Yarmuk River

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Tributary of the Jordan river.

The Yarmuk river forms boundaries between Jordan, Syria, and Israel, all of which have contested its use as a water source. About fifty miles (80 km) long, the Yarmuk rises in southern Syria and flows westward through a deep gorge along the Jordanian border of the Golan Heights region of Syria annexed by Israel in 1981. It empties into the Jordan river four miles (6.4 km) south of the Sea of Galilee. Although much smaller than the Euphrates (in Turkey, north Syria, and Iraq) or even the Litani (in Lebanon), the Yarmuk supplies up to 50 percent of the water flow in the lower Jordan river.

The Yarmuk shares a long and storied past with the Jordan river valley, as recounted in archaeological evidence, holy scripture and medieval chronicles. A Roman fortress town was built at the junction of the two rivers, and ruins of Roman- and Byzantine-era synagogues have been found nearby. In the early seventh century, it was through the Yarmuk gorge that Arab armies invaded the Jordan valley.

The Yarmuk's strategic importance has continued into the modern era. Today, it is the only undeveloped tributary of the Jordan river, in a region that now exploits the maximum capacity of existing water sources. Its only significant exploitation has been Jordan's East Ghawr Canal, built in 1964 to irrigate thirty thousand acres (12,150 ha) of farmland east of the Jordan river. Jordan plans to extend the nearly 50-mile (80-km) canal and build a 328-foot (100-m) dam at Maqarin to store the Yarmuk's waters for agriculture and for the cities of Irbid and Amman. Syria plans a series of small dams on the upper Yarmuk to benefit agriculture in the Hawran region.

But these plans require agreement from all parties enjoying riparian rights to the rivernot just Syria and Jordan, but also Israel. Israeli interest in the Yarmuk began shortly after World War I, when Chaim Weizmann, later Israel's first president, proposed borders for Palestine that would include the river. In 1932, the Palestine Electric Corporation (now the Israel Electric Corporation) built a hydroelectric generating plant at the junction of the Yarmuk and Jordan rivers. It was destroyed by the Arab Legion in the 1948 war, but Israel has continued to claim the water rights to the Yarmuk granted by the British mandate.

Since 1948, the contest for the Yarmuk has at times been violent. Efforts in the 1950s to coordinate joint use of the Jordan river basin, like the 1953 Johnston Plan, failed to gain agreement from all sides. While Jordan pursued its unilateral East Ghawr Canal, Israel, between 1953 and 1964, built its National Water Carrier, which diverts the Jordan's water from north of the Sea of Galilee to Tel Aviv and the Negev desert. In response, the Arab League in 1960 coordinated a plan to develop the Yarmuk for the benefit of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. The project, begun in 1964, was to divert the Jordan's northern headwaters to the Yarmuk, where a dam on the Syrian-Jordanian border would also be built. In 1965 and 1966 Israel attacked bulldozers and facilities at construction sites in Syria. Israel's 1967 occupation of the Golan Heights put a final halt to the project. In 1969 Israeli raids destroyed part of Jordan's East Ghawr Canal, which was subsequently repaired.

After years of opposition, in 2003 Syria finally agreed to allow Jordan to begin construction of the Maqarin dam.

see also johnston plan (1953); maqarin dam; water.


Farid, Abdel Majid, and Sirriyeh, Hussein, eds. Israel and Arab Water: An International Symposium. London: Ithaca Press, 1985.

Khouri, Fred J. The Arab-Israeli Dilemma, 3d edition. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1985.

Starr, Joyce R., and Stoll, Daniel, eds. The Politics of Scarcity: Water in the Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1988.

elizabeth thompson