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Transboundary water relations in post-conflict Syria

Apr 07,2020 - Last updated at Apr 07,2020

While water would not bring countries to war, transboundary water agreements often institutionalise and hide conflict over water, as in the case of the unsustainable Jordan-Syria 1987 Yarmouk River treaty. It is unsustainable because it is ambiguous and because it is not comprehensive.

In fact, the Jordanian government has been claiming that the Yarmouk River flow reaching Jordan has decreased as the Syrian government has been overexploiting the Yarmouk Basin resources and building dams upstream without Jordanian consent. Instead, the Syrian government has been blaming climate change for the decreased flow of the river as well as the Jordanian-Israeli water sharing agreement.

The Yarmouk River treaty is ambiguous as “Jordanʼs entitlement is ambiguously limited to the flows in the Yarmouk mainstream that are released from the Wehdeh Dam”, with ambiguity making it easier to agree upon at negotiation stage, but more difficult to at the implementation stage.

The treaty is not comprehensive because latest research found that the core problem in the conflictive views on the decreased river flow lies in the agreement design.

Over-exploitation of groundwater resources within the Yarmouk River Basin is the main reason why a decreased flow reached Jordan, and the use of groundwater is not governed by the agreement. Moreover, the agreement does not account for future changes in rainfalls and for climate change. In addition, given the treaty was signed in 1987, the core principles of the UN 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, including “reasonable and equitable” allocation, are not incorporated.

Finally, being the Yarmouk a tributary of the Jordan River, the agreement is not comprehensive, as it is not embedded within the Jordan River water sharing considerations.

Now the Syrian war seems to be turning to an end, and the international community has been discussing the post-war reconstruction. Academic circles envision new water agreements in the basin, hinting to the possibility of renegotiating the unsustainable Jordan-Syria 1987 Yarmouk treaty.

A sustainable renegotiated agreement must: First, include provisions to account for climate change. Second, include both the use of surface and of groundwater resources. Third, align with the principles of the UN 1997 Convention. Fourth, be clear and precise and not ambiguous. Fifth, be embedded within water sharing considerations of the Jordan River Basin, of which the Yarmouk is a tributary.

Without these elements, a new treaty would be “perpetuating, not resolving the water conflict”.

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