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A Water Solution for the Middle East Conflict

Posted: 27 Sep 2007  

Itzchak E. Kornfeld

Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Faculty of Law


The Middle East is the most concentrated region of water scarcity in the world. Since biblical times, the region, specifically the Jordan River Valley, which comprises modern Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank, has been assailed by a profound shortage of water. Today, as was true in the past three millennia, this region has found itself strewn into the most constricted area of water scarcity in the world. Furthermore, due to mounting demands on the region's water resources in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, water remains a very precious commodity that cannot continue to support the current population or the ever-increasing one. The Jordan River Valley extends from the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon in the north to the Dead Sea in the south and includes Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the West Bank. The river's watershed drains 18,300 square kilometers in these political entities and includes the Sea of Galilee. Eighty percent of the basin, however, is in Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank, which do not have other significant surface water sources, and have only limited groundwater resources. The region's groundwater resources are also over-taxed. But can a comprehensive water allocation plan be worked out? Numerous plans for water allocation of Jordan River Basin waters have been suggested over the past nine decades. One of the first proposals was introduced in 1913 by the Ottoman Turkish Empire. In 1922, following the League of Nations' grant of a mandate over Palestine to Britain, the latter realized that water management and allocation were critical for the region. Ultimately, a plan developed in the 1950s by U.S. Ambassador, Eric Johnson, is the most workable. In addressing international/transboundary water issues international lawyers have developed a number of principles, which are applicable here. These include the doctrine of equitable utilization, as developed in The Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers. I propose a system based on the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, entered into by the United States and by Great Britain, on behalf of Canada. That treaty required the establishment of an International Joint Commission, which had three members from each jurisdiction. The IJC has been working to pacifically resolve disputes for all these years. This system is ideal in light of the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994 and The Oslo II Israeli-Palestinian Water Agreement, which form the basis for a future plan under the doctrine of equitable utilization.

Keywords: Boundary Waters Treaty, Equitable Utilization, Eric Johnson, Groundwater, Helsinki Rules, International Joint Commission, Israel, Jordan, Jordan River, Jordan River Basin, Middle East, Sea of Galilee, Syria, Transboundary Water Law, Water Shortage, West Bank

JEL Classification: K1, K10, K19, K32, K33, K42

Suggested Citation

Kornfeld, Itzchak E., A Water Solution for the Middle East Conflict. Environmental Law Reporter, Vol. 33, No. 10207, 2003. Available at SSRN:

Itzchak E. Kornfeld (Contact Author)

Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Faculty of Law ( email )

Mount Scopus, 91905

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