The conquest of water in the Middle East


In the Middle East, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria are competing for limited water resources. At the heart of this policy of water conquest is the Jordan River basin. State of play.

Is the Middle East the scene of water-related armed conflicts? "I prefer the term political tensions rather than conflicts," says Pierre Berthelot. Associate researcher at the French Institute for Strategic Analysis and the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic StudiesHe admits that "there have been water-related conflicts in the past, violent conflicts even, and this could potentially happen again. But I don't think of a direct military conflict, rather a political conflict".

The Middle East, along with the Jordan River basin, is one of the world's major water-related conflict zones, where three states and Palestine are trying to share a scarce resource. So is blue gold a source of conflict or peace? Diving into political waters.

A coveted river

Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Syria: a quartet under water stress. In other words, these countries, located in a so-called arid region, have water needs that exceed existing and available resources. The strong demographic pressure of recent years and climate change are aggravating the situation.

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The river Jourdain is the region's main water reservoir and forms a natural border between Israel and Jordan. Until a few years ago, its flow represented nearly 1.3 billion m3 per year, once it was discharged into the Dead Sea. Today, its flow is estimated to be around 20-30 million per year.

Its tributary, the Yarmouk, has its source in Syria before reaching Jordanian lands. The Golan Heights, together with Lake Tiberias, are located in Syrian territory and constitute a strategic area: Israel understood this and annexed it in 1981. Finally, the resources groundwater aquifers provide a large part of the basin's water supply.

It's true that the region is disadvantaged at the outset, of course," explains Pierre Berthelot. But that doesn't absolve people and governments from being more responsible. Poor water management," he says, "is often forgotten", has only aggravated the already critical situation in the basin (nearly 50% of water transported to Jordan was lost due to the poor state of the pipes, etc.). As a result, the level of the Jordan River has fallen dangerously over the years. In 2010, the spokesman for the Water Authority indicated that the simple domestic consumption of drinking water in Israel amounted to 700 million m3.

In the face of these scarce water resources, regional disparities and dependencies are growing and pressure from Israel is complicating the situation.

Israel, water policeman

The Hebrew state dominates the basin without having real water resources on its territory. It diverts and thus draws illegally and without limits from the Jordan River and the underground aquifer resources, located in Palestinian territories (mainly in the West Bank). Moreover, the occupation of South Lebanon until 2000 allowed it to take control of two tributaries of the Jordan River. "The operation was even named after the river," reports Pierre Berthelot.

This shows the importance of water in the geopolitical context. "Israel wants to be the gendarme of the water issue in the region", to the detriment of Palestinians who face restricted access to water despite the fact that they have no access to water. the Oslo II agreement in 1995 which recognizes the right to water for these populations, but without establishing a precise ratio.

To the detriment of the Jordanians as well. Un peace treaty was nevertheless adopted in 1994 between Israel and Jordan, establishing multilateral cooperation, particularly for the distribution of water from common sources. According to Pierre Berthelot, "Jordan is both an ally and hostage of Israel", blocked between its agreement with Israel, its aborted project (by Israel) to create an international water agency, and the fact that it has not been able to reach an agreement with Israel.he dam with Syria on the Yarmouk River and its strained relations with its other neighbours (Iraq, Saudi Arabia). To be able to continue its economic development, Jordan needs water and "therefore depends on the good will of its neighbour".

The control of land, for political or security reasons, is therefore also a control of water for the Hebrew state. Its water deficit is growing. "Israel considers that it is threatened at all levels in the region (rise of Islamism, revolt in Syria, attitude towards Iran, etc.), real or fantasised threats moreover. He is therefore using the water map. If we follow his logic, a country facing such a flow of threats has the right to play this card. "How can a country consider sharing such a scarce resource with its neighbours and risk putting itself at risk?

Tensions, plans and peace?

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Such an Israeli stranglehold on water forces its neighbouring countries to divert it. Syria is thus trying to tap into the Yarmouk River, downstream from Lake Tiberias, by building wells.

The overexploitation of groundwater leads to significant salinisation of the water. Israel then developed a rs network of seawater desalination plants. in order to reduce its dependence on the Jordan River or aquifer resources, whose days are numbered.

Problem, "we're acting on the offer. We should rather act on the demand and make people more responsible," comments Pierre Berthelot. Moreover, these factories are "vulnerable" and could be targeted by enemy missiles. "This puts us in a dangerous position of dependence. »

Is the issue of water then crucial for reaching a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine ? "This is, in my opinion, not the main sticking point and there are always alternatives, compromises to be found. »

Today, the situation in the Middle East is worrying, but the water war is not to be feared: "It's the status quo and we're not going to see the end of it," he concludes.

(Source: Caroline Dubois / - March 2012)

To go further:

Israel, water at the heart of the conflict :

A political approach to water control in the Middle East :

Gaza, the desalination emergency 😐

The geopolitics of water in the Middle East: improbable war, impossible peace? :


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