Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Political Context

The Jordan River. Photo: Magnus Manske.The political climate in the Middle East makes it impossible to discuss water without addressing the political contexts that have shaped its availability. The roots of the water conflict can be traced back to the British Mandate period when the British government commissioned the hydrologist Michael Ionides to conduct a study of the water resources and irrigation potential in the Jordan Valley Basin. This formed the main reference for the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which recommended the division of British Mandate Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.

Following the 1948 war and the establishment of the state of Israel, the new government launched a project to divert water from the Jordan River to the Negev region in the south of the country through the National Water Carrier (NWC). Construction works for the NWC started in 1953 but were halted after Arab objections to the project. In 1955, the United States presented the Johnston Plan in a bid to resolve the regional water dispute. However, the plan, which outlined water distribution quotas for the countries sharing the Jordan River Basin (at the time Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria), was never ratified and the countries began exploiting the resource unilaterally.[1]

In 1964, Syria began building dams to divert water from the Banias and Dan Rivers in the Golan Heights. Israel considered these water diversions to be a threat to its water resources and destroyed the project. Some scholars contend that this was one of the triggers of the Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel gained control over the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and their respective water resources.

After its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel gained military control of the Palestinian territories and imposed severe restrictions on Palestinian water resources. The banks of the Jordan River became a closed military zone and Palestinians were deprived access to the only surface water resource in the West Bank. Israel also introduced a number of regulations restricting Palestinian access to water and revoking all Palestinian control over the only groundwater resource in the area, the Mountain Aquifer. The Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995 gave Palestinians hope that they would gain sovereignty over their water resources. However, the outline agreements have yet to be fully ratified.

Today, Israel maintains control over most of the Palestinian water resources, including full control over the Mountain Aquifer in the West Bank. The average Palestinian receives 60-90 litres of water per day (L/d), below the World Health Organization’s minimum standard of 100 L/d.

The quality and quantity of water in Israel and Palestine have been deteriorating steadily since the beginning of the occupation. Moreover, natural water resources in the region are not being shared equitably and are at risk of being permanently degraded or lost due to overuse and pollution.

Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights is also important for the country’s water security. Rainwater draining from the Golan is an important water source for Israel’s largest freshwater reservoir, Lake Kinneret. Furthermore, the Banias River, a tributary of the Jordan River that originates in the Golan Heights, forms an important water resource in itself, and also drains into Lake Kinneret.[2]

The shared nature of freshwater resources and the ongoing degradation of these resources continue to be a source of tension in the region and a major issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

UN-controlled border crossing between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights. Photo: Escla.
UN-controlled border crossing between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights. Photo: Escla.

[1] Isaac, J., 1999. ‘The Essentials of Sustainable Water Resource Management in Israel and Palestine’.
[2] Inbar, E., 2011. ‘Israeli Control of the Golan Heights: High Strategic and Moral Ground for Israel’, Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 90. Published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.