Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Surface Water

Lake Kinneret. Photo: Amir Aharoni.The major rivers in Israel with a year-round flow are the Jordan, Kishon, Yarkon and Yarmouk Rivers. The remaining surface water resources, known as wadis, are seasonal. Lake Kinneret is the only lake in Israel.

Lake Kinneret

Situated at an altitude of 213 metres below sea level, Lake Kinneret is the world’s lowest freshwater lake and one of Israel’s most important freshwater resources, supplying approximately 25% of the country’s fresh water. The watershed of Lake Kinneret covers 2,730 km2. The Kinneret Basin has its main water source in the approximately 1,700 km2 upper catchment of the Jordan River, which includes about 920 km2 in Israel and about 780 km2 in Syria and Lebanon.[1] The main source of water to Lake Kinneret is rain- and snowfall from the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights, which mainly flows into the lake through the Upper Jordan River. A number of springs and small streams also discharge into the lake.

On average, for the period 1980-2010, Lake Kinneret has had a water availability of around 385 MCM/yr. This amount is, however, steadily decreasing as a result of lower precipitation levels and rising levels of consumption upstream. Water availability in the lake is predicted to decrease to around 340 MCM/yr for the period 2010-2030.[2]

Around 200 million cubic metres (MCM) of water is diverted annually from the lake to the National Water Carrier, Israel’s centralized water grid that transfers water from Lake Kinneret to the centre and south of the country for domestic and agricultural use.[3] An additional 100 MCM/yr of water is supplied to consumers around the lake and 55 MCM/yr is supplied to Jordan as part of the 1994 peace treaty.

Israel’s Water Commissioner is responsible for monitoring the lake’s water levels and the quality of the water.[4] The level of Lake Kinneret is regulated according to ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ red lines. These red lines are determined according to water quality of the lake for potable water consumption. The upper red line represents the lake’s ideal level according to Israel’s potable water standards, while the lower red line represents the lake’s minimum level for potable water quality below which there would be a risk of increases in salinity and algal blooms. The lower red line was originally set at -212 m but was lowered to -213 m in 1986 and -214 m in 2000.[5]

The Jordan River. Photo: Petr Broz.
The Jordan River. Photo: Petr Broz.

Jordan River

The Jordan River originates from three main springs: the Banias in the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, the Dan in Israel and the Hasbani in Lebanon. With a total length of 223 km, the river flows south to Lake Kinneret and discharges in the Dead Sea. The river is divided into the Upper Jordan River (from the confluence of the Banias, Dan and Hasbani to Lake Kinneret) and the Lower Jordan River (from Lake Kinneret to the Dead Sea).

The Jordan River Basin is shared between Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. However, the water in the basin is not shared equitably in the region, with Israel extracting 580-640 MCM/yr whereas Jordan extracts around 290 MCM/yr, Syria around 450 MCM/yr and Lebanon 9-10 MCM/yr.[6] Palestine has not had access to the river or its water resources since 1967.

The construction of dams and diversion projects in the Jordan River Basin over the last 60 years has caused a severe decline in the flow of the Lower Jordan River, which has dropped from a historical 1,320 MCM/yr to around 50 MCM/yr today. This water is highly polluted and saline. The decline of the Lower Jordan River has had direct consequences for the level of the Dead Sea, which has lost about 30% of its surface area over the last 20 years.[7]

Kishon River

The 70 km-long Kishon River in northern Israel is the only surface water resource that is not shared. The river is fed from small streams and wadis in the Mountains of Gilboa and the Nazareth Hills of Lower Galilee. The headwaters of the river come together in the western plain of the Esdraelon where there is a three-mile-long dam.[8] The Kishon River Basin is Israel’s second largest coastal river basin with an area of around 1,110 km2. The last seven kilometres of the river are heavily polluted, with free-flowing wastewater draining into Haifa Bay. The natural ecosystem along this part of the river has been destroyed.[9]

Yarkon River

Located in central-west Israel, the Yarkon River originates at springs near Rosh Ha-‘Ayin. The Yarkon flows west for approximately 26 km to northern Tel Aviv-Yafo where it discharges into the Mediterranean Sea. Part of the river’s watershed extends eastward into the West Bank. The river’s water level and quality have been deteriorating since 1955, following the construction of the Yarkon-Negev Project, the precursor of the National Water Carrier and part of the National Water Plan.[10]

Yarmouk River

The Yarmouk River, the main tributary of the Jordan River, originates in Syria and discharges in the Lower Jordan River. The Yarmouk River Basin covers an area of nearly 7,000 km2 and is shared between Israel, Jordan and Syria. The river’s annual flow has dropped sharply over the last 50 years from around 450-500 MCM to 40 MCM as a result of extensive dam construction on the river in Syria and groundwater pumping in the upper parts of the basin in Israel, Jordan and Syria. Jordan also diverts around 100 MCM/yr through the King Abdullah Canal for irrigation in the eastern Jordan River Valley.

Yarkon River. Photo: Ilana Shkolnik.
Yarkon River. Photo: Ilana Shkolnik.
The Kishon River. Photo: Hanay.
The Kishon River. Photo: Hanay.

[1] Weinberger, G. et al., 2012. The Natural Water Resources Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Mekorot, The Water Level of Lake Kinneret.
[4] Markel, D. and Shamir, U., 2002. ‘Monitoring Lake Kinneret and Its Watershed: Forming the Basis for Management of a Water Supply Lake’, Water Resources Quality, 2002, 177–90.
[5] Weinberger, G. et al., 2012. The Natural Water Resources Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
[6] bid.
[7] UN-ESCWA & BGR, 2013. ‘The Jordan River Basin’. In: Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia.
[8] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2015. Qishon River.
[9] Israel Ministry of Environment and Protection, 2014. Kishon River Authority.
[10] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2015. Yarqon River.