Jordan River

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River that forms the boundary between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan; it flows south from Syria to the Dead Sea.

The Jordan River rises from the confluence of three major springs and streams located on the southern and western slopes of Mount Hermon (Arabic, Jabal al-Shaykh ). The largest is the Dan and the other two are the Hasbani (Hebrew, Nahal Senir ) and the Baniyas (Hebrew, Nahal Hermon ) streams. The streams unite about 4 miles south of the Lebanon-Israel border. These springs usually provide 50 percent of the water of the upper Jordan, the rest coming from surface runoff in the rainy winter months. The discharge flows into the northern end of the Ghawr, which is the valley of the Dead Sea and the northern extremity of the Great Rift Valley that runs south to Africa, ending at Mozambique.

The upper Jordan River flows swiftly through the Hula Valley, additional water coming to it from minor springs and Wadi Barayghit (Hebrew, Nahal Iyyon ). Four miles south of the Jordan's outlet from Lake Hula, the water course deepens and the river runs for 10 miles, plunging 850 feet. The central Jordan river begins north of the Sea of Galilee (also called Lake Tiberias or Lake Kinneret), leaving the southern exit of the lake, where it meets up with a few more streams and most importantly with its main tributary, the Yarmuk River. The Yarmuk originates in the eastern rift and forms the border between Syria and the Kingdom of Jordan as it flows westward to enter the Jordan River 6 miles south of the Sea of Galilee at 985 feet below sea level. The lower Jordan River flows southward, dropping to 1,310 feet below sea level, emptying into the Dead Sea, a great salt lake whose surface level is the lowest point on Earth's surface.

The Jordan and Agriculture

The water of the Jordan is freshest at the headwaters and becomes more saline as it enters the Sea of Galilee; the salinity rises rapidly as it moves south to the Dead Sea. Agriculture depends in part on water quality (freshness) and in part on soil quality (organic matter and minerals). Over the years, and after much intensive study and advice, during the British Mandate (19221948) the Zionists in Palestine determined that the northern Negev Desert had fertile soil and that all it needed was a good supply of water. At that time, the only large-scale development plan for the Jordan River was carried out by the Zionist leader and hydroelectric engineer Pinhas Rutenberg; even that was limited by the British Mandate administration to the construction of one power station to supply hydroelectric power to Palestine west of the Jordan. All Rutenberg's plans for irrigation and electrification of the area east of the Jordan River came to nothing.

When the state of Israel came into existence in 1948, plans were drawn for the diversion of water from Jisr Banat Yaʿqub, on the upper Jordan, to be taken via massive pipelines across the Jezreel Valley and south along the coastal plain, terminating in Beersheba, where it could be used most effectively. When work began on this diversion scheme in 1952, Syria complained to the United Nations that it violated the demilitarized zone agreement of the 1949 armistice (which ended the 1948 ArabIsrael War). Israel was ordered to cease construction, and U.S. Special Ambassador Eric Johnston was appointed to devise a scheme for regional development of the Jordan River system. Johnston's Unified Plan, worked out from 1953 to 1955, was never formally ratified by the League of Arab States but has been implemented by Israel and by the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan in separate schemes.

Israel has constructed the Cross Israel Water Carrier, which was its original idea, but the carrier was started at the northern end of the Sea of Galileea costly modification, considering that the water had to be pumped up to the level of the Jezreel Valley. Across Israel, the government built smaller pipelines radiating out over the farmland to bring water for irrigation. The entire system forms a water grid, easily controlled and measured; it was completed in 1964.

The Kingdom of Jordan has constructed the East Ghawr Project, hooking up a pipeline to the Yarmuk above Adassiya, which parallels the flow of the Jordan River. The pipeline is on a much higher level than the river, just below the high ridges, and the radiating smaller pipelines flow by gravity to the rich Jordan Valley soil, irrigating the farms. The final stage of the project, under Jordan Valley Authority control (created in 1973), was completed in 1980 when the pipeline reached the Dead Sea.


After the 1967 ArabIsrael War, new issues complicated an already complex situation, since Israel took and occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank of the Jordan. Discovering the existence of the huge aquifer under the spine of the mountains of the West Bank, Israel began to pump winter floodwaters into the aquifer to use it as a better water storage area than the Sea of Galilee. Israel refuses to allow the Palestinians in the West Bank to drill deeply for new wells lest they tap this vital storage area. By taking the Golan Heights from Syria, Israel also gained complete control over the Galilee, the upper Jordan River, and even part of the Yarmuk River. This gave Israel effective control over the Jordan River, preventing water diversion downstream by either Jordanians or Palestinians. Indeed, securing control over the water supply was one of several Israeli motivations in launching the 1967 war in the first place.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Israel continued to build settlements in the West Bank, diverting surface water from the Jordan and more groundwater from underground aquifers, in each case lessening the amount of water available for Palestinian towns and cities. The 1973 ArabIsraeli War did nothing to change this situation, nor did the wars of the 1980s in Lebanon and in the Persian Gulf. The situation for Palestinians and Jordanians, suffering from chronic water shortages, grew steadily more desperate.

The postGulf War atmosphere included a return to the regional peace process, beginning in 1991 with meetings in Madrid. These were followed by specialized rounds of multilateral talks, including negotiations over water and environmental issues. By 1993, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization began direct negotiations at Oslo. This was followed by the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, in which water rights loomed large. The treaty returned the Wadi Araba (a major source of groundwater) to Jordanian control, while leasing the same land back to an Israeli kibbutz for twenty-five years. It is not accidental that the treaty was signed at the Wadi Araba. The two states agreed that Jordan could build a dam and divert water from the Yarmuk River, while Israel would consider Jordan's water needs when releasing waters from the Galilee to the lower Jordan. Since Jordan had no capacity for storing Yarmuk floodwaters, Israel agreed to pump winter water from the Yarmuk for storage in the Sea of Galilee, which would then be sent back to Jordan in the summer.

In practice, however, repeated summer droughts and overuse of water resources together have depleted the regional water supplies, even lowering the water level of the Galilee. As a consequence, Israel has tended to send Jordan less water than expected. This has led Jordan to obtain supplemental and emergency supplies from Syria and has also led Jordan and Syria to finally begin construction of a decades-old project: the Wihda, or Unity, Dam (also called the Maqarin Dam) on the Yarmuk River. In the West Bank, Israeli reoccupation, the Palestinian uprising (since September 2000), and the collapse of much of the regional peace process has at least delayed any hope of more equitable access to surface or groundwater supplies. Hence the water situation for the Palestinian Authority remains dire and will be a vital point of negotiation with Israel.

Hydropolitics are vitally important to Israel, Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority as they approach the point when they will be using all their available water and yet have rapidly growing populations. Unless there is a major technological breakthrough, and unless greater levels of cooperation can be arranged between these riparian peoples, hydropolitics may precipitate ecological disaster and possibly the next war.

see also arabisrael war (1948); arabisrael war (1967); arabisrael war (1973); beersheba; dead sea; golan heights; jezreel valley; johnston plan (1953); league of arab states; maqarin dam; national water system (israel); negev; oslo accord (1993); palestinian authority; rutenberg, pinhas; west bank; yarmuk river.


Borthwick, Bruce. "Water in Israeli-Jordanian Relations: From Conflict to the Danger of Ecological Disaster." Israel Affairs 9, no. 3 (2003): 165186.

Haddadin, Munther J. Diplomacy on the Jordan: International Conflict and Negotiated Resolution. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001.

Lowi, Miriam. Water and Power: The Politics of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Naff, Thomas, and Matson, Ruth C., eds. Water in the Middle East: Conflict or Cooperation? Boulder, CO: West-view Press, 1984.

Reguer, Sara. "Controversial Waters: Thirty Years of Exploitation of the Jordan River, 19501980." Middle Eastern Studies 29, no. 1 (1993) pp. 5390.

Rouyer, Alwyn R. Turning Water into Politics: The Water Issue in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Wolf, Aaron T. Hydropolitics along the Jordan River: Scarce Water and Its Impact on the Arab-Israeli Conflict. New York and Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 1995.

sara reguer
updated by curtis r. ryan