel created a National Water Carrier to transpot water from the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee to the Negev desert. These new waterways permitted cultivation of additional desert land. However, in the eyes of Arab nations in the 1950's, the National Water Carrier became a symbol of Israel's aggressive expansionism. In reaction, in 1955 Syrian artillery units opened fire on the Israeli construction team. In an attempt to settle the water dispute, American President Eisenhower appointed Eric Johnston as mediator (Cooley, p.9). Negotiations between Arab states and Israel on regional water-sharing agreements continued for more than two years with no actual success beyond a cease fire.

Following more than 10 years of silent tensions, the conflict flared again. The Syrian government, inside its borders, attempted to divert the Banyas River which is one of the Jordan River's tributaries. This was followed by three Israeli army and air-force attacks on the site of the diversion. These incidents regarding water issues led up to the outbreak of the Six-Day War in June 1967 between Israel against Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. During that war, Israel captured the Golan Heights and the site of the Banyas headwaters, which enabled Israel to prevent the diversion of the Banyas by the Syrians. Israel also gained control of the West-Bank, the Jordan River as well as the northern bank of the Yarmouk (Cooley, p.16).

In the year following the Six-Day War, Israel increased its water use from the Jordan River by 33 percent (Glace, p.85). Jordan, on the other hand, lost to significent access water from the Jordan River. The Jordanian's plans to expand usage of the river and its cannel system had to be terminated by the outcome of the war. Following the war, a large percentage of the sources of the Jordan River were controlled by Israel. In addition, Palestinians also took control over large sectors of the Jordan Valley that held these source waters (Reguer, p.76).

For Israel, the West Bank valley became a key water source because of its underground flow of water and wells. In order to provide water to north and central parts of the county, Israel depends on the water that comes from the Golan Heights as well as this area. These water sources are key elements in Israel's strategy to hold onto the West Bank and the Golan Heights (Cooley, p.16).

In the past twenty years, Israel and Jordan have searched for alternatives to maximize the use of water. For Jordan the main projects were the rehabilitation of the East Gohr Canal, the repair of the Yarmouk main canal tunnel, and the constructions of the rockfill dam on the Zarqa River - the King Talal dam. The economic benefits of these projects are enormous in terms of agricultural production and water supply to the region. About 36 new towns and villages have been built in the area and the agricultural productivity has greatly increased. It is important to note that the Yarmouk project required a mutual understanding with Israel, which has rights to the Jordan-Yarmouk waters (Reguer, p.81).

Israel, has recetly sought solutions to its water problems by applying advanced technology and environmental research to its efforts to bring water to the entire country. Large amounts of financial resources have been dedicated to find ways to increase efficiency of water usage. One remarkable breakthrough was the Israeli refined drip irrigation system, which delivers water directly to the root of the plant. The use of cloud seeding has also aided conservation efforts. Another plan was to use Mediterranean water, which required a process of desalination. Desalination involves removing the impurities from seawater by using either heat or pressure (Tal, p.173).

Each country developed independent alternatives in order to provide fresh wate to their people, but this was vey expensive. It became clear to Israel and to Jordan that any solution they developed would be only a temporary answer to the water problems. In the beginning of the 90's, water for both countries became an object for cooperation (copaken, p.56).

In addition to the need for cooperation around water, both Israel amd Jodan have come to realize that water is an object that needs protection (Abu-Taleb, p.37). However, this time it was not a protection from the enemy, but from pollution and other environmental disasters. Nevertheless, the two countries posses a different standard of living, which allows a different approach to the problem. Israel, as a first world country, may concern itself with environmental issues and seek solutions, while Jordan, as a developing country, does not have the ability to deal with such problems (copaken, p.86). As part of their new approach towards cooperation, Israel and Jordan began to seek a peace settlement, which would include water agreements and would take in to consideration the relative economic ability of each country.

On October 26 1994, the Prime Ministers of Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty. This peace agreement put an end to the state of war which had lasted for almost 50 years between the two countries. Some specific articles of the agreement deal with the Jordan River. Israel and Jordan have agreed to share the river. Both countries will create storage facilities to hold excess water from rain floods as well as build dams for river flow management. The parties agreed to provide water to one another. In terms of environmental conservation, Jordan and Israel are obligated to protect the river from pollution, contamination, or industrial disposal. Furthermore, according to the treaty, the countries will establish a joint water committee to oversee issues regarding the quality of the water (Hof, p.53). See the 'Peace Treaty' site for more details.

In these ways the 1994 agreement is doubly powerful in terms of water saving and environment protection as it ensures the supply of quality fresh water to both parties. According to Israeli news in 1997, Israel is ready to transfer 75 million cubic meters of high quality water to Jordan within the next three years (Israel Line 5/28/97). However, this treaty is only the beginning of a wider regional agreement which will need to include Syria and Lebanon. These countries, which are still in a state of war with Israel, struggle for the control over the Hasbani River and the Golan Heights rivers that are part of the tributaries to the Jordan River.

3. Duration: 1948 - Present

As mentioned in the Bible, conflicts over the Jordan River have occured since inhabitants moved to the area in ancient times: "And Gideon sent messengers throughout all the hill country of E'phraim, saying, 'Come down against the Mid'ianites and seize the water against them as far as Beth-Bara'ch, and also the Jordan'". The recent conflict between Jordan and Israel dates back to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, which was followed by the Israeli War of Independence. The next important point in the conflict is the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Jordan (Egypt and Syria). The conflict officialy ended with the Peace treaty between the two parties on October 26, 1994.

4. Location

Geographic Domain: MIDEAST

Geographic Site: ASIA

Geographic Impact: ISRAEL

The Jordan river originates in the mountains of eastern Lebanon. As the Jordan flows south through the entrance to the Great Syrian Rift Valley, it is fed from underground sources and small streams at various points in Jordan, Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. The Jordan's main sources are the Hasbani River, which flows from Lebanon to Israel, the Banyas River, which flows from Syria to Israel, the Dan River, which begins and flows inside Israel, and the Yarmouk River, which begins near the Golan Heights and flows to the Jordan River. Following its flow into 'Lake of Galilee', the Jordan River continues southward into the center of the Jordan Valley, forming the border between the western edge of Jordan and eastern side of Israel including part of the Palestinian Autonomy. The Jordan continues flowing into the Dead Sea, and then through a smaller stream it flows eventually into the Red Sea.

The Jordan River is the largest and longeest river that flows in Israel. Moreover, it is the only river within Israel that has a permanent flow year round. All other rivers in Israel dry up for periods of months and do not fill up until the winter. The other major rivers in Israel are contaminated with agricultural and industrial sewage, which makes the Jordan River the only natural and clean river in the country (Markus, p.71).

It is important to emphasize that the Jordan River, in spite of its relative large size in Israel, is actually a small river in international terms. The Jordan flows in a narrow valley. Its average width is about 1200 meters, and sometimes it limit itself into 500 meters only (Markus, p.38). The lower part of the river between Lake of Galilee and the Dead Sea is very curved. While the air distance between Lake of Galilee and the Dead Sea is 105km, the flow distance is 223km (markus, p.40).

II. Environment Aspects

There is an obvious link to environmental issues and the geopolitical conflict over the Jordan River between Jordan and Israel. The scarcity of water involves real threats to public health, agricultural, and industrial productivity. Clearly, as the population increases the demand for water increases as well. In the case of the Jordan River, the lack of alternatives for fresh water increases the dependency of both Israel and Jordan on the river. Control over the river by one party indicates a decrease in the amount of water for the other party. The 40 years of war between Israel and Jordan, in addition to the struggle over water, has emphasized the link between conflict and the environment.

 III. Conflict Aspects

Level of Conflict: Interstate

This dispute is an inter-state one since not only Israel and Jordan have attmpted to control the river, but other parties, such as Syria and the Palestinians, have also taken part in trying to control sections of the river. Israeli and Jordanian attempts to control the river were illustrated by several different constructions such as the King Talal dam, built by the Jordanians, and the National Water Carrier, built by the Israelis. These attempts led to reactions that often were followed by militant attacks. The Israeli War of Independence in 1948 and the Six-Day War in 1967 highlight this dispute as a 'war threat' conflict, in which the need for water often encouraged actual war between states.

IV. Related Information and Sources

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2. San Diego ­Tijuana Water Problems

3. Ataturk Dam and Environment

4. Colorado River Dispute

5. Israel­Jordan Water Dispute

6. Lesotho Water Exports

7. Mekong River Dam

8. Baikal Wood Pulp Pollution

9. James Bay Project

10. Aral Sea Loss and Cotton

11. The Los Angeles Aqueduct and the Owens and Mono Lakes

12. Israel and Lebanon's Conflict over the Litani

13. Nile River and Conflict

14. Danube Pollution

15. Assyrian Water Warfare

16. Dead Sea Canal

Relevant Websites and Literature


1. Abu-Taleb, F. Maher, "Environmental management in Jordan: Problems and recommendations", Environmental Conservation, Vol 21, spring 1994, pp:35-40.

2. Coooley K. John, "The war over water", Foreign Policy, No 54, spring 1984, pp:3-26.

3. Hof F. Frederick. "The Yarmouk and Jordan rivers in the Israel-Jordan peace treaty", Middle East Policy, Vol 3, No 4, April 1995, pp:47-56.

4. Gleick H. Peter, "water and conflict", International Security, Vol 18, No 1, Summer 1993, pp:79-112.

5. Government of Israel. "Programs for regional cooperation", November 1996.

6. Reguer Sara, "Controversial waters: Exploitation of the Jordan river, 1950-80", Middle Eastern Studies, Vol 29, No 1, January 1993, pp:53-90.

7. Tal Lawerence, "On the banks of the stormy Jordan: The coming Middle East water crisis", Contemporary Review, Vol 260, No 1515, April 1992, pp:169-174.

8. Israel Line -

9. Copaken S. Nina, "The perception of water as part of territory in Israeli and Arab ideologies between 1964 and 1993: Twoard a further understanding of the Arab-Jewish conflict", (Working paper No.8), University of Haifa, May 1996.

10. Dr. Bar-El Raphael, "The long term water balance East and West of the Jordan River", National and Economic planning authority, Israel, May 1995.

11. Markus Menachem, "The Jordan Valley and Eastern Sumaria" 'Bikat Hayarden Ve Mizrach Hashomron',(in Hebrew), 1992.


1.Development Options for Cooperation : Mideast/East Mediterranean

2.Core Issues of the Palestinian-Israeli Water Dispute

3.The Israel-Jordan's Peace Treaty

4.Ariga: Green Pages

5.State of Israel Web-Site

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