Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Geopolitics of Water in the Greater Middle East....

The Geopolitics of Water in the Greater Middle East....
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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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 national revenue,[5] 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. [6]

Even 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.[7] 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).

Drought conditions, with rainfall at nearly half of normal levels in the Houran plain and wheat belt areas, have dramatically impacted Syrian agriculture.[8] 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.[9] As 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.[10]

This 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.[11] It 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.[12] While 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.[13]

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 guarantees.[14] 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:

Perhaps 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….[15]

Vulnerability on water also prompted the commencement of Syria’s tilt toward its historic rival, Iraq, which is also susceptible to Turkish water policy.[16] 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.[17] From 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.

The 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:

In 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.[18]

This 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.”[19] And indeed, in February 2000 the two countries established diplomatic ties for the first time in over two decades.

Meanwhile 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.”[20] 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 capture.

Now, 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 Tigris Rivers.[21]

This 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

Lebanon 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 cm/c.[22] 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.[23]






Withdrawal of





Water Use

D Ind Agr

In Out


Total /c Share

km³/yr %

Total /c
















































































S. Arabia

































Source: 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.[24]

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.

The 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 baseless.[25] 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.

When 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 that:

…a 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.[26]

However, 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 strategy.

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:

Syria’s 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, and completing the integration of the two countries’ agricultural sectors.[27] [Emphasis added.]

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 even further.[28] 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.[29]

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.[30] 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:

Lebanon’s 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.[31]

The salinity level of Lebanese reservoirs is rising as more seawater penetrates freshwater supplies.[32] 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.

Lebanon’s 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.

Water 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.

Since 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.[33] 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:

Israel’s 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:

[The 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.[34]

Assad’s 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….”[35]

Compliance 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.[36]

The 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:

The 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?”[37]

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.

Turkish Choices

Ever 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 negotiations.[38] Four 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 newspaper reported:

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.[39]

State 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 declared that:

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 dimension.[40]

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:

Officials 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?”[41]

Turkey’s 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

An 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 annually.[42]

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.[43] 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.[44] The 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 “water constitution.”[45]

The 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.[46] Israeli 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.[47]

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 development.[48]

Israel’s 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 diversion.[49] 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.

During 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.[50] 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.[51]

This 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 declared:

It 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.[52]

Nonetheless, 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.[53]

Currently, 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 concluded that:

The 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.[54]

Apparently, 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.

Israeli Hydrological Policy and the Peace Process

The 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.[55] 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.[56]

All 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.[57]

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:

The 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.[58] The head of Israel’s
Kinneret Authority was unequivocal as to the outcome of a Syrian control over the headwaters of the Jordan River.

A 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 rashly.[59]

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.[60] Israeli policymakers have by no means ruled out Syrian access to the Kinneret.[61] 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.

The region contains two sets of countries, each capable of drawing others to follow them, depending on their success. At one pole are the Baathist dictatorships of Syria and Iraq: when the possibility existed, they were aligned with the Soviet Union against the West. At the other pole are the Israeli and Turkish democracies, allies of the U.S. through thick and thin. On the sidelines, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon have swung to and fro.

We have 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.

Such a pro-Western alliance would surely draw Jordan. Jordan, currently locked in an escalating struggle with Israel over Jordan River Basin water would welcome a trilateral (with oversight by the United States) Turkish-Israeli-Jordanian diplomatic track. But to be successful, that track would have to do more than come up with technocratic proposals such as research and development on the transshipment of water or the creation of interstate carrier systems or regional information sharing regarding environmental conditions and technological breakthroughs. Its heart would have to be concrete military coordination, including mutual defense agreements over regional water supplies. In other words, the allies, supported by the U.S., would have to make their plans regarding water as well as regarding other vital issues, and impose them on opponents.

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.

[1] Larry Derfner, “Talks Beached on Kinneret Shore,” Jerusalem Post, 31 March 2000.

[2] Al-Hayat, 22 June 1999.

[3] 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 Israels 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 undrinkable.” Jerusalem Post, 11 July 2000.

[4] Askim I. Sokmen, “Contested Waters of the Middle East” (masters thesis, Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey, 1995), 129-130.

[5] Yuval Levin, “American Interests and an Israeli-Syrian Deal,” Nativ 13, no. 2 (2000): 19.

[6] Ed Blanche and Riad Kahwaji, “Debts and Dilemma in Syria,” Janes Defence Weekly 32, no. 18 (November 3, 1999).

[7] Natasha Beschorner, “Water and Instability in the Middle East,” Adelphi Paper No. 273 (1992): 32-33.

[8] David Makovsky and Janine Zacharia, “Clinton Awaits Assad’s Answer,” Jerusalem Post, 18 November 1999.

[9] Agence France Presse, 18 July 2000.

[10] Sandra Postel, Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992), 81.

[11] John K. Cooley, “Syria Links Pullout to Guaranteed Access to Water,” Washington Post, 8 June 1983.

[12] 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.

[13] Frederick M. Lorenz and Edward J. Erickson, The Euphrates Triangle (Washington: Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 1999), 12-16.

[14] Heinz Kramer, A Changing Turkey: The Challenge to Europe and the United States (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), 138-140.

[15] Lorenz and Erikson, The Euphrates Triangle, 37.

[16] 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.

[17] “Syria Wants Arab Backing on Dispute with Turkey,” Reuters, 5 February 1996.

[18] Alan George, “Syria and Iraq Call a Tactical Truce,” Jane’s Intelligence Review 8, no. 6 (June 1, 1996): 262-263.

[19] Ed Blanche, “Syria’s Agreement with Iraq is Opening a New Eastern Front,” Jane’s Defence Weekly 27, no. 25 (June 25, 1997): 15.

[20] Selcan Hacaoglu, “Turkey Issues Syria an Ultimatum,” Jerusalem Post, 8 October 1998.

[21] Middle East Newsline, [], 11 July 2000.

[22] 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), 70-71.

[23] 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

stress” is defined as the total long-term water resources available for all purposes.

[24] Beschorner, “Water and Instability in the Middle East,” 18-22.

[25] 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.

[26] Shuval, “Approaches to Resolving the Water Conflict,” 139.

[27] Habib Malik, “Syrian-Imposed Bilateral Agreements with Lebanon,” [], September 1997.

[28] Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Water Issues Between Turkey, Syria and Lebanon (Ankara: Department of Regional and Transboundary Waters, 1996), 8-9.

[29] Lale Sariibrahimoglu, “Turkey Pursues Tactical War Over Water Issue,” Turkish Daily News, 21 February 2000.

[30] 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.

[31] Joyce Starr, Covenant Over the Middle Eastern Waters (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995), 139-140.

[32] Alia Ibrahim, “Water Trouble Looms in 2000,” Beirut Daily Star, 12 December 1999.

[33] Harun Kazaz, “U.S. Experts Warn of Syrian Attempts to Bargain Over Water Issue,” Turkish Daily News, 6 January 2000.

[34] Derfner, “Talks Beached on the Kinneret Shore,” 5.

[35] Al-Usbu' (Cairo), June 11, 2000.

[36] John Lancaster, “Galilee Issue Stalled Talks With Syrian,” Washington Post, 29 March 2000.

[37] Zeev Schiff, “The Jordan Valley is the Kinneret,” Haaretz, 3 July 2000.

[38] Sami Kohen, “A Thirsty Syria May Make Turkey’s Water Price of Peace,” Christian Science Monitor, 9 January 1996.

[39] Harun Kazaz, “Water Talks Get Muddy,” Turkish Daily News, 15 January 2000.

[40] Turkish Daily News, 10 February 2000.

[41] Milliyet (Istanbul), 27 March 2000.

[42] 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).

[43] Thomas Naff and Ruth Matson, eds., Water in the Middle East: Conflict or Cooperation? (Boulder: Westview, 1984), 185.

[44] 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.

[45] I. Mustafa, “The Arab-Israeli Conflict Over Water Resources,” in Isaac and Shuval, eds., Water and Peace in the Middle East 125.

[46] Beschorner, “Water and Instability in the Middle East,” 21.

[47] Quoted in John Bulloch, “Troubled Waters,” Independent, 14 November 1993.

[48] 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.

[49] 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.

[50] 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 1991): 25.

[51] J. Schwartz, “Management of Israel’s Water Resources,” in Isaac and Shuval, eds., Water and Peace in the Middle East 72.

[52] “Israel Claims Control of Water,” Los Angeles Times, 10 August 1990.

[53] Henry Kamm, “Israel’s Farming Success Drains it of Water,” New York Times, 21 April 1991.

[54] Plaut, “Water Policy in Israel,” 20.

[55] Alwyn W. Rouyer, “The Water Accords of Oslo II: Averting a Looming Disaster,” Middle East Policy 7, no. 1 (October 1999): 113-114.

[56] See Plaut, “Water Policy in Israel,” 6-7.

[57] Turkish Daily News, 22 June 2000.

[58] Gideon Tzur, former Israeli Water Commissioner, lecture, 18 February 1996.

[59] Tzvi Ortenberg, Kinneret Authority Chairman, briefing, 16 April 2000.

[60] Steve Rodan, “Syria Builds Golan Reservoir to Capture Water,” Middle East Newsline, [], 6 January 2000.

[61] Danna Harman, “Beilin: We May Agree to Syrian Kinneret Access,” Jerusalem Post, 25 June 2000.