Are the Water Conflicts Between Israel and Her Neighbors on the Jordan River an Obstacle to Peace?

By Dr. Hillel Shuval




Today's seminar will discuss water utilization as an obstacle to peace in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. You will know this region, as it is continually in upheaval due to an endless array of political and socio-economic problems. The area has a hot and dry climate. It consists of the dry Mediterranean coast that extends to steppe and dry upland forest, before grading off into semi-arid desert and desert. Rainfall through most of the region is less than 250 mm per annum, with a small highland area having a higher precipitation of 1000 mm per annum. This can be compared to the Massachusetts average annual precipitation (1985-2000) of approximately 1080 mm (Referenced online at, 2/12/01).



Originating from Mount Hermon in Syria and Lebanon, the Jordan River flows from south through Israel and into Jordan. At over 358 kilometers in length, with an average gradient of 0.58 m/km, the world’s lowest river is described as shallow with a rapid average discharge. “The river was called the Aulon by the Greeks, ha-Yarden by the Hebrews, and Ash Shari'ah (Watering Place) by the Arabs. Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike revere the Jordan” (online at, 2/15/01). Follow this link for more facts on the region.




Figure 1: The Jordan River



Water is a critical natural capital, and utilization by the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel, Jordan subregion’s 12 million inhabitants was estimated at 3,183 million m3 (which does not include water recycling and reuse at 272 million m3 per annum). The highest estimate of average renewable surface- and groundwater resources is 2788 million m3 per annum, a difference of 395 million m3 per annum, so the current level of water use is clearly unsustainable. Living in an array of urban and semi-rural centers, the resultant water scarcity coupled with the disparity in consumption further hinders regional growth and stability. This is in addition to other environmental problems associated with the protection of freshwater quality and supply. The importance of water for life, economic development and ecosystem integrity, coupled with future population pressures, presents a potential scenario that gives rise to future conflict in this region.



Water Use (m3/yr)


West Bank and Gaza Strip


















Conveyance Losses





                                                                                                                                                                (Water For The Future, National Academy Press, 1999)

                                                Table 1 - Estimated 1994 Water Use



While rarely the sole basis of violent conflict or war, there is a long, documented history of conflicts and tensions over water resources. In The World’s Water: 2000-2001, Peter Gleick identifies six types of water conflict:



·        control of water resources

·        use of water resources (and systems) as weapons during war

·        use of water resources (and systems) as tools to attain political goals

·        targeting of water resources systems during military actions

·        targeting of water resources (and systems) by environmental terrorists

·        disputes resulting from contention over socio-economic development




Ecologically Sustainable Development on a regional basis is the centerpiece of the solution to the abovementioned water utilization dilemma. It is a challenging goal for the countries involved, and in addition to reducing all avenues of potential conflict, it will take a concerted effort to develop qualitative and quantitative tools capable of measuring and assessing progress. Environmental engineers, supported by scientific groups and global civil society, should be at the forefront of efforts to comprehensively understand transboundary environmental issues, and help solve the problems that arise by integrating and balancing all of the ecological, economic and social costs involved. The alternative is to stand with one's one head in the sand, like an emu, which does not bide well for our children and future generations!


Prepared by: David Tipping