More Precious Than Oil


Wealth in the Middle East is often measured in barrels of oil. Yet a commodity even more valuable now threatens the region’s stability. One of the most severe droughts of the century is withering the Middle East.

The common global issue of water management and ownership of water resources is compounded in the Middle East where supplies are normally scarce, and several nations share water from the few sources available.

The Yarmuk River originates in Syria and empties into the Jordan River just south of the Sea of Galilee. Both Israel and Jordan depend on this fresh water supply not only for residential consumption, but also for irrigation.

For months now, predictions have been made to prepare for drought conditions. The Sea of Galilee is 60 percent below average capacity. Measurable rainfall has not fallen for months, bringing reservoirs to a mere 30 percent of their capacity.

The 1994 peace accord signed by Israel and Jordan provisioned that Jordan be provided 55 million cubic meters of water from the Yarmuk annually. But meeting the demands of the treaty will cripple Israel’s agriculture. The Israeli government contends a proportionate decrease in supply to Jordan should be permitted in fairness to both nations.

In response, Jordan announced a joint-venture with Syria in early May to construct a dam on the Yarmuk. Israel is opposed because the Syrians and Jordanians would benefit to the detriment of Israel. (In 1987 Israel successfully lobbied the World Bank to deny the loan to pay for this same project.)

Further, Syria has agreed to give Jordan 8 million cubic meters of drinking water to help them over the summer. The emerging partnership between Syria and Jordan threatens the peace between Israel and its neighbors.

Israel is also at odds with the Palestinians and Syrians regarding water resources in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Golan Heights. Without those sources, Israel is left with few options for fresh water.

For now, long-term planning and international peace treaties determine how water should be shared. But in the face of severe drought, desperation is driving the nations apart. If the drought worsens, more drastic action will be required for all Mideast nations to meet their needs.