Water: Conflict and Cooperation in Israel’s Jordan River Valley (ILLUSTRATED)
The Jordan River runs from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, the natural boundary separating Israel from Jordan.
“Most of the major rivers in Europe and water, generally speaking, have been used as boundaries between countries throughout history, making water either a source of conflict or a wonderful stage for co-operation,” former Israeli Ambassador Ram Aviram told The Algemeiner in a recent interview.
In Europe, rivers make up most of the continent’s natural and national boundaries. The Tagus River separates Portugal from Spain, the Rhine River separates France from Germany, and the Danube River separates Hungary from Slovakia. Indeed, in Northern Europe, Norway, Sweden and Finland are bound by rivers. In Eastern Europe, nearly every country is bound by a river: Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Belarus,
Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Czech Republic, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina all imbue rivers with natural authority to mark their national territories.
In the case of the Jordan River, in 1920, the San Remo Resolution designated the land on both banks as a single “Jewish Homeland” to be held in trust by Britain.
But in 1922, Britain, in deference to French demands, temporarily withdrew the Jewish claim for the Eastern half, which was quickly invaded by Hashemite King Abdullah I, whose family had been dethroned in Mecca, when Arabia became Saudi Arabia. Abduallah was marching towards Damascus to attack the French, who had defeated his brother Faisal at the Battle of Maysalun. Britain convinced Abdullah to stand down, and stay put. The original “Jewish Homeland” was then divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with the Jordan River chosen as the natural boundary between the two.
“Think of all the characteristics of trans-boundary water sources that could become points of conflict: the scarcity, self-interests, the expenses for keeping water clean, or making it available for all purposes to the people on both sides,” he said. “But there’s also the mutual interests, the interdependence with the country on the other side.
“It becomes a question of how you use it; the challenge is to make both sides understand the gains possible through cooperation,” Aviram said. “Once the scope for mutual gain is recognized, cooperation in managing a shared water source can actually become a confidence building measure, leading to greater cooperation between the two sides in other areas. Joint institutions are created to avoid conflicts over the resource, so working together on water can create the ability to cooperate more widely.”
Understanding Israel’s approach to water provides a window to understand the economic, political and ecological situation of the region.
The Mediterranean Sea borders Israel’s fertile coastal plain of “greater” Tel Aviv to the west, and to the east sit the Samarian and Judean mountains, with Jerusalem between the two ranges. While those mountains slope gradually towards the sea, making them hospitable for agriculture and city life, they fall off too steeply on the other side, with Jericho the only major city ever built on that parched land, before reaching the Jordan River Valley.
The importance of the Jordan River Valley as a strategic military asset was conveyed by Israeli General Allon in the 1970 ‘Allon Plan.’ To protect Israel’s border with the Jordan River, Allon proposed keeping most of the river bank area, connecting it with a belt over Jerusalem, towards Tel Aviv, and offering the Samarian mountains, which include the Arab cities of Ramallah and Nablus, and the Judean mountains, with Hebron, to the Palestinian Authority, which could connect the two separate areas with a highway. For Gaza, at the Southern end of Israel’s Mediterranean coast, Allon called for an Israeli-controlled buffer at the Egyptian border to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory.
In more recent maps drawn for subsequent iterations of U.S. and internationally-brokered peace talks between Israel and the PA, most of the mountainous Samaria and Judea regions, along with the Jordan River Valley, are drawn as a Palestinian state, plus today’s Hamas-controlled Gaza, all the way to the Egyptian border.
Opponents of plans to create a Palestinian state in the middle of Israel point to the narrow 9 miles separating the sea from its proposed border, the vertical ‘Green Line’ on the map, where invading Arab armies halted in the Armistice Agreement of 1949 — basically, at the Western edge of the mountains, looking down over the coastal plane. Indeed, King Hussein of Jordan said in his auto-biography, ‘My ‘War’ With Israel,’ that, in 1967, he attacked Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus from that same mountainous position, along the ‘Green Line.’
The short distances in between borders and the geographic advantage of attacking from the highlands would mean that all of the Tel Aviv area — which holds 70% of Israel’s population and 80% of its industrial base — would be left defenseless from the types of rockets fired daily from Gaza that strike the Israeli cities of Ashkelon and Sderot. Losing control of the Jordan River border would also mean that, in a war scenario, the PA could open the “back door” to allow an aggressor army to attack Israel.
In 1979, in exchange for peace, Israel gave the Sinai to Egypt and new borders were agreed. In 1994, a peace treaty was signed for the Jordan River to once again became the boundary separating Israel from Jordan.
In the Jordan Valley last week, hundreds of Israelis, led by Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, marched in protest to demand that control over the area remain in the hands of the Jewish state.
“We are here with a clear and simple statement — the Jordan Valley belongs to Israel!” Sa’ar said, according to Israel’s i24 News.
“Israel’s security requires strategic depth,” Sa’ar said. “It is impossible to think that Israel’s borders will not be along the Valley. The alternative is that the border will be along Kfar Sava and Netanya, and that is unacceptable.”
Sa’ar spoke directly to Jews living in the Valley: “We are here to strengthen the residents of the Valley in their mission for the Jewish people. Know that communities in the Jordan Valley will remain and thrive for generations to come.”
In the midst of this heated national debate over the Jordan River Valley, Aviram, who was part of the Israeli delegation in the 1993 Oslo Accords attempt to broker peace between Israel and the PA, decided to focus on the Jordan River, itself, leading a group charged with reversing the decades of degradation, pollution and misuse of the precious water resource.
Aviram was on the Israeli team from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the 1990s that helped create a joint water committee with Jordan. After he left the Foreign Ministry, where he had been posted as of Chief of Staff to Shimon Peres and Ambassador to Greece, Aviram turned his focus to hydro politics and water-related issues, becoming a professor in the area at Haifa University, founding member of Israel Desalination Association and member of the board of Waterfronts Israel Water Industry Association. He is principal of consulting company BIT that is the geopolitical consultant for the Rehabilitation of the Lower Jordan River Project.
“The Jordan river suffers for many years in both quantity and quality of water,” Aviram said. “It’s down to about 70 to 100 million cubic meters per year, that’s 7 per cent of its historical flow. It was 1.2 billion a century ago.”
“It happened, not because of bad intentions, but mainly because, in this area, which suffers from a natural water scarcity, the sharp increase in population in all the countries that are part of this eco-system means there is a tremendous need need for drinking water and water for irrigation,” Aviram said.
As part of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace agreement, the decision was also taken to work together to rehabilitate the river. While there were “good intentions,” including the creation of a joint water committee, Aviram said that after years of no real progress, Israel’s water authority embarked on a major operation to begin the clean-up and rehabilitation. “The Jordanians, of course, blessed the idea,” he said.
The broad strokes of the NIS 250 million ($70 million) plan involve improving water quality dramatically, decreasing its salinity by about a third, which is not to the quality of fresh water, but closer than it is today. They will build a major wastewater treatment plant to stop sewage from entering the river, and, based on a successful pilot project in Tiberius, desalinated brackish water will be returned to the river.
Aviram said the quality will drastically improve, but that won’t necessarily mean a greater quantity of water, initially, though it may, later. The focus of the plan is to restore the natural state of the aquatic system, in terms of renewed life of flora and fauna in the water and on the riverbed.
For the people who live along the river banks, the project aims to transform the Jordan from a “front line, a border of hostility” into becoming a “center of life,” Aviram said.
“Because it had been a source of danger, of gunfire from one side to the other, or because of the fear of its infiltration by terrorists, throughout the 1980s, people turned their backs to the Jordan River. We hope to change the perception of inhabitants to make this their front yard, rather than the backyard,” Aviram said. “Instead of looking at the river, people were looking the other way around, so our goal is to bring the river back to its natural place, as the center of life.”
Aviram led the creation of a master plan that complements the river clean up with a look towards new land uses along the Jordan River Valley.
The first phase contemplates cleaning up the intersection of the Yarmouk and Jordan Rivers, and “everyone
downstream will enjoy it.” The project is coordinated very closely with the Jordanian’s Jordan Valley Authority, as the river is under its jurisdiction.
The plan also calls for a joint Israel-Jordanian industrial zone by the Sheikh Hussein border crossing, which has seen a sharp increase in traffic from Jordan as its Northern commerce routes are avoided because of the Syrian war. The commerce element is complemented by an even more ambitious plan to invest NIS 3 billion ($850 million) to extend the Haifa Railway to the Jordan Valley along the old Ottoman Railway route, which would connect the two points in 40 minutes.
The rehabilitation plan calls for the creation of low-intensity eco-tourism, taking advantage of the bi-annual migration pattern, which sees 500 million birds cross the Jordan River as they head from Europe to Africa each Winter and return in the Summer.
Aviram said he envisions “slow tourism that does not change the landscape; we’re not talking mega hotels, but small inns, with families on bikes and hiking along the river, listening to nature.”
The plan even includes the “Peace Park” that was included, but never built, though promoted both by governments and NGOs, including ‘Friends of the Earth Middle East,’ in the 1994 peace treaty. The park would be a point of encounter between Israelis and Jordanians.
The plan is being financed entirely by Israel, while other donor countries and international organizations are being courted to offset part of the costs.
If successful, the rehabilitation of the Jordan River would bring that part of Israel’s water ecology to the high levels enjoyed everywhere else in the country.
Fifty years ago, Israeli farmers stopped flooding their fields to irrigate their crops, opting for the much more efficient drip irrigation technique that Israel has since exported around the world.
Israel also practices a “waste not, want not” philosophy in treating household sewage, transforming 80% of it — the highest ratio in the world — into clean effluent that is used to irrigate crops. Aviram said the treated wastewater can get to between 97 and 99 per cent purity, certainly high enough for irrigation use.
Israel relies on three aquifers under the Judean and Samarian mountains and a large fresh water lake for about a third of its drinking water needs, with desalination plants along the Mediterranean providing the balance. Treated wastewater irrigates half of its crops.
As Ethiopia, Yemen, Turkey, and Jordan brace for tremendous water shortages forecast in the coming decades, Israeli ingenuity has truly made its deserts bloom.
Seth Siegel, a U.S.-based brand licensing expert, corporate investor and Jewish leader, wrote three Op-Eds, published in the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, over the past month, to draw attention to Israel’s water miracle, which he is writing a book about.
“In researching Israel’s water resource management, what you could describe as abundance now was because of wise public policies and technological ingenuity,” Siegel told The Algemeiner. “It is a remarkable story of how Israel overcame the challenge of the land and severe drought to build a dynamic, modern economy — all of that began with understanding that most precious resource in a desert, water.”
Unfortunately, Israel’s careful approach to water management was never embraced by the PA.
In a report for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies that was published last Monday, Haim Gvirtzman, Professor of Hydrology at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University, member of the Israel Water Authority Council and long-time adviser to the representative of the Government of Israel to the Israel-PA Joint Water Committee, described a litany of water abuse offenses and a refusal to accept Israeli help.
According to Gvirtzman’s report, the PA has refused to build sewage treatment plants, desalination plants, to use treated effluent for irrigation. He also mentions basic things, like allowing leaky pipes to fester and still use flooding to irrigate their fields. Unauthorized wells — some 250 — have been drilled into the underground aquifer, which, though yet unfounded, raises the specter of well poisoning which scares Israelis. Indeed, the underwater aquifer is a shared water resource, again, “a source of conflict” or a “stage for cooperation.”
In Gvirtzman’s opinion,”The sum total of the situation… is that the Palestinian Authority is using water as a weapon against the State of Israel. It is more interested in reducing the amount of water available to Israel, polluting natural reservoirs, harming Israeli farmers, and sullying Israel’s reputation around the world than truly solving water problems for the Palestinian people.”
“The Palestinians are not interested in practical solutions to address shortages,” Gvirtzman wrote, “rather, they seek to perpetuate the shortages, and to blame the State of Israel.”
In Siegel’s recent New York Times Op-Ed, he noted an unlikely “precedent for Israel’s helping its neighbors with water.”
“Before 1979 —around the time it began to adopt technologies and policies that led to its current water abundance —Israel was Iran’s partner in developing its national water resources.”
“Beginning in 1968, a desalination company owned by the Israeli government built dozens of plants in Iran. These are now aging, while Israel continues to innovate… Cooperation with Iran abruptly ended with the Islamic revolution. Indeed, the Israeli team of water experts was on one of the last direct flights from Iran to Israel in 1979.”
“That cooperation began in 1962, after a severe earthquake in the Qazvin region of Iran killed more than 12,000 people. The earthquake collapsed a chain of wells that engineers had drilled in a qanat, or tunnel, style. Hundreds of thousands were at risk from lack of drinking water. Israel flew in teams of drillers. New water supplies were identified, and a series of artesian wells were drilled. The drilling was such a success that Israel’s water engineering company, today a private enterprise, was hired to identify and gain access to underground resources elsewhere in Iran.”
Siegel, who attended a private presentation by Aviram in New York this month, said the Jordan River Valley rehabilitation plan, if funded as Aviram has envisioned, “could vastly improve the quality of the water in the river, and be a win for the environment, for farmland in need of high-quality irrigation and, of course, for Israel and its neighbors.”
“The Red Sea-Dead Sea pipeline that got blessed in January would be a good model,” Siegel said, referring to the deal signed by Israel,Jordan and the PA at the World Bank, in Washington, D.C. to build the Two Seas Canal, which would bring water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea to prevent it from further evaporation, and build a desalination plant to produce more fresh water for all.
“The more you can weave together the ecologies and economies of the parties, the more likely they will find other ways to work together,” Siegel said. “Peace may not come from politicians, but it may come from economics. Working together is the best confidence-building measure. Water is a great vehicle for that.”