FoEME Updates

Water wars in the Middle East

By: Max
January 24, 2013

If many of the wars this century were about oil, those of the next century will be over water,1 Ismail Serageldin, vice-president of the World Bank at the time, declared to Newsweek in 1995. Alongside the degradation of air quality and soil depletion, water resources’ quantity and quality are already defined as part of these new ‘environmental threats’. Mankind will have to adapt to these threats if it wants to avoid a global, ecological, economic and social crisis. Constituting only 0,26% of global water resources, freshwater, understood here as drinking water, nowadays kills more by its absence, than any war claims through guns 2,3. Water scarcity in the Middle East, likely to worsen with the current increase of pressures on the resource, may lead the states to engage in war for this essential resource, according to diverse specialists.

Yasser Arafat’s Fatah’s first armed wing commando operation was carried out during the night of December 31st 1964 against the Israeli National Water Career installations.4 Several armed attacks between Israel and Syria followed the diversion of the Jordan River earlier in the 1950s when Syria threatened to contaminate the Israeli owned Lake Tiberias.5 Since then, tensions are still perceptible in the region between the different countries sharing water bodies. Israeli policies, as well as the controversial use of local water resources by Jewish settlements, led to many disputes between Israelis and Palestinians. The dispute between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, mainly over the exploitation of groundwater, cannot be separated from other geopolitical rivalries such as the Israeli-Lebanon dispute over the Hasbani waters.

Since 2000,6 Lebanon has twice attempted to unilaterally change the status quo of water usage in the Hasbani River, provoking Israeli condemnation. Tensions reached another level in 2002, when Lebanon initiated a plan to divert water from the Wazzani River (contributing to approximately ¼ of the River Jordan’s water). Israeli reaction was clear: it was “a pretext for war.7

Imagine what it would have looked like in its prime!
The Jordan River, as seen in Bakoura.

Though tensions related to water issues in the region are perceptible, it is not as obvious that further water scarcity may lead to an intensification of conflict. Friends of the Earth Middle East argues that water can actually be a tool for cooperation; and could bring peace rather than war. Indeed, studies report that throughout history water has never been the sole reason for a conflict to occur; it has always been part of an overall context of fear and misunderstanding. However, once these issues were overtaken, there have been many communities who have reached a peaceful resolution of water conflicts through transboundary treaties.

In this context, Friends of the Earth in the Middle East made the choice to strengthen trust, dialogue and cooperative projects between the riparian countries of the Jordan River. The Good Water Neighbors (GWN) project, established in 2001, has known increasing success to this day, gathering cross-border communities from Jordan, Israel and Palestine based on their common dependence on shared water resources in order to build further dialogue and cooperation. Through the years, this room for dialogue allowed the communities to build trust and common understanding, leading to resolution of the problems and peace building, in a context of governmental limited cooperation.

The concept of “Community of Interest” has been further developed in several FoEME publications, highlighting the shared interests the Jordan riparians would have in cooperating. Tourism, industry, agriculture, as well as the general well being of the population could be improved on all sides through cooperation over shared waters. Especially seeing as new environmental challenges threatening the region are likely to stress the shared interest of the riparian countries. It is desirable to stimulate cooperation and discussions regarding adaptation of solutions to face pollution, climate change, water scarcity, and salinization. It is in the interest of all users of these common resources to share data, technological means and common strategic plans to preserve the future of these resources; their future.

The Dead Sea....slowly receeding
The Dead Sea….slowly receeding

As an example, tourism development around the Dead Sea today calls for a cooperation of the riparian countries in order to find a solution of replenishment. The on-going implementation of the first ever NGO Regional Master Plan for the rehabilitation of the Lower Jordan River, coordinated by FoEME, would be an important step towards cooperation and peace-building in the region.

This blog was written by research intern Marie Pochon, who is based in FoEME’s Bethlehem office.

 1 Of Water and wars, Interview with Dr. Ismail Serageldin, Senior Vice-President, World Bank, in Frontline, volume 16 – issue 9, April 24-May 07, 1999
2 Igor Shiklomanov, « World Fresh Water Resources » in Peter Gleick (dir.), Water in Crisis: A Guide to the World’s Fresh Water Resources, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 13.
3 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). (2006). Human Development Report 2006, Beyond scarcity: power, poverty, and the global water crisis
4 L’enjeu politique du contrôle de l’eau au Moyen Orient, P. François Boëdec, L’eau dans les Relations Internationales, Défense et stratégie N°27, 3rd trimester 2009, published online by the Observatoire Européen de Sécurité, p.16
5 Hillel Frisch, Water and Israel’s national security, efficient use of Limited Water Resources: Making Israel a Model state, 9, BESA 2001
6 And Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in May.
7 Reut Snir, Water in the Middle East, National Environmental Trust
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