Institute for Advanced Strategic
and Political Studies
IASPS Research Papers in Strategy
The Geopolitics of Water
By Paul Michael Wihbey and Ilan Berman
The year 2000 round of
Israeli-Syrian negotiations conducted under U.S. auspices in Shepherdstown, West
Virginia, as well as the subsequent ad hoc summit between Syrian President Assad
and U.S. President Clinton in Geneva in March, failed primarily because of
conflict over water. Despite initial indications of rapprochement, Assad’s insistence on
gaining control over water sources in the Golan Heights, on access to the
eastern headwaters of the Jordan River and on legal rights to the waters of Lake
Kinneret (Sea of Galilee, Lake Tiberias), doomed the negotiations. Why? Because throughout the
Middle East climate change, population growth and escalating rates of
consumption are making water a critical determinant of foreign policy and
national security. Water has become a key element in
the balance of power between Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey at a time
when other geopolitical issues between them have gained greater force than ever.
The states of the Levant share certain basic hydrological
characteristics. All are located in arid or semi-arid zones. Whether in the
Euphrates or Jordan River basin, dependence on the river system is high. Most of
the riparian states have economies based on
agriculture and seek to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency. Also, in Israel
as elsewhere, agriculture has high so-called “ideological” significance.
Taken together, these factors have made access to water resources an issue of
the highest priority.
Let us now examine the role of water in the foreign policy of
each of the region’s major countries.
Lack of water aggravates Syria’s many problems. Financially, the
country is in dire straits, dominated by a state-run command economy ill-suited
to the global market. Since oil is responsible for nearly 70 percent of annual
the dramatic cuts in oil prices of the 1990s have created a deep and lingering
economic recession. This has worsened the impact of enormous foreign debt for
the heavy military expenditures of the 1980s. Syria currently owes Russia nearly
$11 billion, a heavy mortgage on any and all development.
under ideal financial conditions however, Syria’s development would be
hampered by hydrological conditions that are approaching crisis dimensions.
Total annual Syrian surface water resources stand at 9.94 km³, of which the
Euphrates (controlled upstream by Turkey) provides an additional 60 percent.
Water from ground sources is only nominally supplemented by rainfall, with
averages ranging from less than 100 mm/yr in the desert region to 1,300 mm/yr
along the coast.
Ground water is being severely depleted, since Syria’s economy, stunted by
socialist policies, relies heavily on agriculture (which represents
approximately 30 percent of Syria’s annual GNP).
conditions, with rainfall at nearly half of normal levels in the Houran plain
and wheat belt areas, have dramatically impacted Syrian agriculture.
Syria has been unable to weather these changes well, since its hydrological
infrastructure is badly deteriorated and widely misused. In 1999 lack of water
cut the Syrian wheat harvest by half, seriously diminishing cotton and olive oil
production as well as livestock. Additionally, half of the country’s 160,000
wells have been dug illegally, resulting in the drop of well-water levels and
dried-up rivers and springs.
a result, major Syrian urban centers (including Damascus and Aleppo) have been
forced to institute harsh water rationing in recent years. Residents of Damascus
endure as much as thirteen hours a day without water. In rural areas water is
rationed four days a week. This situation is only expected to worsen; the Syrian
population is expanding rapidly, and domestic water requirements are expected to
double in less than two decades.
growing demand has made water a cardinal issue in Syrian foreign policy. It is
one of the reasons for Syria’s continued presence in Lebanon since the
outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. Israel’s June 1982 capture of the
Litani River raised Syrian concerns of an Israeli extension of control over
subsidiary water sources (specifically the Orontes River) and provided one of
the principal rationales for retaining control (either directly or through its
Lebanese proxy) over the Bekaa Valley and the Orontes headwaters.
has also been a major element in Syrian-Turkish relations since Turkey’s
commencement of its ambitious Southeast Anatolia Project (Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi or
GAP) in the early 1980s altered the hydrological balance of power between the
two countries. GAP, aimed at the massive irrigation and agricultural development
of Turkish Anatolia through the harnessing of the Euphrates, provided Turkey
with extensive control over the Euphrates and highlighted Syria’s
vulnerability to Turkish management of Euphrates River water.
the two countries signed a Protocol of Economic Cooperation in 1987 under which
Turkey committed to provide an average of 500cm/sec of Euphrates water to Syria,
Syrian water liability was underscored in January 1990 when Turkey began
diverting the flow of the Euphrates for its own agricultural purposes. Wise
observers have noted:
Turkey approaches its water
resources from a position of strength. It relies on…[the principle] which
claims waters [on its territory] as a [national] resource. Both Syria and Iraq
argue that the amount of water released by Turkey is inadequate. They rely on
claims of prior appropriation and seek to enforce the requirement that Turkey
not do “significant harm” to its downstream neighbors. Turkey refuses to
agree with this approach and argues that the quantity of the water needed for
irrigation should be determined by applying identical criteria to all of the
three countries. Syria and Iraq believe that each country must be free to choose
the criteria it will use to determine its own water needs and these statements
should not be questioned by the other riparian states. All three countries are
pressing ahead with plans to increase the burden on the rivers.
Syrian efforts to counteract Turkey’s ascendancy prompted radical
alterations in Syrian foreign policy. Syria became a broker for Turkey’s
extremist PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), providing military assistance,
extensive economic subsidies, safe haven and political support for the
organization. Progress on the GAP led to an intensification of Syrian pressure
through the PKK. Subsequent cross-border tension resulted in the 1987 Protocol
between Ankara and Damascus which amounted to an overt linkage of security and
water, with Syria pledging to curb PKK terrorism in return for Turkish water
Despite the agreement, however, Syrian brokerage of the PKK continues to be an
aggravation in Turkish-Syrian relations because Damascus seeks to blunt
Turkey’s growing hydrological power. The Turks are well aware of this:
the most likely threat against the GAP, or any of its components is sabotage or
a small-scale attack directed against a technical facility, such as a power
generation station, a water tunnel, or a portion of an irrigation complex. A U.S.
News and World Report article described possible efforts of the PKK
to sabotage the Birecik Dam now under construction in Turkey. While many of
these facilities currently lack publicly visible security measures, it is
logical to assume that the responsible authorities in Turkey have developed
security plans for key asset and site protection….
on water also prompted the commencement of Syria’s tilt toward its historic
rival, Iraq, which is also susceptible to Turkish water policy.
The two countries signed the 1990 Agreement on the Sharing of the Euphrates,
which attempted to address their common vulnerability to Turkish water power.
While Syria’s subsequent participation in the U.S.-led Gulf War coalition
temporarily soured relations with Iraq, contacts on the water issue continued
throughout the early 1990s, with both Baghdad and Damascus initiating major
efforts to soften Turkish policies.
the Syrian-Iraqi point of view, the most worrisome of Turkish policies is the
“peace pipeline” concept championed by late Turkish President Turgut Ozal,
which involves piping water from the Turkish Seyhan and Ceyhan Rivers to Saudi
Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states.
initiation of Turkish-Israeli military cooperation in February 1996 increased
both Syria’s cooperation with Iraq and its support of terrorism within Turkey.
Baghdad and Damascus, while unwilling to confront the emerging Turkish-Israeli
alliance directly, strove to dampen Turkish power through coordination on the
water issue. An insightful assessment from this time period stressed the
hydrological nature of Syrian-Iraqi ties:
recent weeks, Syria and Iraq have displayed apparently uncharacteristic
collaboration on the question of the sharing of the Euphrates. In fact,
technical cooperation on this issue is not new and both states have for years
jointly criticized Turkey’s major dam construction program on the upper
reaches of the river. What has been different this year is the very public
manifestation of the co-operation…. What Syria has really been doing is
sending out a message to its neighbors and beyond.
growing axis entered a new phase following the May 1997 diplomatic visit of
Syrian commerce official Rateb al-Shallah to Baghdad. The visit initiated formal
overtures toward expanded cooperation with Iraq, with al-Shallah insisting,
“whatever differences existed… should be forgotten,” and affirming
Damascus’ drift toward regional strategic alignment. Thus: “usually the
resumption of ties in the economic field is followed, no matter how much later,
by the resumption of other relations.”
And indeed, in February 2000 the two countries established diplomatic ties for
the first time in over two decades.
Damascus was escalating PKK activities against Turkey. This escalation
culminated in a major crisis in October 1998. The Turkish parliament issued a
statement declaring that “[o]ur wish is that the Syrian administration
understands the seriousness of the situation, takes necessary measures, and ends
the presence of terror hideouts. If this is not done, it will unavoidably have
to face the consequences.”
The severity of this thinly veiled threat was notable. Turkey has consistently
refrained from utilizing its water supremacy for political leverage in relations
with its neighbors. Therefore, facing such unexpected Turkish pressure, Damascus
agreed to outlaw the PKK, halt subsidies to the group and assist in their
with the summer of 2000 one of the hottest on record and severe water rationing
programs already under way in Syria, Turkey has considerable leverage over the
behavior of its two neighboring Baathist regimes. Combining its status as the
region’s water superpower with its significant military capability, Turkey is
entering into a geopolitical window of opportunity wherein it is poised to
become a regional hegemon if it so chooses. Since 1999 however, Turkey has
pulled back from cooperation with an Israel that it views as increasingly
unreliable, and has toned down its hostility to Baghdad and Damascus, signaling
that it is seriously considering increasing water flows on the Euphrates and
gives Syria (and its partner Iraq) hope of displacing Turkey as the dominant
regional power. Another serious basis for this hope is Syria’s control over
the second largest source of water in the region, Lebanon.
Lebanon: Water’s Geopolitical Hostage
receives an estimated nine billion cubic meters (bcm) of rainfall per year,
(Israel's annual water consumption by contrast is two bcm). The total annual
surface water supply is approximately 4.5 bcm to 5 bcm with an estimated
consumption of 800 million cubic meters (mcm) to 1 bcm divided among domestic,
industrial, and agricultural use. According to a recent comparative study of
water resources in the Middle East (see Table 1) Lebanon has a surplus of water.
Specifically, the study rates Lebanon’s renewable water resources at 1620
cubic meters per capita (cm/c), compared to countries rated “poor” such as
Israel at 370 cm/c, Jordan at 160 cm/c and “abundant” such as Turkey at 3520
Lebanon’s status as a major water repository is further enhanced when
considered within the context of a “water stressed” Middle East. Lebanon has
some 3000 cubic meters of water per person, per year (see Table 2). By contrast,
Jordan and Israel have some 300 cubic meters per person, per year and thus are
considered to be in the water stress zone.
TABLE 1: WATER RESOURCES IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Marwan Haddad, “An Approach for Regional Management of Water Shortages in the
Middle East,” Ali I. Bagis, ed., Water as
an Element of Cooperation in the Middle East (Ankara: Hacettepe
University, 1994), 71.
*OPT: Occupied Palestinian Territory (The West Bank including East
Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip).
/c = Per Capita
Share = Percent of annual withdrawal to internal renewable resources.
Km = kilometer; D = domestic; Ind = Industrial; Agr = Agricultural
In = Into the country from other countries; Out = Out of the country.
UAE = United Arab Emirates
Source: Hillel Shuval, “Approaches to Resolving the Water Conflict Between Israel and her Neighbours – A Regional Water-for-Peace Plan,” Water International 17 (1992): 134.
As early as 1955 Lebanon’s water abundance was recognized as a means to
alleviate projected water problems in the Jordan River Valley.
In the early 1950s, the United States hoped to establish a system of
water quotas between Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel using Lake Kinneret as
the principal storage reservoir. Under the auspices of the Eisenhower
administration, the 1955 Johnston Plan proposed diverting water from Lebanon’s
Litani River into the Kinneret. However, protests from Arab countries that were
still technically at war with Israel halted the idea and it was never formulated
in any official manner.
Ever since Syria became the dominant power in Lebanon in the early 1980s,
it has sought ways of taking Lebanese water. Geography and Israel have prevented
it from taking any more than it has.
Litani is Lebanon’s largest river with an estimated annual discharge of 700 to
900 million cubic meters (mcm). It is the only major river in the region that
does not cross national boundaries. Acclaimed for its hydroelectric potential,
large volume, and low salinity level, the Litani flows westward from the
mountains into the Mediterranean. Hence its waters cannot be taken directly
eastward into Syria. In 1982, Israeli forces established the frontline of their
security zone in Lebanon along the Litani. Since that time numerous reports have
alleged that Israel was either planning to – or actually was – diverting
large quantities of Litani water into the Jordan River via the Hasbani River
which feeds into the Jordan. The Israelis were charged with diverting as much as
100 mcm per year, however both U.S. and Israeli authorities repeatedly denied
this, and even Syrian foreign minister Shara admitted that the charges were
In fact, Israel constructed a number of small pipelines to convey water from
inside Israel to Lebanese villages in its security zone which were operating
even after Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000.
Syria replaced Israel as the dominant power in southern Lebanon in May 2000, the
possibility that the Litani could supply neighboring states by no means
decreased. According to some
studies, as much as 80 percent of the Litani’s flow is lost to the sea,
thereby suggesting that ambitious hydroelectric and freshwater plans could still
be part of a major sub-regional development package. Israeli analysts have noted
project be developed to supply water from the Litani River in Lebanon to Israel,
the West Bank, and possibly Jordan on a commercial basis, with Lebanon receiving
fair compensation for the sale of the water. The possibility of such a sale of
water to Israel on a commercial basis was suggested informally by Lebanon during
the Johnston negotiations in 1955. Lebanon has a significant water surplus in
the south. The Litani River flow utilized mainly for power production, is only
partially used for irrigation at this time, and is wasted to the sea through a
diversion to the Awali River…. Since some 80 percent of the Litani flow is
lost during the six winter months, when irrigation water is not required, a
major water storage and flow regulation reservoir would be required. The use of
the Sea of Galilee and the Unity Dam in Jordan could be considered for this
purpose. Water could be supplied to the Palestinians in the Jordan Valley from
the Syrian/Jordanian Unity Dam.… Under a peace agreement with shared
management and inspection, both sides would gain by choosing the most economical
solutions. This project might be able to supply some 100 mcm per year.
with the flow of the Latani and the Hasbani rivers now effectively under the
control of Syrian authorities (either directly or through proxy forces like
Hizbollah), and since Syria may gain access to Lake Kinneret, the flow of
Lebanese water into that lake or into the Jordan River through the Jordanian dam
may become less a boon to regional development than a tool of Syrian conflict
Lebanon’s role in the region’s
hydropolitical struggles is even better illustrated by the case of the Orontes
River which flows from northern Lebanon into Syria and then into the Turkish
coastal province of Hatay. Although this river originates in Lebanon, a recent
and informal agreement between Lebanon and Syria allotted 80 mcm per year for
Lebanon and approximately 400 to 420 mcm per year for Syria. This has left next
to nothing for Turkish Hatay. A series of Syrian-imposed bilateral protocols
that regulate Lebanon’s use and management of its own water also result from
Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. Some are part of the 1991 Lebanese-Syrian
Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination which regulates most facets
of Lebanese national activities in accordance with Syrian security requirements.
Few have noted that:
interest in solidifying its control over Lebanon focused on four areas:
dismantling remaining border barriers, and facilitating further transit of
Syrians to and from Lebanon, strengthening educational and cultural integration,
regulating the appropriation of portions of Lebanon’s water resources,
completing the integration of the two countries’ agricultural sectors.
Syria has accomplished this through its aggressive manipulation of the
Orontes for agricultural and irrigation purposes. According to Turkish
estimates, Syria utilizes 90 percent of total Orontes flow (which averages 1.2
billion meters annually at the Turkish-Syrian border), allowing only a meager 10
percent to pass into Turkey. Furthermore, Syrian proposals to create two
additional reservoirs along the river threaten to reduce Orontes flow to Turkey
In effect, Syria has used its control over Orontes water as a weapon, seriously
eroding the agricultural and economic situation in Turkish Hatay. Turkey has
increasingly objected to this monopolization of the Orontes. In February 2000,
Turkish President Demirel criticized it as a reaction to Turkey’s refusal to
accede to Syrian demands for water from the Euphrates River. According to
Turkish media accounts, the Turkish government’s pressure on the Orontes is
part of a broader campaign to force Syria to live up to the October 1998
Syrian-Turkish agreement in which Syria pledged to stop supporting the Kurdish
Worker’s Party (PKK) activities within its territory.
If Lebanon were other than a plaything in the region’s power politics,
it could do much to alleviate the region’s water shortage. According to an
authoritative Lebanese source, prior to the Syrian takeover of the Lebanese
government in October 1990, Beirut had been planning for an efficient
exploitation and management of its water resources by constructing two new dams,
Khardali on the Litani River and Bisri on the Awali River. With financing
available on a BOT [Build, Operate and Transfer] basis, the dams would have
provided capacities up to 469 mcm and 100 mcm respectively. In addition to
irrigation and power generation, the Bisri dam would have supplied fresh
drinking water to Beirut and its suburbs. Furthermore, it would have allowed
Lebanon to divert and sell its surplus water, in part contributing to the
resolution of the acute water problems in neighboring countries (confidential
source). With its high level of
precipitation, and with water storage facilities made efficient by modern
technology, Lebanon could export water on a year-round basis.
This would require, however, that the country regain its independence. But
Lebanon is not about to regain independence. Rather it is being more fully
integrated into Syria with every passing year. With this its hydrological
condition continues to deteriorate. A recent study states that:
water supply and distribution systems were inadequate even as early as the
1950s. Direct hits suffered during the war years necessitate the creation of an
entirely new network…. Instead, the country is crippled by severe water
shortages in Beirut, seawater intrusion in the coastal aquifer, farmlands
neglected for the lack of irrigation water, and pipelines and aquifers severely
damaged by war.
salinity level of Lebanese reservoirs is rising as more seawater penetrates
A report published in the Beirut
Daily Star (July 2, 1998) further alleges coastal and river pollution
due to tons of untreated sewage being pumped into the sea. Unless action is
taken in the near future, the country’s valuable water supply could be
irreversibly damaged through chemical contamination and other pollutants.
hydrological troubles and opportunities, however, appear not to concern the
Syrians who alone control Lebanon’s destiny. Syria seems content to merely
exert control over Lebanese water for geopolitical purposes. If it could
influence Turkey’s water policies, Syria would be even more powerful.
and the Israeli-Syrian Peace Process
Syria and Iraq realize they lack the capacity to bend Turkey’s policies
all by themselves. Hence Syria has sought to enlist in its own and Iraq’s
cause the greatest influence on Turkish foreign policy, namely the United
States. Syria’s chosen tool has been participation in the U.S.-driven Middle
East peace negotiations.
the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference which ushered in the Peace Process era in
Middle Eastern affairs, Syria has tried to use the U.S. to outmaneuver both
Turkey and Israel over control of water resources.
Throughout the negotiations, Syria has sought all of the Golan Heights,
including the shore of Lake Kinneret. In the Syrian plan, Israel would be
compensated for any loss of water by shipments from Turkey that would be
brokered and guaranteed (like the rest of the agreement) by the United States.
Since any Turkish pipeline to Israel would run through Syrian territory, its
very existence would provide insurance against Turkish reductions in the flow of
the Euphrates. Here are the details:
position is that the internationally recognized border between Syria and Israel
is the demarcation line between Syria and Palestine drawn by the British and
French colonial powers in 1923. This line runs 10 meters beyond the high water
mark of Lake Kinneret. Syria’s position is that a return to the June 4, 1967
borders (i.e. to the very edge of the lake’s low water mark) is a prerequisite
for any peace agreement with Israel. This would provide Syria with access to
Lake Kinneret, and therefore with unlimited legal rights to the exploitation of
its water. If Syria could pump water from the Kinneret, it could also thereby
efficiently tap Lebanon’s Litani River by diverting much of its flow into the
lake. The Kinneret would then become the region’s premier source of water
under Syrian control. This would allow piping fresh water back into water
starved Damascus, as well as a host of blandishments and threats vis-à-vis Jordan and Israel.
The centrality of the water issue to the Syrian position was highlighted by late
President Hafez al-Assad’s insistence on a return to the shores of the
Kinneret, exemplified by his declaration that:
June 4, 1967 line] is where I recognize the border between Syria and Israel to
be. Before 1967, I used to enjoy swimming in the Sea of Galilee; I barbecued on
the shore; I ate fish there.
successor, his son Bashar al-Assad, reaffirmed the Syrian view on water issues
by declaring: “Syria will not withdraw its right to the northeastern shore of
the Lake of Tiberias, and the ensuing rights….”
with Syria’s demands would also give Syria access to the eastern half of the
Jordan River headwaters which, along with Lake Kinneret, supplies Israel with as
much as 40 percent of its water. This
would make Syria a partner to Israeli water. Hence, from the Syrian perspective,
water is not only a commodity, but also an essential tool of statecraft to alter
the balance of power in its favor. This more than any other may be the reason
why Israel did not commit itself to redeployment to the June 4, 1967 line.
Indeed, this factor decisively altered the outcome of the Clinton-Assad Summit
in Geneva at the end of March 2000, which was supposed to resolve outstanding
differences leading to an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement. Instead, the
Washington Post reported:
“A narrow strip of shoreline on
Israel’s Sea of Galilee caused the failure of Sunday’s make or break meeting
between President Clinton and the Syrian Hafez Assad in Geneva,” a senior
administration official said yesterday…. “Barak made clear from the
beginning that he would not live with a situation in which he did not have
control over the lake ─sovereignty over the lake and a strip around it,”
the senior official said.
point to remember however is that Syria’s hydrological objectives do not
depend exclusively on Israel’s direct acquiescence to its demands on the
Kinneret. It would be enough, or almost so, if Israel gave to the Palestinian
Authority control of the Jordan River below the lake. Should the new Palestinian
state exercise sovereignty over the Jordan River, it could demand to share water
rights with Israel and Jordan over the Kinneret from which the Jordan flows.
Syria would forcefully support these claims. Iraq would back Syria. And so
likely would the rest of the Arab world. This could bring additional pressure on
Israel to cede to Syria’s water goals. Israelis are not ignorant of this:
Palestinians’ transformation into partners in Jordan River water add yet
another dimension to the debate between Syria and Israel over Lake Kinneret.
Syria’s area embraces a large part of the sources of both Lake Kinneret and
the Jordan River and here we are sticking to our guns so adamantly that we are
even ready to sacrifice a peace agreement with Damascus…. Is it logical that
we should deny one negotiating partner access to the Sea of Galilee and allow
another access to the same body of water? There
will be those who ask; “If we give into the Palestinians on the Jordan Valley
and consequently on the waters of Lake Kinneret, why should we take such a hard
line toward the Syrians over the Golan Heights and their slopes leading down to
the shores of the lake?”
What then convinces Syria that it may be possible to secure agreement to arrangements so disadvantageous to Israel and Turkey? Only the experience that the U.S. government is so committed to achieving any arrangement that can be called “peace” that it is willing to bring much pressure while offering many incentives to Israel and Turkey. Let us see how this has worked.
since Turkey’s announcement of the GAP project in the 1980s the Assad regime
has bridled at the loss of control over Euphrates water and has consistently
attempted to regain the strategic initiative over water by involving Turkey in
negotiations with Israel through the U.S. A Turkish commitment to water sharing
as part of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal would make the Turks accountable to the
U.S. and allow Damascus to threaten the U.S. with action against Israel if the
U.S. did not press Turkey to give in to Syrian demands on water allocations.
Hence, during the 1996 Israeli-Syrian talks, Syrian officials first indicated
their desire to make allocations of Turkish water an element of the peace
years later, Damascus, with tacit U.S. support, sought Turkish agreement to
exchange Euphrates water for Jordan River (Kinneret) water that Syria might take
for itself. In return, the United States would reimburse Turkey.
Indirectly, the U.S. would be paying for the water that Syria would be
gaining. From November 1999, and throughout the following several months, the
talk of the Middle East was that the United States would finance the deal. On
November 2, 1999, the Al-Hayat
That in an attempt to encourage
Syrian flexibility in dealing with Israel on the water issue, the United States
had asked Turkey to negotiate with Syria for a final resolution on Turkey and
Syria sharing waters from the Euphrates.
Department spokesman James Rubin seemingly confirmed that the U.S. was in fact
behind the effort to make the Turks part of the deal. On January 12, 2000, he
Water, given its nature, is an
issue that is not only between Israel and Syria but has a regional dimension as
well, including Turkey, and any solutions must take on that same regional
Turkish reaction was critical, sharp, and pronounced. Ankara
categorically rejected the ploy and sent signals out that it would not tolerate
outside interference in its internal water policy:
at the Turkish foreign ministry reported they had repeatedly maintained that the
Tigris and Euphrates Rivers will not be a part of the peace equation for the
start of negotiations between Syria and Israel, as part of the Middle East Peace
Process and that Turkey had made this point clear on many occasions to the
parties involved. Officials summed up the news concerning the accord reached by
the United States, Israel, and Syria over the use of the Euphrates, “Just
whose property are they selling to whom? Can they really negotiate over
Turkey’s waters because the place is not Turkish territory?”
reaction proceeds from the realization that it would be gaining nothing but the
price of water sold, while losing discretion over how much to sell, to whom, and
when, while at the same time strengthening regional rivals. Syria would gain any
amount of Israeli water it cared to take as well as U.S. leverage over Turkish
water. Israel would get no additional water at all, while exchanging sources
under its control for American assurances of Turkish water in the context of a
less favorable balance of power. So, while Turkey and Syria’s positions are
easy to understand, Israel’s is not.
Water and Israeli Security Policy
Israeli withdrawal from the Golan, and – by extension – from Lake Kinneret,
would surely alter the hydrological balance of power in the Levant. Lake
Kinneret is one of Israel’s three major water sources, providing roughly
one-third of Israel’s total annual water consumption. Located in Israel’s
northern plateau, it provides approximately 610 mcm annually and serves as the
principal water source for northern Israel. It is supplemented by two other
major aquifers: the Coastal Aquifer, which stretches along the Mediterranean
coast from Haifa to the Gaza Strip, and the Mountain (Yarkon-Tanninim) Aquifer,
which straddles the “Green Line” separating Israel from the West Bank
territories under the control of the Palestinian Authority. These three main
water sources provide nearly three-quarters (1,200 mcm) of Israel’s annual
total of 1,800 mcm, with the remaining amount coming from small ground water
flows and rainfall (which varies from more than 1,000 mcm annually in the upper
Jordan River Basin to less than 200 mcm per year in Beersheva). Replenishment of
these water sources fluctuates greatly, averaging approximately 1,340 mcm
The paucity of Israeli water supplies has made water central to
Israel’s national security calculations since the Mandate period. During the
1920s and 1930s, the development of agriculture and the expansion of water
sources were principal goals of Zionist settlement.
The importance of these efforts for the Zionist community in Palestine were
reflected in Ben Gurion’s famous vow to “make the desert bloom,” and in
the widely-accepted perception of water as an integral component of the emerging
Jewish State. The creation of moshavim
and large-scale “greening” efforts prompted the development of several plans
for regional water distribution. Under the auspices of the Peel Commission, the
1939 Ionides report outlined the expansion of the Jordan River Basin’s
resources through the diversion of the Yarmouk River for irrigation purposes.
Ionides proposal, however, was aborted by the commencement of the Second World
War. It was followed in 1944 by the famous Lowdermilk Plan, which proposed the
irrigation of much of the Jordan River Valley, the intensive development of the
Israeli Negev desert, and the storage of surplus water from the Yarmouk River in
Lake Kinneret. The potential benefits offered by the Lowdermilk plan for
agricultural and urban development led the Zionists to regard it as their
establishment of Israel in 1948 and the resulting Arab-Israeli war halted
regional water planning. Thereafter, Israeli policy focused on the development
of sovereign water resources. To this end, in the late 1950s and early 1960s
Israel began construction of the National Water Carrier, an ambitious project
which joined together the different components of Israel’s National Water
System and linked water sources in the north of the country with development
projects in the south. Israel’s construction of the National Water Carrier was
viewed with antagonism by Arab League nations. Under the direction of Egyptian
president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Syria initiated the Headwaters Diversion Plan,
aimed at influencing Israel’s water flow through the diversion of the Banias
and Hasbani rivers on the Golan Heights.
responses to these diversion efforts caused an escalating series of clashes that
served as one of the principal causes for the outbreak of the 1967 Six Day War.
The importance of the water issue in the outbreak of hostilities was affirmed by
Israeli General Ariel Sharon’s statement:
[While] people generally regard 5 June 1967 as the day the Six Day War began…in reality, it started two and a half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Golan.
The outcome of the Six Day War dramatically altered the hydrological
equation between Israel and its neighbors. In the north, Israel’s repulsion of
the Syrian invasion allowed it to assert control over the Golan Heights and its
vital water resources. The subsequent annexation of the Golan accomplished
several tasks, creating a territorial buffer zone for Lake Kinneret, forcing the
withdrawal of Syrian forces from the headwaters of the Jordan River, and
establishing Israeli control over the entirety of the Banias River, thereby
eliminating the danger of future Syrian diversion schemes. In the south, the
capture of the Gaza Strip gave Israel control over valuable territory within
range of both the National Water Carrier and the Coastal Aquifer. The IDF’s
defeat of Jordanian contingents, however, represented the largest victory of the
war, bringing Israel to the shores of the Jordan River and gaining sovereignty
over the West Bank. The capture of the West Bank territory provided Jerusalem
with the ability to exercise oversight of the vital Mountain Aquifer, and gave
Israel the capability to oversee and influence Palestinian exploitation of West
Bank water sources. The net effect of the 1967 War was thus the exponential
expansion of Israeli water sources, laying the foundation for future growth and
invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s cemented its hydrological policy. The
incursion, a response to continued guerrilla attacks on northern Israel by the
PLO, established a security zone in southern Lebanon. But the occupation
possessed a distinctly hydrological dimension as well, providing Israel with
oversight and control over the waters of the Hasbani River, as well as portions
of the Litani, and giving it the ability to guard these waters against
Israel’s continued presence in southern Lebanon until its abrupt, unilateral
withdrawal in May 2000 was a testament to the strategic importance of control
over the Hula Valley and its water sources.
this period, water also became a topic of heated domestic debate. The socialist
ethos of the pre-State era prompted the development of an extensive hydrological
subsidy policy, including pricing distortions and massive allocation of water to
the agricultural sector.
This massive exploitation of Israeli water left Israel vulnerable to drought
conditions throughout the 1980s. Israeli water supplies were also affected by
large-scale immigration from the former Soviet Union, which increased
consumption. Declining Israeli water tables prompted the formulation of a new
hydrological policy, the Master Plan of 1988, which focused on obtaining
additional water from new sources (desalination and expanded flood water use),
restructuring irrigation policies, and protecting and preserving Israel’s
major water sources.
focus on sovereignty over hydrological resources placed growing emphasis on the
retention of strategic control of Israeli water sources, a focus that was most
clearly expressed in a 1990 Israeli Ministry of Agriculture communiqué, which
is difficult to conceive of any political solution consistent with Israel’s
survival that does not involve complete continued Israeli control of… water
and sewage systems.
by 1991, domestic Israeli water conditions had deteriorated considerably. A
special report issued by State Comptroller Miriam Ben Porat in January of that
year drew attention to the deteriorating conditions of Israeli water resources,
announcing “in effect, the state does not have any water in its reservoirs,”
and attributing the crisis to “irresponsible water management” and
over-exploitation of resources for agricultural use.
Israel’s water policy can best be described as incoherent, ad hoc and devoid
of practical solutions to deal with its growing water deficit. A study by IASPS
main problem with Israeli water policy is that it is a politicized system
instead of a market system. Administrative and bureaucratic considerations
dictate water allocation, not economic considerations. Water distribution is a
mechanism for patronage and rent allotment, not a system of rational resource
allocation. Political considerations, including the quest for fairness override
all consideration of efficiency in water allotment. The result is not merely
enormous waste and misallocation but accelerating ecological disaster. And all
of this will no doubt get worse due to the added demands on water resources
resulting from the various Israeli-Arab accords.
however, the Israeli body politic ended up being surprised at the extent to
which negotiations with the Arabs could undermine the soundest part of its
flawed water policy, namely the former’s determination to control the
state’s own hydrological destiny.
Hydrological Policy and the Peace Process
bilateral and regional peace negotiations in the wake of the 1991 Madrid Peace
Conference internationalized the water issue between Israel and its neighbors.
Following the 1993 Declaration of Principles signed by Israeli Prime Minister
Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat, negotiations altered Israel’s
hydrological situation. Under the 1995 Interim Agreement on the West Bank and
the Gaza Strip (Oslo II), Israel committed to provide the West Bank and Gaza
with an additional 9.5 mcm per year from its own water system.
This commitment was reinforced through the creation of a trilateral
American-Israeli-Palestinian Water Committee on development and oversight.
Cumulatively, the peace process negotiations allocated 224.5 mcm of Israel’s
total annual water resources directly
to either Jordan or the Palestinian Authority. As an indirect
result of the negotiations, Israel has refrained from fully exploiting available
water in the West Bank due to the fact that the West Bank Mountain Aquifer is
expected to be the principal water source for the Palestinian Authority in the
future. At the same time, a continued governmental policy of extensive
allocations to the agricultural sector has wreaked havoc on Israeli water
stores, forcing Israel to over-exploit its water sources.
this has left the country vulnerable to the effects of the region’s harsh
climate. In September 1999, as a result of lingering drought conditions, water
levels on Lake Kinneret fell below the “red line” (213 meters below sea
level) for the first time since Israel’s establishment. As a direct result of
this internal water crisis, Israel was forced, in March of 1999, to halve its
annual allocations of water to Jordan as mandated under the 1994 Treaty, leading
to tensions between Amman and Jerusalem. Notwithstanding substantial rainfall
during the winter months, Israel’s water crisis appears to be deepening,
forcing Israeli policymakers, as recently as summer 2000, to initiate drastic
measures for water procurement, such as the purchasing of water from Turkey.
An Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the granting of Syrian access to Lake Kinneret is thus of the utmost significance for Israel. The centrality of Lake Kinneret to Israel’s domestic water conditions makes any concession of access or allocation of shared sovereignty a major strategic concern. According to one expert:
Israeli water system, which is fully utilized, does not have even a drop of water to spare to a foreign entity.… Syria could seize 200 million cubic
meters (at least) from the sources of the Kinneret, which would mean a mortal
blow to Israel...[,] the death of the Kinneret and, indirectly, the destruction
of the coastal aquifer that serves as Israel’s only long-term reservoir.
head of Israel’s
potential Syrian success in diverting the sources of the Jordan and the Kinneret
would mean only one thing: the destruction of Israel without resorting to
military or political means. It is our deterrent capability, stemming from our
presence on the Golan Heights, that makes Syria think twice before acting
The reality of this statement was underscored by Syria’s active pursuit
of a water-diversion scheme from the Golan Heights and Lake Kinneret during the
Israeli-Syrian Shepherdstown talks.
policymakers have by no means ruled out Syrian access to the Kinneret.
Hydropolitics in Israel has clearly emerged as a dominant theme in issues
relating to the very existence of Israel as a state.
It would be easy enough for an all-powerful planner to devise a plan to
apportion the region’s water supply among its peoples. However, the Middle
East’s contending parties are making decisions about water, the distribution
with whatever degree of equity must result from the prevalence of one nation or
alliance over another.
described the role of water in the foreign policies of the principal countries
of the region. It is all too clear that were Syria to gain its objectives, the
result would be less an efficient use of the region’s water (much less a fair
one) than it would be the political – military eclipse of Israel, Jordan, and
– to a lesser extent – Turkey as well. On the other hand, it is not clear
that Turkey or Israel have any coherent plan for securing their own water
resources, much less a plan for the region.
Such a plan, of course, would have to begin with restoring the
independence of Lebanon. Turkey seems not to have entertained the thought, while
Israel is grappling with whether to maintain its own independence.
There is little doubt that were Turkey and Israel intent on restoring
Lebanon and distributing the area’s water in a rational manner, they would
stand a chance of success. A stable strategic grouping capable of deterring the
militant Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq would promote the commencement of
large-scale regional water planning and grid systems. Since extensive water
planning proposals will necessitate the establishment of pipelines and energy
grids stretching across borders, a political and military structure that can
ensure the safety and security of the carriers will be the prerequisite to
effective water sharing. Already, Turkey and Israel have engaged in serious
negotiations starting in May 2000 to import 50 billion cubic meters of fresh
water from Turkey using tanker ships. But an effective regional system would
require political-military cooperation against Syria – a traditional alliance.
At this writing however it seems that, in part because of U.S.
leadership, Turkey and Israel – far from imposing their agenda on Syria –
are considering how much or how little to accede to Syria’s.
Larry Derfner, “Talks Beached on Kinneret Shore,” Jerusalem
Post, 31 March 2000.
22 June 1999.
According to the World Bank, the Middle East and North Africa region contain
less than one percent of global water resources, while having five percent
of total world population. The number of water scarce countries in the
Middle East and North Africa has risen from three in 1955 to 11 by 1990, and
another seven more, including Syria and Egypt are expected to join the list
by 2025. With population rates among the highest in the world, Middle
Eastern countries are consuming water at a much higher rate than can be
replenished naturally. This depletion has been compounded by wide spread
domestic pollution which has contributed to the general decline in the
quality of available water. Expanding initiatives in agriculture and
industry have further reduced regional water availability. Driven by
increasing populations, many countries have begun to over exploit their
agricultural capabilities, resulting in the reduction of arable land. As
result, per capita water availability in the Middle East has become the
worst in the world representing only 33 percent of Asian and 15 percent of
African levels. Nor have current desalination projects in the region proven
capable of meeting growing demands. The high energy and large cost
associated with desalination has limited efforts to the oil rich Gulf
States, such as Saudi Arabia. See From
Scarcity to Security: Averting a Water Crisis in the Middle East and North
Africa, World Bank Report, 1996. The extent of the emerging water
crisis is evidenced in a recent statement by Israel’s Minister of Environment, Dalia Itzik, who warned that “[w]ithin
three or four months, and especially next year, if there is drought this
winter we might have no water in the taps, but what there is will be
Askim I. Sokmen, “Contested Waters of the Middle East” (masters thesis,
Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey, 1995), 129-130.
Yuval Levin, “American Interests and an Israeli-Syrian Deal,” Nativ
13, no. 2 (2000): 19.
Ed Blanche and Riad Kahwaji, “Debts and Dilemma in Syria,” Jane’s Defence Weekly
32, no. 18 (November 3, 1999).
Natasha Beschorner, “Water and Instability in the Middle East,” Adelphi Paper No. 273 (1992):
David Makovsky and Janine Zacharia, “Clinton Awaits Assad’s Answer,” Jerusalem Post, 18 November
France Presse, 18 July 2000.
Sandra Postel, Last
Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (New York: W. W. Norton &
Company, 1992), 81.
John K. Cooley, “Syria Links Pullout to Guaranteed Access to Water,” Washington
Post, 8 June 1983.
Once fully operational, GAP is anticipated to be capable of reducing
Euphrates water to Syria by up to 40 percent. Mary E. Morris, “Poisoned
Wells: The Politics of Water in the Middle East,” Middle
East Insight 8, no. 2 (September-October 1991): 38.
Frederick M. Lorenz and Edward J. Erickson, The
Euphrates Triangle (Washington: Institute for National Strategic
Studies, National Defense University, 1999), 12-16.
Heinz Kramer, A
Changing Turkey: The Challenge to Europe and the United States
(Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), 138-140.
Lorenz and Erikson, The Euphrates Triangle, 37.
Competition over water had brought the two countries to the brink of war
several times, most significantly in 1975 when Syria’s reduction of
Euphrates water for agricultural reasons almost ignited a war. See Morris,
“Poisoned Wells,” 39. Syrian-Iraqi
hostility continued throughout the 1980s, with Syria siding with Iran during
the eight year Iran-Iraq war.
“Syria Wants Arab Backing on Dispute with Turkey,” Reuters,
5 February 1996.
Alan George, “Syria and Iraq Call a Tactical Truce,” Jane’s
Intelligence Review 8, no. 6 (June 1, 1996): 262-263.
Ed Blanche, “Syria’s Agreement with Iraq is Opening a New Eastern
Defence Weekly 27, no. 25 (June 25, 1997): 15.
Selcan Hacaoglu, “Turkey Issues Syria an Ultimatum,” Jerusalem Post, 8 October
East Newsline, [http://www.menewsline.com], 11 July 2000.
Marwan Haddad, “An Approach for Regional Management of Water Shortages in
the Middle East,”
in Ali I. Bagis, ed., Water
as an Element of Cooperation and Development in the Middle East
(Ankara: Hacettepe University and Friedrich Naumann Foundation, 1994),
Hillel Shuval, “Approaches to Resolving the Water Conflicts Between Israel
and her Neighbours - a Regional Water-for-Peace Plan,”
Water International 17
(1992): 134. “Water
is defined as the total long-term water resources available for all
Beschorner, “Water and Instability in the Middle East,” 18-22.
When asked in 1999 by a Saudi reporter to comment on the charge by Lebanese
Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss that, “Lebanese waters were being stolen by
the Zionist entity,” Shara said, “that Syria was naturally very
concerned about such charges and it had asked the United Nations Secretary
General to investigate.” He conceded “[a]ccording to my information in
view of the inquiries conducted by the UN General Secretariat, the UN
Secretary General has informed us via Deputy Secretary General Goulding that
this information is inaccurate.” George Gruen, The
Water Crisis: The Next Middle East Conflict?, Simon Wiesenthal
Center Report (Los Angeles, 1992), 35.
Shuval, “Approaches to Resolving the Water Conflict,” 139.
 Habib Malik, “Syrian-Imposed Bilateral Agreements with
Lebanon,” [http://www.freelebanon.org], September 1997.
Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
Water Issues Between Turkey, Syria and Lebanon (Ankara:
Department of Regional and Transboundary Waters, 1996), 8-9.
Lale Sariibrahimoglu, “Turkey Pursues Tactical War Over Water Issue,” Turkish
Daily News, 21 February 2000.
While attending the Second World Water Forum and Ministerial Conference at
The Hague in March 2000, Lebanon's Minister of Water and Energy Resources,
Suleiman Trabloulsi, said, “Lebanon, which doesn't take but does provide
water, declared that we will share our water if we are able but that there
are several obstacles that are to be overcome first…. The Lebanese
delegation affirmed that water is a gift of the heavens and that if it is
possible to share resources, it should be done peacefully and never achieved
by fire, we must let water run freely and leave all possibilities of sharing
this resource open.”
Beirut Daily Star, 18 April 2000.
Joyce Starr, Covenant
Over the Middle Eastern Waters (New York: Henry Holt and Company,
Ibrahim, “Water Trouble Looms in 2000,” Beirut
Daily Star, 12 December 1999.
Harun Kazaz, “U.S. Experts Warn of Syrian Attempts to Bargain Over
Water Issue,” Turkish
Daily News, 6 January 2000.
John Lancaster, “Galilee Issue Stalled Talks With Syrian,” Washington Post, 29 March
Schiff, “The Jordan Valley is the Kinneret,” Ha’aretz,
3 July 2000.
Sami Kohen, “A Thirsty Syria May Make Turkey’s Water Price of Peace,” Christian Science Monitor, 9
Harun Kazaz, “Water Talks Get Muddy,” Turkish
Daily News, 15 January 2000.
For a comprehensive review of Israeli water resources see J. Schwartz,
“Management of Israel’s Water Resources,” in Jad Isaac and Hillel
Shuval, eds., Water
and Peace in the Middle East (Amsterdam: Elvesier, 1994), 69; see
also Steven Plaut, “Water Policy in Israel,” IASPS
Policy Studies 47, Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political
Studies (July 2000).
Thomas Naff and Ruth Matson, eds., Water
in the Middle East: Conflict or Cooperation? (Boulder: Westview,
Alwyn R. Rouyer, “Zionism and Water: Influences on Israel’s Future Water
Policy During the Pre-State Period,” Arab
Studies Quarterly 18, no. 4 (Fall 1996): 40-47.
I. Mustafa, “The Arab-Israeli Conflict Over Water Resources,” in Isaac
and Shuval, eds., Water and Peace in the Middle East 125.
Beschorner, “Water and Instability in the Middle East,” 21.
Quoted in John Bulloch, “Troubled Waters,” Independent,
14 November 1993.
Israel’s capture of the West Bank and Golan Heights increased water
available to Israel for agricultural, industrial and domestic uses by more
than a third. See Mostafa Dolatyar, “Water Diplomacy in the Middle
East,” in Eric Watkins, ed., The
Middle Eastern Environment (Cambridge: St. Malo Press, 1995), 41.
Hillel Shuval, Rivers
of Eden: The Struggle for Water and the Quest for Peace in the Middle East
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 163.
While providing only 5 percent of the country’s GNP, Israel’s
agricultural sector is estimated to consume more than 70 percent of Israeli
water. Joyce R. Starr, “Water Wars,” Foreign Policy 82 (Spring
J. Schwartz, “Management of Israel’s Water Resources,” in Isaac and
Shuval, eds., Water
and Peace in the Middle East 72.
“Israel Claims Control of Water,” Los
Angeles Times, 10 August 1990.
Henry Kamm, “Israel’s Farming Success Drains it of Water,” New York Times, 21 April
Plaut, “Water Policy in Israel,” 20.
Alwyn W. Rouyer, “The Water Accords of Oslo II: Averting a Looming
East Policy 7, no. 1 (October 1999): 113-114.
See Plaut, “Water Policy in Israel,” 6-7.
Daily News, 22 June 2000.
Gideon Tzur, former Israeli Water Commissioner, lecture, 18 February 1996.
Tzvi Ortenberg, Kinneret Authority Chairman, briefing, 16 April 2000.
Steve Rodan, “Syria Builds Golan Reservoir to Capture Water,” Middle East Newsline,
[http://www.menewsline.com], 6 January 2000.
Danna Harman, “Beilin: We May Agree to Syrian
Kinneret Access,” Jerusalem Post, 25 June 2000.