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Hydro-diplomatic tools to sustain the Jordan River Basin: Underwater scarcity conditions

Nov 26,2020 - Last updated at Nov 26,2020

The transboundary Jordan River Basin and its tributaries will always be important for Jordan, considering its religious, environmental, demographic and political significance. With annexation plans of the West Bank looming, it is essential to take into consideration that potential conflicts of existential scope might transpire in the region, and not only between Israel and Palestine. It is already a challenge to agree on common water management plans. Thus, when political wills take different directions, it is critical that the region enacts hydro-diplomacy mechanisms to resolve important issues, such as resource allocations, environmental protection of the river, minimum environmental flow and even states’ political disputes.

Riparian water management techniques are the core of sustainability, inter and intra-sectoriality, and complementarity in policies and actions. In acknowledging that shared water management can be improved through mechanisms that involve the interaction of all riparian countries (Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Israel), studies have shown that past agreements have been ineffective largely because they lacked the engagement of all riparian countries around the Jordan River Basin, as well as political dispute-resolving factors. Hence, environmental considerations with a new ground for the management of this transboundary body are necessary.

Historical context

Water wars on the Jordan River Basin took place from 1964 until 1967, when Arab-Israeli tensions came to be known as the “battle for water”. Several unilateral agreements have been signed over the years, which only included the cooperation of co-riparian countries, starting with the Johnston plan in 1950s; the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel; the agreements of 1953 and 1987 between Syria and Jordan concerning the utilisation of the waters of the Yarmouk River; the agreement of 1994 between Syria and Lebanon concerning the Orontes (Al-Asi) River, and several others abortive negotiations, such as the ones between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights in 2008 and 2019. All of these negotiations were driven by the need for a joint cooperation to facilitate countries’ utilisation of the shared water. Nonetheless, the political agenda of each country dictated the kind of cooperation mechanisms it adopted. No multilateral agreements to date have been signed by all riparian countries of the Jordan River Basin.

Joint Water Commission

The past unilateral joint water commissions between Jordan and Israel and Israel and Palestine may have been considered successful in preventing conflicts, but their impacts have been limited. The ongoing effects of environmental and demographic changes have inflicted serious damages to the water sector in all riparian countries. Therefore, the role of the Joint Water Commission will include ways to adapt to new changes, and work on several modes of settlements, which are through assistance of a neutral third party, or conciliation. This is important in order to adopt a new set of values that can monitor each state’s actions, where all tributaries upstream and downstream are connected to the same river, and any obstruction in any location causes side effects on the whole river. In response, the commission will work on legal notions where it can hold all riparian countries liable regarding any violations of agreements or treaties.

Reliable historical and scientific database on water

The emphasis on a reliable hydrological, geological and metrological database for each country, as well as historical and future scenarios for the Jordan River Basin, maintains a clear and efficient river water management based on shared knowledge and research. It is well known that the water allocations in the transboundary body are not equitable or equal. Israel currently withdraws the largest amount of water from all riparian countries. Consequently, national databases will provide a monitoring system of the river uses for each country, which eliminates illegality and provides correct allocations from both surface and groundwater. Allocations will be based on data to provide the right amount for each country based on their water status and needs.

The ‘polluter pays’ principle

“Water as a human right” can sometimes mislead the consumer to using the water unsustainably. Therefore, legal aspect of the “polluter pays” principle from the international policy of 1991 Water Act, where the principle was introduced to counter any violations from negative actors and illegalities happening to this scarce watercourse at the same level use quotas to regulate the main uses of surface water, as well as groundwater as both need to be safeguarded from reaching depletion or being contaminated.


The environmental and political changes over the years have contributed to the instability of the basin, which in fact ignited hydrological disputes. The geology and hydrology of the Jordan River Basin had to withstand breach in agreements, political clashes and environmental factors, such as climate change. Hence, water and climate politics will need to be policy makers’ next top priorities, if this biblical river is to be sustained.

Reem Alhaddadin is a researcher in the sustainable development pillar at the WANA Institute. She contributed this article to The Jordan Times

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