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Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Shared Water Resources in Jordan

Jordan Valley - Shared Water Resources in Jordan
Photo 1: Flock of sheep in the Jordan Valley, Jordan. (Credit : Ruben Vermeer)

As outlined in Water Resources, most of Jordan’s water resources (surface and groundwater) are shared with neighbouring countries, and the majority of these shared resources originate outside the country. Shifting regional relationships have affected Jordan’s access to these shared resources throughout the country’s history. In several cases, Jordan has received less than its equitable share of the resource, as upstream neighbours overexploit rivers and groundwater sources through damming, diversions and pumping. Thus, Jordan’s access to water from the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers is affected by the fact that Israel and Syria extract large quantities of water upstream. Groundwater resources are similarly contested as a large portion of Jordan’s groundwater originates from aquifers that are shared with Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Treaties and agreements

A. The Johnston Plan

The Johnston Plan of 1955 was the first attempt to address shared water resources after the UN’s political partition of the area in 1947. The plan outlined an allocation agreement for the Jordan River Basin among the countries that share the resource. According to the plan, 55% of the available water in the basin would go to Jordan, 26% to Israel and 9% each to Lebanon and Syria.[1] The process was mediated by the UN, and the committees representing each country agreed to the allocations. However, the plan was never ratified. Instead, each riparian state with access to the Jordan River has implemented unilateral projects, disregarding the outlined allocations. Moreover, the Lower Jordan River is now severely degraded, as previously discussed.

B. Peace treaty between Jordan and Israel

As part of the 1994 peace treaty, Jordan and Israel reached an agreement on the distribution of Jordan River water. Although the Johnston Plan allocated the largest share of the river water to Jordan, under the peace treaty Israel agreed to transfer only 50 MCM/yr of water from Lake Tiberias. Additionally, the two countries have agreed to work together to address the ongoing water shortage in the Jordan River Basin by minimizing wastage, preventing contamination and developing further water resources.[2]

C. Agreements with Syria

Jordan and Syria signed the first bilateral agreement regarding the Yarmouk River in 1953. While the agreement did not specify allocation of water resources, it did address irrigation and power generation through the construction of various dams on the river. The agreement also resulted in the creation of a bilateral commission, responsible for monitoring and resolving, via arbitration, any disputes or other issues between the two countries over the Yarmouk River.[3]

A 1987 treaty modified the 1953 agreement between the two countries. Jordan committed to covering all the costs (from planning to ongoing maintenance) of the main irrigation dam to be built on the Yarmouk River on the Jordan-Syria border. This dam is known variously as the Maqarin, Unity, Wahdah and Wihdeh Dam. The treaty also stated that Syria was allowed to build up to 25 additional dams on the river system, while providing Jordan with water from the river. A new commission was established with fewer oversight powers and no arbitration abilities. Bilateral meetings in 2001 resulted in the decision to reduce the size and capacity of the main dam. Construction of the dam began in 2004 and was completed in 2005. However, the flow of the water reaching the dam was lower than Jordan expected.

Under the 1987 agreement, Syria has the right to use 6 MCM/yr downstream of the Unity Dam to irrigate land along the riverbank. However, since the agreement was signed, Syria has increased the number of dams constructed along the course of the river and its tributaries from 26 to 48. It has also built around 3,500 wells to pump water to irrigate farms outside of the river basin. As recent studies found, the main problem was that the agreement discussed and covered only surface water resources and not groundwater resources. Hence, the Syrian pumping of groundwater from the same basin (Yarmouk) negatively impacted the flow of the river and therefore the amount flowing into Jordan. This resulted in misunderstanding and controversy about Syrian respect for the agreement. From Jordan’s perspective, Syria has consistently failed to provide Jordan with the agreed volume of water, despite Jordan’s regular diplomatic calls for Syria to meet its treaty obligations.[4]

D. Agreement with Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and Jordan concluded an agreement in 2015 on the shared Disi fossil aquifer. The aquifer is called Disi on the Jordanian side and Saq on the Saudi Arabian side. Most of the aquifer lies in Saudi Arabia – around 65,000 km2 – with only 4,000 km2 in Jordan. According to the 2015 agreement, well drilling is banned in a 10-kilometre buffer area on each side of the border. Moreover, the agreement details plans to prevent contamination of the shared resource, which must be used for domestic and municipal purposes and not for agriculture. As discussed earlier, Jordan has started pumping water from the Disi aquifer to the north of the country for domestic and municipal uses.

[1] Phillips, DJ et al., 2007. ‘The Jordan River Basin: 1. Clarification of the allocations in the Johnston Plan.’ Water International 32(1): 16-38; UN-ESCWA, 2010. ‘Shared water resources in the western Asia region: An inventory of shared aquifers and aquifer systems.’
[2] Manna, M, 2006. ‘Water and the Treaty of Peace between Israel and Jordan.’ Macro Center Working Papers (33); Talozi, S et al., 2019. ‘What constitutes an equitable water share? A reassessment of equitable apportionment in the Jordan–Israel water agreement 25 years later.’ Water Policy 21(5): 911-933.
[3] Rosenberg, D, 2006. ‘The Yarmouk River agreements: Jordan-Syrian transboundary water management, 1953–2004.’ The Arab World Geographer 9(1): 23-39; Hussein, H, 2017. ‘Whose ‘reality’? Discourses and hydropolitics along the Yarmouk River.’ Contemporary Levant 2(2): 103-115; Hussein, H and Grandi, M, 2017. ‘Dynamic political contexts and power asymmetries: The cases of the Blue Nile and the Yarmouk Rivers.’ International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics 17(6): 795-814; Zeitoun, M et al., 2019. ‘The Yarmouk tributary to the Jordan River I: Agreements impeding equitable transboundary water arrangements.’ Water Alternatives 12(3): 1064-1094.
[4] Ibid.