Political and Institutional Responses to Transboundary Water Disputes in the Middle East

by Miriam R. Lowi

There are three major, outstanding disputes over the distribution and management of transboundary waters in the Middle East. They concern: 1) the Euphrates River basin among Iraq, Syria, and Turkey; 2) the Jordan River basin among Israel, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians; and 3) West Bank groundwater between Israel and the Palestinians. In the three cases, aridity or semi-aridity characterizes the climate and hydrology of the region, hence undisturbed access to water is essential for continued survival. In the three cases, as well, political tensions among the concerned riparians aggravate the water disputes.

Let me begin by briefly outlining the nature of the problem in each of the cases and the stakes involved in failing to resolve the disputes. Next, I will highlight the minimum conditions that must be met before a water dispute can be resolved in a protracted conflict setting. Finally, I will describe some of the institutional mechanisms that could be effective in promoting a mutually satisfactory solution. In doing so, I note what seems to have worked in similar situations in the past, and what seems to be working currently under the auspices of the water resources working group of the multilateral track of the Middle East peace process.

The Problem

In the Euphrates basin, the central problem can be described thus: the river rises in Turkey and flows southward into Syria and then into Iraq. The two downstream riparians are highly dependent upon the river flow for agricultural development, while Turkey upstream has become increasingly dependent upon the river since the mid-1960s by virtue of the GAP (Southeast Anatolia Development) project, a massive water management scheme that includes dam-building and diversions.1 In the absence of a basin-wide agreement that stipulates who gets what from the river, when and how, Turkey, as the upstream riparian and the strongest state in the basin, is able to requisition what it wants from the river system; Syria and Iraq must suffer the consequences. On a number of occasions, in fact, the flow entering the two countries was reduced considerably, and although Syria and Iraq complained vociferously about this, Turkey was not contractually bound to behave otherwise. Moreover, relations in the basin are such that Syria and Iraq, who have the most to lose from the status quo, are engaged in a protracted conflict: there is virtually no official interaction between the two regimes, hence a bilateral alliance vis-à-vis Turkey is out of the question in the prevailing political environment. It is also fair to say that the international community has not shown much concern about this conflict and its resolution; there have not been significant efforts at third party mediation.

In the case of the Jordan basin, the river system rises in four tributaries: the Yarmouk in Syria, the Banias in Israeli-occupied Syria, the Hasbani in Israeli-occupied Lebanon, and the Dan in Israel. The Banias, Hasbani and Dan meet in northern Israel to form the Upper Jordan River that flows into Lake Tiberias and then the Lower Jordan; the Yarmouk flows in a southwesterly direction, forming the border between Jordan and Syria, then Jordan and Israel, before flowing into the Lower Jordan that forms the boundary between Jordan and the West Bank, and then Jordan and Israel. By virtue of both the 1967 war and the establishment of the "security zone" in South Lebanon in the early 1980s, Israel has become the upstream riparian on the Upper Jordan system; Syria is upstream on the Yarmouk. Jordan and the Palestinians, as downstream riparians vis­à-vis both Israel and Syria, have remained in the worst possible positions in the basin. Moreover, Jordan's dependence on the river system is great; apart from a few wadis,2 there are no other important sources of fresh water available to Jordan.

On three occasions, efforts were made to resolve the water dispute in the Jordan River basin and establish an "international regime" that would oversee the distribution and management of the water among the riparians. In 1953-55, 1976-81, and 1987-90, the United States government was engaged in trying to secure an agreement: among all four riparians on the first occasion, among all except for Lebanon on the second, and between Israel and Jordan on the third. In the three attempts, outcomes fell short of the objectives; it was clear that in the absence of a political settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the parties were not going to come to an agreement.3

It is important to note that by virtue of the Middle East peace process that was initiated in 1991, the status quo in the Jordan basin is in flux. Indeed, a water resources working group has been meeting under the auspices of the multilateral track, and a peace treaty has already been signed between Israel and Jordan. While that treaty lays out an agreement on sharing and managing water resources, it is not a basin-wide agreement: not only are Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians not signatories of the document, there is absolutely no mention of them. Nonetheless, continued progress in the peace process holds out hope that a basin-wide agreement may eventually be reached.

The situation with regard to the groundwater sources of the West Bank is equally complex. About one-half of Israel's annual supply of groundwater and one-quarter of its total renewable supply of fresh water originate in two subterranean basins in the West Bank. Those waters flow naturally across the "Green Line" (the 1949 Armistice Demarcation Line) into Israel. Moreover, by virtue of its occupation of the West Bank, Israel has been controlling water use in the territory. The result has been that approximately eighty percent of West Bank water is exploited in Israel and by Israeli settlers in the territory, leaving only twenty percent for the Palestinian population.4 No doubt, negotiations on the final status of the occupied territories will have to consider arrangements for the distribution and management of this precious resource.

Resolving Water Disputes

The sine qua non of resolving a transboundary water dispute in a protracted conflict setting is the prior resolution of the political conflict. The history of the water disputes in the Jordan River basin and in the Indus basin (between India and Pakistan)--both of which have been deeply intertwined with a protracted political conflict--instructs us that states involved in "high politics" conflicts that provoke wars and engage the visceral issues of territorial sovereignty and the recognition of identities, are not inclined to collaborate in seemingly technical matters that concern economic development and human welfare.5

This being so, it would be fair to assume that there will not be a truly basin-wide accord regarding the Jordan waters prior to the successful completion of final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the signing of peace treaties between Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and Syria. Similarly, it is unlikely that Turkey, Syria and Iraq will come to an agreement regarding the Euphrates waters prior to a mutually satisfactory resolution of the differences between the two downstream belligerents. Indeed, it has been very difficult up to now for the three parties even to appear together at meetings.

The other precondition for resolving transboundary water disputes is that the active support and involvement of a Third Party be enlisted, or at least accepted, by the concerned parties. It is critically important that the mediator be perceived as being both impartial and firmly committed to a successful resolution of the dispute. In the case of the Indus waters conflict, for example, the World Bank mediated more-or-less continuous negotiations between India and Pakistan from 1952 until September 1960, when the Indus Waters Treaty was signed. It was thanks to the positive involvement of an impartial mediator that both states perceived an equitable distribution of benefits and sufficient inducements to bring them to the negotiating table.

In contrast, the perception of impartiality on the part of the mediator has not characterized the negotiation process in the Jordan basin until very recently. In the 1950s, when the Eisenhower Administration of the United States government took charge of the Jordan water dispute and appointed Eric Johnston as "Personal Representative of the President" and chief negotiator, the Arab riparians insisted outright that the United States government was not an impartial Third Party; in fact, their perception of a pro-Israel bias was reiterated throughout the two years of negotiations and influenced the outcome of that process. It is only since the inception of the current Middle East peace process--and the creation of a truly multilateral track (composed of delegations from 29 countries excluding the Middle East and North Africa) under the leadership of the United States--that the importance of impartiality has been properly addressed. This had been a very significant development in our understanding of effective mediation.

In the case of the Euphrates River basin, the question of impartiality is premature; there has been minimal input from the international community toward resolving the conflict. There have been only a few very brief and fairly haphazard efforts at Third Party involvement, and to the best of my knowledge, none of significance since the mid-1970s.

Institutional Mechanisms

As adversaries make progress toward settling their political conflict, they can also take steps toward resolving their water dispute. It is important to realize, however, that the implementation of a water agreement will not be effected until the political conflict has reached closure. Nonetheless, projects and arrangements can certainly be discussed, their details elaborated, and some relatively non-compromising proposals initiated in anticipation of a political settlement. This is precisely what we were seeing in the Middle East peace process in 1995 and early 1996.

The water resources working group was established within the framework of the multilateral track to complement the political negotiations in the bilateral track and make progress in technical matters. The hope was that the two tracks would draw inspiration from each other, and that technical projects could be formulated and prepared for implementation if and when a political settlement were reached.6 To date, the group has met seven times. In recent months, the Arab and Israeli delegations have agreed to the implementation of a number of projects, overseen by the American, Canadian and European delegations. Most notable among them is a project to help the Arabs and Israelis collect, analyze, and archive data in national data banks in such a way that they could eventually collaborate in the creation of a regional data bank and use the data to elaborate joint water projects. This is only one of several projects in which those who exercise a mediating role share their expertise and work with technical experts from the Arab and Israeli delegations. No doubt, the end-goals of a regional data bank and joint water projects await a political settlement.

The interim period is characterized by tremendous fragility and uncertainty. Under the circumstances, it is crucial that third parties show a commitment to working closely, and in an advisory capacity, with local expertise. I should emphasize that local expertise and ingenuity in the water resource domain is not lacking among the Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians; to wit, the three parties have had no difficulty putting together effective delegations to the water resources working group. It is true, however, that local expertise is not housed in a single institution; in all three cases, it is spread out in a variety of ministries, research institutes, and non-governmental organizations. While the "diffusion" of expertise could conceivably pose difficulties for effective problem-solving, governments need to be able to locate and draw upon local expertise whenever that is required. Moreover, they must empower technical experts and involve them directly in efforts toward solving the problems of scarcity and of resource distribution.


To summarize, the effective resolution of water disputes requires that political conflicts be resolved first. Impartial and committed mediators need to be engaged, and they must work closely with the expertise "on the ground." Local expertise--whether in the form of private individuals, research institutes, NGOs, or governmental bodies--needs to be tapped.

With the resolution of conflict, governments, with their experts, need to address the pressing issues of how to share, develop, and manage the scarce water resources. In tackling the thorny issue of sharing, the growing literature on how to calculate fair and reasonable entitlements may be useful in drawing up objective criteria for determining water "rights".7 Developing water resources in the arid and semi-arid Middle East requires a focus on technological solutions for increasing water supplies, such as cloud-seeding, desalination, waste-water reuse, and "importing" water from relatively wet zones. Some of these solutions are already being carried out independently by states in the region. However, they would probably be so much more effective if implemented at the regional level. And of course, water management would be carried out in an optimal fashion at the level of the basin and under the auspices of an international regime. *

Miriam R. Lowi is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Trenton State College. Her book, Water and Power: The Politics of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin, was published by Cambridge University Press in 1993 and 1995. Her articles have appeared in edited volumes and journals that include International Security and the Journal of International Affairs. Her latest research is on oil and the politics of development in Algeria, Iran and Indonesia.


1. See John Kolars and William A. Mitchell, The Euphrates River and the Southeast Anatolia Development Project (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991).

2.Wadi refers to a valley, river, gully, or riverbed that remains dry except during the rainy season.

3. See Miriam R. Lowi, Water and Power: The Politics of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin (Cambridge University Press, 1993/95).

4. See Stephen Lonergan and David Brooks, Watershed: the Role of Fresh Water in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 1994); Miriam R. Lowi, "Bridging the Divide: Transboundary Resource Disputes and the Case of West Bank Water," International Security 18:1 (summer 1993); and, "Transboundary Resource Disputes and Their Resolution," in Contested Ground: Security and Conflict in the New Environmental Politics, eds. Daniel Deudney and Richard Matthew (Albany: State University of New York Press, forthcoming).

5. For further elaboration of this argument and for evidence from both the Indus and the Jordan River basins see, Lowi, Water and Power.

6. See Miriam R. Lowi, "Rivers of Conflict, Rivers of Peace," Journal of International Affairs 49:1 (summer 1995).

7. See among others, James W. Moore, "Parting the Waters: Calculating Israeli and Palestinian Entitlements to the West Bank Aquifers and the Jordan River Basin," Middle East Policy 3:2 (1994); H. Zarour and J. Isaac, "Nature's Apportionment and the Open Market: A Promising Solution to the Arab-Israeli Water Conflict," Water International 18:1 (1993).