ANALYSIS: Israel’s most powerful tool in persuading Jordan: ‘water problem’

Israel’s military and economic power enable it to easily execute its own water policies in the region while preventing others from doing so

Assoc. Prof. Metin Duyar  | 08.06.2021 - Update : 08.06.2021
ANALYSIS: Israel’s most powerful tool in persuading Jordan: ‘water problem’

The writer is a lecturer at Nevsehir Haci Bektas Veli University’s Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences.


Jordan’s attempt last year to thwart Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex the Jordanian valley, which comprises around 30% of the occupied West Bank, opened the door for Israel to use its water resources as a sanctioning tool. Israel is reducing the water supply to Jordan to persuade its government to drop its opposition to the annexation plan.

In 1994, Israel and Jordan struck a comprehensive and permanent agreement that addressed all water issues between the two countries. The parties had reached an agreement ensuring equitable water allocation from the Yarmouk River and the groundwater in the Arabah Valley in the amounts and quality specified in the agreement. Under this deal, Israel states that it must transmit only 35 million cubic meters of the water it receives from the Jordan River to Jordan. But despite the approval of Israeli security and water authorities, Prime Minister Netanyahu escalates the crisis with the neighboring state by refusing to allow water resources to flow to Jordan, using the water problem as a political weapon.

It is critical to consider all aspects of the Jordan-Israel water dispute to gain a complete understanding of the situation. Water, as we all know, is essential for all living things; unfortunately, the world’s potable water resources are becoming increasingly polluted and depleted. Water use, on the other hand, has become one of the most critical and strategic challenges of our day as a result of the rapid growth of the global population.

Middle East accounts for half of countries experiencing water-related stress

Water is the strategic substance in the Middle East, which is world-renowned for its oil resources. While the region possesses only 1% of the world’s water resources, it is home to 5% of the world’s population. Water resources in the Middle East are limited and insufficient. Therefore, while the water crisis does not directly create conflict between regional states, it does enhance the risk of conflict; at the very least, it raises security concerns. In fact, half of the countries experiencing water scarcity and stress related to misuse of water are located in this region. Misuse of water resources and waste of water is depleting current supplies on a daily basis. Furthermore, surface and groundwater resources are also rapidly depleting. Other factors that exacerbate the water situation include pollution of existing resources and an increase in salinity.

As is well-known, there is a water problem in the Middle East between Turkey-Syria-Iraq, Syria-Israel-Jordan-Palestine, and Egypt-Sudan. Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon all rely on the Jordan River, which is de facto under Israeli control. Water policies in the Middle East are shaped by asymmetric power balances, not by need, and Israel possesses an “asymmetric power” superiority in sharing and using water.

Seeking solutions to water problems in Middle East

Water in the Middle East is highly insufficient, and the distribution of existing water basins is uneven. According to estimates, in 30 years, the water resources in the region’s countries will have depleted to the point where barely enough water will be available to meet drinking water needs. The countries with the worst water shortages are Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. According to the World Resources Institute, Israel’s annual water supply is 382 cubic meters per capita, while Jordan’s is 314 cubic meters per capita, which helps us better grasp the magnitude of the problem.

According to the Stockholm Environment Institute’s research, countries with annual water supplies of between two thousand and one thousand cubic meters per capita experience “water stress,” while countries with annual water supplies of less than one thousand cubic meters per person experience “water scarcity”. Water scarcity places countries in jeopardy in terms of food production, economic development, political stability, public health, and environmental protection. The fact that the annual amount of water per person in the Gaza Strip is barely around one hundred cubic meters aggravates the situation. The salinization of agricultural lands in this region and the level of pollution of water resources is at disastrous levels. The city of Gaza and the refugee camps are expected to be deprived of safe drinking water in the near future. Along with Palestine, 10 other countries in the Middle East face water scarcity, which is exacerbated by the rise in their populations, which have doubled in the last 25 years.

Jordan River and sharing issues

Jordan is perhaps the country that suffers worst because of the shortage of water resources. This country, whose land is mostly desert, is forced to share its already limited water resources with its neighbors, which are much more powerful politically and economically.

The Jordan River basin is at the center of the Middle East’s water crisis. Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, all of whom share this basin, are the main actors in the region’s water crisis. The basin has an area of ​​18 thousand square kilometers. Jordan owns 54% of this land, Syria owns 30%, Israel owns 14%, and Lebanon owns 2% of it. Twenty-seven percent of the river water comes from Jordan, 32% from Israel, 31% from Syria (including the Banias River), and 10% from Lebanon.

Israel’s military and economic power enable it to easily execute its own policies while preventing others from doing so. Israel’s monopoly on the Upper Jordan’s waters is known to have resulted in the drying up of 3,500 hectares of agricultural land in Palestine and Jordan. Israel is accused of collecting agricultural, urban, and industrial wastes and dumping them into the Lower Jordan River, effectively turning it into an open wastewater channel. The fact that the upper-basin countries such as Israel and Syria are increasingly using the high-quality branches of the Jordan River negatively impacts Jordanian agriculture and water resources.

Israel and water security

Israel no longer wants to withdraw from the Golan Heights without obtaining certain assurances, as they are very important not only for military security but also for water security. Thanks to the Golan Heights, Israel controls the Yarmouk and Banias rivers, as well as Lake Tiberias. In addition, the springs in the Golan Heights constitute important water resources for the Jewish settlers there. Other Syrian territories under Israeli occupation also cause problems between the two sides. While Syria wants to define the Jordan River and Lake Tiberias as a common border so that they will be counted as international waters, Israel has stated that it will not do so.

In the West Bank, Israel strictly regulates water consumption and prohibits Palestinians from drilling new wells for purposes other than drinking water. Israel is also known to have drilled deep wells in the region, which quickly deplete groundwater and harm the region’s geological structure. Israel has long made insistent demands to buy the surplus water of the Litani River in Lebanon, but because Lebanon is concerned that Israel may claim this as an acquired right in the future, and because Syria and Arabs, in general, are against it, it refuses these demands. In this water-scarce region, the Litani River is one of the cleanest and most abundant water sources.

Lebanon, which has been trying to achieve political stability after a long period of civil war, does not face any major water problem today. The Orontes River, which irrigates the Beqaa Valley in the north of the country, is shared with Syria. Lebanon is unable to benefit as much as it would want from these waters, but this creates a problem with Syria. It is known that the most important reason for this situation is Syria’s weight on Lebanon’s domestic and international affairs.

Lebanon is also a part of the Jordan River basin since the Hasbani tributary of the Jordan River originates there. But there are no water-sharing issues here; the water of the Hasbani River is entirely left to Israel’s use.

Most water-stressed country in region: Jordan

As we mentioned above, Jordan, with most of its land being desert, has to share its already limited water resources with neighbors who are much more powerful. It is also widely believed that its political and military weaknesses prevent it from receiving a fair share of water resources. Jordan has been in technical negotiations with Israel termed “Picnic Table Talks” since 1967 as part of the Johnston Plan, but due to Israel’s sovereignty over the Jordan River, Jordan has not been able to collect its fair share of water. Jordan’s water deficit is so acute that some towns only get water once a week. It is well known that a similar situation exists in Palestine, with Palestinian subsurface waters being devoured by Israel without facing any obstacles.

Israel uses water as means of suppression

Today, it is vital to ensure equality in access to water and regulate policies to improve the situation of disadvantaged people.

Israel’s water policy requires that existing underground and surface reserves are used optimally. However, this also means that Israel will not be able to give up Palestinian lands and water areas it has occupied in the past. The policies that have been executed thus far, namely the establishment of new settlements and the expansion of existing ones in occupied lands, are the most essential factor supporting this viewpoint.

The most important reason preventing Israel from returning to the occupied territories is the profound importance of the Palestinian water resources in terms of Israel’s economic development, as well as its existence and continuity. This is clearly seen in Israel’s conditions and attitude when it comes to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israel controls water areas in the region, demonstrating that water is utilized by Israel as a tool of political and psychological pressure.

The best option to prevent the water shortage in Palestine and Israel from escalating into a new war is for all parties involved to come together and share precious resources on a humanitarian basis. Otherwise, any water-related conflict will almost certainly result in infinite cycles of warfare. Water policies must include a moral foundation based on the principles of justice and equity because water is a human right. This framework should be guaranteed both by the countries involved in the problem and by international agreements.

*Translated from Turkish by Baran Burgaz Ayaz

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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