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A Drop in the Bucket: Hydrosecurity in the Middle East

Lindsay Dolan '12

Introduction: Why Water?

More than half of Middle Eastern countries face water shortages (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 180). In such an arid climate, access to water is vital as a source of drinking water and as a requirement for agriculture. Especially since the beginning of modern industry in the Middle East in the 1960s, sustainable farming has become key to the development necessary to bring many Middle Eastern countries into the global economy, but it requires steady access to water resources, nonexistent in many of the deserts of the Middle East.

Because of its importance to basic living and economic performance, water must be used sustainably. Although water, unlike oil or diamonds, is a renewable resource, in areas that can go for months without rain, states must carefully supervise their water use and ensure that they do not use the resources quicker than they will replenish themselves. They also must take precautions against contamination of the water supply through pollution or salination. [1]

Complicating the issue of sustainable water use is the fact that, more often than not, many countries, known as riparians, share the same rivers or aquifers. These administrations, frequently plagued by internal corruption or incompetence, would struggle to use water effectively were it just a domestic issue, let alone a joint project between several of these regimes. Adding existing antagonism between these regimes only makes the prospects for effective coordination bleaker.

It is because of the transnational nature of water use that water has the potential to degenerate into conflict or, more optimistically, to serve as a platform for cooperation. Theoretically, this epitomizes the debate between realism and neoliberal institutionalism. Boutros Boutros Ghali has received much attention for his 1985 assertion that "the next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics" (BBC News 2003). This claim represents the views of many who believe that water scarcity in the Middle East is a looming threat for countries that will resort to armed conflict to protect their hydraulic lifelines. Neoliberal institutionalists, on the other hand, stress the cooperation that results from shared water concerns and point to the creation of interstate institutions that will provide a framework for the resolution of other conflicts. In the context of hydropolitics, Nurit Kliot outlines three levels of cooperative hydropolitical agreements: agreements to exchange views that nevertheless attach no compulsion to action, quantitative allocation of water, and establishment of the joint management of water resources (Kliot 2000, 210-2). Neither an outright water war nor effective joint management has occurred. In this paper, I will clarify the factors influencing state behavior by answering the question: Why do some water disputes yield coercive tactics while others breed cooperation among riparian states?

I will begin by presenting three schools of thought that may explain the divergent results: 1) States choose the strategy that best guarantees their short- and long-term access to water, 2) States choose the strategy that maximizes their access to water and use it as a source of power over other states, 3) States use their access to water as a tool for serving other non-hydraulic interests. I will then use these theories to evaluate the major historical moments of the three major Middle Eastern river basins: the Jordan, the Tigris-Euphrates, and the Nile. I conclude that, while water is crucial to the survival of these regimes, riparian behavior is shaped by the inclusion of non-hydraulic interests in the equation. This trend has produced mutually beneficial tradeoffs for many states, enabling them to move toward effective security regimes and the beginning stages of cooperative processes in an otherwise turbulent environment.

Theoretical Approaches to Riparian Behavior

The Hydraulic Imperative explanation for states' foreign policy decisions assumes that they calculate what best guarantees access to enough water to satisfy water demand. States facing water scarcity prioritize water over other interests because it directly affects a state's lifestyle and economic vitality.

With this motivation in mind, states facing water deficits and grim prospects for sustainable management of their aquifers or rivers are more likely than water-abundant states to stake their claim in a limited supply of freshwater. Treating water politics as a zero-sum game and responding to uncertainty in the future, insecure states must act to achieve hegemony in the present in case they are unable to acquire that power later (Mearsheimer 2001, 53). Therefore, when water scarcity is acute, states will try to claim water before other riparians do.

Aggression is not always the best strategy, however. In many (if not most) situations of water scarcity, the best guarantee of access to water is through encouraging responsible water management practices, which requires the joint cooperation of all riparian states. Sharing information and pooling technical know-how are necessary measures for managing long-term use of a water resource, and the establishment of joint institutions minimizes these transaction costs and formalizes practices of reciprocity such that states are incentivized to participate (Keohane 1998, 121). Cooperation does not need to be this institutionalized to alleviate tensions. At a more fundamental level, states with a surmountable level of water scarcity but that still have extreme rivalries are likely to form security regimes around water. If all riparians recognize the shared danger of water exploitation but cannot engage in traditional information-sharing exchanges, they will at least formalize non-aggression to boost their overall stability (Jervis 1982, 365).

This school of thought argues that states' foreign policy decisions are affected almost exclusively by their calculation of how to best preserve a crucial material resource. The more substantial the gains are from creating joint institutions, the more likely they are to do so (Oye 2009, 73). It is important to point out, though, that water is only seen as valuable insofar as it contributes to the survival of the state, meaning that all gains are viewed as absolute. States are not concerned with how much water their neighbors have as long as their own water demand needs are accounted for.

The Hydraulic Imperative conjectures that states in need of water will choose conflict or cooperation depending on what will gain them access to the most water and that states with sufficient water have no reason to revise the status quo. This hypothesis may be disproven by identifying a water-scarce state that does not make a concerted effort to increase its access to water. Because states can never know whether their decisions will be effective or not, they should only be judged by the goals of their foreign policy choices as opposed to the end results.

Like the Hydraulic Imperative explanation, the Hydraulic Security Dilemma is based on the material fact that states need water to survive. Unlike the Hydraulic Imperative, however, this explanation takes into account that states act based on the knowledge that other states require water too. Water-abundant states frequently have the power to tamper with the hydrosecurity of water-scarce states even if they lack an independent interest to acquire control of water resources for their own consumption. In short, this explanation argues that states use their water resources as a source of power or see their lack of water resources as a liability. They will choose the strategy that maximizes their control of a widely valued commodity.

This logic has obvious parallels to the neorealist security dilemma. The state system would run optimally if states could integrate their productive economic systems, but this rarely occurs because states are averse to becoming dependent on other states for their lifelines (Waltz 1979, 41-2). Regardless of the existence of any present risk, states must assume that other actors will aggress against them in the future. In the case of water, states cannot rely on their current control of adequate water resources to sustain them in the future against revisionist neighbors (Giordano 2005, 55). Consequently, even states with access to enough water resources may, in view of potential rivals, expand those resources anyway. Thus, states in an anarchic world engage in hydrosecurity activities such as dam-building or source diversion in order to gain control over as many water resources as possible.

The Hydraulic Security Dilemma differs from the Hydraulic Imperative in its view of gains. Whereas the Hydraulic Imperative sees hydraulic gains as absolute, the Hydraulic Security Dilemma sees them as relative. As such, if states have the ability to control more water resources, they will pursue these ventures irrespective of their water needs. This hypothesis would be disproven by a state with the ability to expand its water control that does not take advantage of it. In the context of rivers, this hypothesis invites a corollary: states are more likely to build their defensive hydrosecurity when there are more riparians in the basin because the chance of defection by other states is greater (Oye 2009, 79).

Significantly, this school of thought mandates an evaluation of not just the outcome of conflict or cooperation but also of the potential avenues that were available to individual actors. For example, conciliatory behavior by some water-scarce states may be due to the lack of ability to challenge regional hegemons as opposed to a lack of desire to gain control of hydraulic capital. The geology of rivers complicates the policy options available to riparians. It is important to note that whereas downstream riparians with military and economic prowess have the ability to access more water, upstream riparians maintain a more stable control of the flow of water and are less likely to expand downstream unless they actually require the water or they feel challenged by another riparian.

The final explanation, the Hydraulic Toolbox, departs from the first two in its presupposition that water is not the primary interest of Middle Eastern states but exists alongside economic, political, security, diplomatic, and other concerns. Given that water does have significance in such a dry area, states use access to water as a tool for getting other things they want.

An obvious example of this school of thought would be a negotiation in which one state offers water resources in exchange for money, trade privileges, troop repositioning, or some other concession. Clearly, one state would accept water in this exchange, so this theory does not preclude some states (such as Iraq or Jordan) from valuing water more highly than more water-endowed states. All this theory projects is that there is nothing intrinsic about water that makes it the most valued commodity in the Middle East, but it is a resource of value that can be used as a tool to facilitate other ends.

These transactions do not have to be in the form of cooperative negotiations. States do not have to exchange water productively to use water access to bring about an alternative end. States can also ignite conflict over water as a means of projecting power, rallying support from other countries, or increasing their status, ambitions they might similarly try to reach by acting aggressively in any other, non-hydraulic domain. Hydropolitics provide states with an additional avenue they may use to advance a foreign policy agenda.

As such, states must evaluate what they have to gain from either cooperation or aggression. If states believe that negotiating over water will produce a beneficial exchange for them, then they will cooperate. If states do not feel that the other riparians have anything of value to offer them, they have no incentive to negotiate. States will resort to aggression if they feel that stirring conflict will produce material benefit outside of the water resources they would gain. [2]  This hypothesis is disproven by a state that engages in negotiations with nothing to gain from them or by a state that refuses to participate in negotiations despite obvious benefit.

One important caveat to bear in mind with this school of thought is that states' interests are not just material. Setting precedent for interstate relationships can have just as much influence on a state's decision to negotiate over water or not. If states believe that other states will act reciprocally if they make a concession of water resources, they may hope cooperating over water can serve as a scaffold for greater peace processes in the Middle East. Water is a particularly appealing platform because of its technical, interconnected nature, and for a well-intentioned group of regimes, it can be used to productive ends. States on a track toward resolving some of their long-term issues may be more likely to cooperate on water as a first step toward establishing a taboo against aggressive behavior (Stein 2004, 15). Conversely, though, states that may see value to cooperating on the hydraulic issue may refuse to negotiate if they feel that making any concession might be perceived as a sign of weakness by an opposing state or a sign of betrayal by an allying state. Especially in the Middle East, states are more likely to avoid interacting with states whose sovereignty they do not formally recognize. This issue becomes particularly salient in the case of rivers because cooperating in integrated river basins requires acknowledging the extent of a state's sovereignty (Kliot 1994, 4).

It seems intuitive that the Hydraulic Toolbox framework would explain the puzzle of why some hydropolitical conflicts are resolved cooperatively and others aggressively because it takes so many variables into account. However, it is precisely the number of variables involved in the Hydraulic Toolbox framework that is its potential weakness. Choosing a framework that so broadly explains international relations offers less guidance for predicting hydropolitical conflict in the future than a simpler framework that just as accurately explains the divergent scenarios. Moreover, the scope of this paper limits itself to the Middle East, increasing the possibility that the Hydraulic Imperative or the Hydraulic Security Dilemma explanations are sufficient to evaluate hydropolitical issues. At the same time, we must also identify a framework that can conclusively explain the conflicts identified in this paper. For example, the existence of a water-abundant state making foreign policy choices to increase its control of water would indicate that the Hydraulic Imperative theory is unable to explain all cases. Bearing this tension between comprehensiveness and simplicity in mind, I will now discuss four cases occurring in the three major river basins of the Middle East to examine what motivates state behavior regarding water resources.

Jordan River Basin

The Jordan River is one of the least powerful but most contested rivers in the world with a flow of only 2% that of the Nile (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 85). The Upper Jordan is fed by the Hasbani (in Lebanon), the Dan (in Israel), and the Banias (in the Golan Heights). Its tributary, the Yarmuk, is shared by Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority. The Upper Jordan flows to Lake Tiberias in Israel, and the Lower Jordan flows from Lake Tiberias to the Dead Sea. Not only are the waters already insufficient to satisfy demand in these countries, but also the total discharge of the river system is currently declining (Kliot 2000, 192).

Buildup to the 1967 War

Some critics herald the 1967 Six Day War as a prime example of a water war that has already occurred in the Middle East (see Gleick 1993, Cooley 1984). They point to a few key pieces of evidence to argue that the Arab-Israeli War was directly caused by states' hydrosecurity motives: Arab anger over Israel's creation of the National Water Carrier (NWC) in the 1964, military escalation after the Arab League began diverting the headwaters of the Jordan in the 1960s, the Arab League counterdiversion of the Banias spring, public statements from Israeli leadership (e.g. Levi Eshkol's claim that "water is a question of life for Israel,") and the significant water resources Israel gained as a result of the war (Gleick 1993, 85-6). If true, this logic provides a glamorous case for the Hydraulic Imperative explanation and allows several conflicts in the Middle East to pivot around its water scarcity. But these writers tend to be scientists and journalists, not experts in the regional history, and they miss several key developments in the progression of the conflict.

Tension in the 1960s between Israel and Syria—the demilitarized zones (DMZs), water, and Palestinian guerilla organizations—became fused in the buildup to the Six Day War (Shlaim 2000, 228). Israel began diverting water from the Sea of Galilee to the Negev Desert in order to support a new strip of Israeli settlements along the canal (Oren 2002, 19). Initially, the Syrians offered to resettle refugees in exchange for control over half the Sea of Galilee, but Israel rejected the proposal and continued unilateral development of its project (Oren 2002, 7). Worried by Israel's behavior, the Arab League held a 1964 summit to discuss the Israeli diversion. Their options were to complain to the United Nations, divert the tributaries of the upper Jordan, or to go to war. Lacking confidence in the UN and the resources to go to war, the Arab League chose to divert the river and to prepare to defend the sites militarily (Wolf 1995, 49). The preamble to its decisions characterizes the diversion of the waters as proof of how "the existence of Israel is a danger that threatens the Arab nation" and explains that the Arab response would be a step toward the "final liquidation of Israel" (cited in Shlaim 2000, 230). Eshkol's statements that "Without control over the water resources we cannot realize the Zionist dream" certainly added to the fear in the minds of Arab leaders (Oren, 2002, 23). As such, Arab leaders became determined to use water as a means of agitating Israeli development. Con-veniently, this same summit established the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose immediate purpose was to "create a situation along the Israeli border that would draw the Arab states into a war against Israel" (Herzog 1982, 147), and, sure enough, in 1965, the Syrian government supported Palestinian guerillas who crossed over the border headed for the Israeli pump transferring water from Galilee to the Negev (Oren 2002, 1). Syrian workers commenced a counterdiversion project to divert the waters of the Hasbani in Lebanon and the Banias in Syria to Jordan (Herzog 1982, 147). Israel responded by targeting tractors and diversion equipment on the Syrian border using long-range artillery and tank fire, forcing the Syrians to either go to war or abandon the project. Recognizing their limitations, Arab leaders backed away from the diversion project. It wasn't until a Ba'athist coup reinvigorated Syrian aggression that border hostilities escalated to provoke the Six Day War (Oren 2002, 27; Herzog 1982, 147).

Several components of this account disprove the popular "Water Wars" theory. Although hydraulic conflict existed, it was largely resolved by early 1966, a full year before the Six Day War came to fruition (Wolf 2000, 89; Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 105). Diversion plans halted once the Arabs had decided to go to war over larger issues of territory and recognition of Israeli statehood (Lowi 1993, 128). The war began far away from key water sources and none of the participating countries seized control of any of towns useful for directing the flow of the Jordan headwaters (Wolf 2000, 90). Although Israel gained access to water resources by the war's end, Wolf points to the "complete absence of references [to water resources]" in its propaganda and strategic documents in 1967 to prove that, while Israel had originally planned water development projects, acquisition of additional water resources was a purely coincidental result of the Six Day War (Wolf 1995, 75). Even the initial Arab diversion plan had serious hydrological shortcomings and Syria did not expect significant water gains (Kliot 1994, 206). Clearly, though, water played some role in the escalation of conflict, so how do we judge which theoretical approach explains the behavior of Israel and Syria in the 1960s?

Israel and Syria in this case fail to meet the fundamental precondition for the Hydraulic Imperative explanation: Although both states are water-scarce, neither faced a severe water shortage in the 1960s and so neither perceived themselves as needing more water to survive. Israel sought access to more water resources to expand its settlements and maintain its relatively luxurious lifestyle, not as a matter of immediate vitality. If Israel had truly been water-scarce, it would have commenced expansionist water tactics earlier and could have been stingier with the territory it retained at the conclusion of the war (Shlaim 2000, 250). Syria had little need of the waters of the Jordan because its water supply derived largely from the Euphrates (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 90). As a result, this case is inconclusive in proving whether the Hydraulic Imperative is a valid explanation for state behavior because neither state perceived water to be terribly consequential, so neither was in a position in which they were forced to defend their hydraulic interests for survival. Israel merely saw the opportunity to acquire a resource that would enable it to pursue its domestic objectives and took advantage of it.

The hypothesis derived from the Hydraulic Security Dilemma accurately explains Syria's behavior. Syria was wary of Israel's growing population and increasing number of settlements for which Israel's water development was intended (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 98). It feared the relative power Israel would gain by the waters of the Golan Heights. Especially in the 1960s, water development was also intended to stimulate Israel's agriculture and industry, which would allow its economy to prosper relative to the lack of energy in Arab economies. Syria saw water resources as a strategic asset valued by Israel that it could tamper with because of its favorable upstream position.

The Hydraulic Toolbox hypothesis can also explain the 1960s situation. Neither state saw any incentive to negotiate with the other: Israel had the ability to successfully divert the river and saw little chance that an Arab state would cooperate with it, while Syria would not be willing to hand to Israel anything it valued. Syria saw additional benefit it could accrue, however, from agitating Israel on the water issue and pushing it to respond militarily. Many Syrians clamored for a final confrontation with Israel, but as the Syrians had learned at the 1964 summit, their fellow Arab League regimes were unwilling to go to war with Israel to stop its Zionist ambitions. Syria hoped that provoking military aggression from Israel would inspire the Arab League to join it in fighting Israel (Lowi 1993, 135). Counterdiversion acquired symbolic significance as it became Syria's means of halting Israeli agricultural and settlement expansion, meaning that the inspiration for aggression lay in Syria's non-hydraulic interests (Kliot 1994, 206). On the part of the Arab League, it refused to recognize Israel's right to reap benefit from the waters of the Jordan River because it refused to recognize its right to exist and have settlements in these territories. By taking a unilateral stance on water development, the Arab states could exclude Israel from participation in the management of a regional concern, sending a message about their legitimacy as a relevant actor (Kliot 1994, 206).

Agreements of 1990s

The hydropolitical landscape since 1967 has changed significantly. Since the mid-80s, riparians of the Jordan River have begun to realize increasingly imminent environmental constraints. All countries previously had acted unilaterally, trying to gain water resources to keep pace with economic development, but even Israel began to recognize these water consumption habits were unsustainable (Beach, et al. 2000). Facing this reality, though, has only illuminated that Jordan and Israel combined consume 108% of their total water resources, and Gaza exceeds its renewable freshwater supplies by 50% each year (Lowi 1993, 159; Beach et al. 2000). A 1991 drought pushed many countries to the negotiating table and the recent end of the Gulf War and collapse of the Soviet Union allowed many to speak face-to-face for the first time (Wolf 1995, 67). In short, whereas water urgency did not exist as a major variable in the 1967 war, by the 1990s, states recognized its importance.

Countries responded to this environmental awareness differently. Still supplied adequately by the Euphrates, Syria's principal interest in its previous hydraulic contest with Israel—to counter Zionist expansionism—became funneled into other routes besides water, and the crux of Israel's negotiations with Syria since the 1967 war dealt with territory, not water (Wolf 2000, 108). As such, Syria largely left the water-sharing picture in the Jordan Basin. Jordan, on the other hand, which played a minor role in the 1967 conflict due to its lack of military might, found itself facing one of the most severe water crises in the Middle East without hope that its fellow Arab states would help it stake a piece of the Jordan River, and was entirely dependent on Israel for its water supply (Lowi 1993, 149). Because of its reliance on water to facilitate state-building and sedentarization (Lowi 1993, 53), it abandoned any of its previous rhetorical opposition to Israel's legitimacy in favor of bargaining for an increased water quota (Kliot 1994, 258). Finally, Israel had to deal with its own growing population as well as growing numbers of Palestinian refugees who also required water. This mutual need for water but complete power discrepancy created a much different dynamic in the 1990s than in the 1960s.

Literature on the distribution of water between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians is difficult to assess for two reasons. First, accurate data on water consumption is hard to find because it demands a level of infrastructure and technical analysis that has yet to proliferate in many rural areas (Beaumont 2000, 36; Kolars 1994, 88-9). Second, as in the case of 1967, the literature is frequently inflammatory and polarized (Starr 1991, 26). Many authors blame Israel for astronomical levels of water consumption (Beaumont 2000, 41; Rowley 2000, 226; Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 87; Kliot 1994, 235). They argue that Israel takes 95.5% of its total water supply for itself and allocates only 4.5% to Arabs in the West Bank (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 106). [3]  Years of Israeli overpumping of the coastal aquifer caused seawater to contaminate the freshwater supply, which has increased Israeli dependence on the aquifers underneath the West Bank (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 92). Palestinians claim that Israel has similarly overpumped around its Gaza settlements, meaning that there is not enough water to support Palestinian communities (Kliot 1994, 244). Others defend Israel vigorously against these claims, arguing that risking inept Palestinian management of water would surely corrupt the water source for both parties (Sherman 1999, 25, 47). They also argue that the water restrictions on Palestinian farmers apply to Israeli farmers too (Sherman 1999, 62). Indeed, while Israeli farmers use more water per capita than Palestinian ones, they too were forced to take a 37% reduction in their water allowance in 1990 (Starr 1991, 25). Regardless of who is to blame, all parties now face a looming water crisis and recognize that all riparians leave an environmental footprint.           

Headway in the Jordanian-Israeli relationship regarding water should not go unnoticed. The 1994 Treaty of Peace between Israel and Jordan accomplished several objectives. It recognized allocations of the Jordan and Yarmuk Rivers and shared groundwater between the countries, acknowledged that water resources were insufficient to satisfy both countries' needs, stressed the need for minimizing water waste and fostering the transfer of information in joint research, established jointly constructed storage banks on the river and desalination efforts on the Lower Jordan, and erected a Joint Water Committee (JWC) to be composed of three members from each country (Kliot 2000, 197-9). Even Shimon Peres has spoken of the "necessity of establishing a regional system," arguing that "no war can change geographical givens," a certain rhetorical departure from the 1967 Israeli proclamations (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 111-12). The 1994 agreement certainly has its faults: it tends to be more distributive than cooperative (Kliot 2000, 199) and includes several technical oversights such as the lack of drought provisions that have augmented political tension due to misunderstandings (Giordano 2005, 57). That said, these water provisions indicate that all parties value a peaceful resolution of the water conflict, even though they have not yet accomplished much in the way of cooperative resource-management.

The 1995 Agreement on Water and Sewage, part of the multilateral track of Oslo II, similarly enables more open communication between riparian states even if it has not reached any significant resolution. At the very least, the agreement recognizes Palestinian water rights and the need to invest in sustainable and healthy water use (Kliot 2000, 202-3). It also established a Joint Water Committee (JWC), albeit dominated by Israeli military decisionmaking (Zeitoun 2008, 101). In the last decade, as relations between Israelis and Palestinians have deteriorated, the JWC has lost much authority and its activities have focused on developing new water resources rather than allocating or maintaining existing ones, an infeasible solution at this point (Kliot 2000, 204). As Mark Zeitoun (2008) has argued, the only thing the multilateral track did was "to clarify five issues upon which the Palestinian and Israeli officials could not agree" (64).

Zeitoun's characterization is overly harsh. While negotiated agreements have not engaged in the productive, cooperative tactics Kliot prescribed for water resource management success, they have established a hydrosecurity regime in the Middle East and have successfully prevented costly conflict despite a growing water crisis. At the very least, the more open communication between parties in the 1990s has enabled the creation of a security regime, characterized by lowered transaction costs, lengthened iterated interactions, more transparent agreements, and regulation of rule violation (Lipson 1995, 7-8). While larger issues have not been resolved, conflict has not occurred in the 1990s. How can this be explained?

The Hydraulic Imperative would explain both Jordan's deferent attitude toward Israeli water management and the lack of Palestinian uprising over water. Israel so clearly dominates policy that Arab placation seems to be the most likely avenue of gaining any access to water at all. Simultaneously, Israel recognizes that its neighbors affect the water quality in its river and aquifers and has an interest in gaining access to their data. Israel's water issue becomes heavily linked with the refugee issue because an increased population increases its water demand, also providing justification for it to maintain communication with Jordan and Palestinian leadership. Given its relative power in so many other variables, water scarcity is plausibly high on Israel's concerns and may drive its willingness to cooperate with Arab countries.

Miriam Lowi (1993) contends that it is the preoccupation with relative gains characteristic of the Hydraulic Security Dilemma that drives relations in the Jordan River Basin. She argues that the "distribution of gains" has been the most important concern in the basin, and, as such, Arabs refuse support of Israeli water expansion mostly because it would strengthen the economic standing of their enemy (192-3). Lowi's reasoning may explain Syrian behavior in 1967 but not the dynamics of the 1990s. Jordan and the Palestinians were hardly in a position to challenge Israel's hegemony and made no efforts to cut Israel off from its water supply, despite the fact that many Palestinians are situated upstream. More important, Lowi cannot explain Syria's exit from the water conflict. Unlike Jordan or the Palestinian Authority, Syria could have cut water to Israel but chose to concentrate its efforts elsewhere. Consequently, the Hydraulic Security Dilemma cannot explain the agreements of the 1990s in the Jordan Basin.

Although water was one of Israel's primary interests, there were other incentives for it to cooperate with Jordan and the Palestinians, lending support to the notion that water can be used to gain other material rewards. In proposing the 1994 negotiations, Jordanian negotiators purposefully included other environmental and energy issues such as transnational electric grids in order to prompt Israel to make concessions on the hydraulic front. Because of the abundance of transnational issues, Israel then had a reason external to water to cooperate with the Jordanians and could use its control of water as a means of laying the framework for self-serving cooperation (Haddadin 2002, 231).


The Jordan River Basin in the 1960s and the 1990s provides an illuminating comparison because many of the long-standing antagonisms between Israelis and Arabs remained constant while the perception of water's importance changed. While rivals initially acted aggressively toward water in order to build their relative power against one another, they soon realized that this was better accomplished in other domains. As states came to realize the finite nature of their water supplies, they became more open to working with perceived enemies in order to preserve their mutual access to the hydraulic lifeline. Bringing these parties to the negotiating table is no small task and indicates the importance of water in the Middle East. While the agreements of the 1990s are hardly revolutionary in their treatment of transnational water resources, at minimum, they provide states with a security guarantee that they will not go to war over water resources. Establishing this regime around water hinged on the introduction of other issues like refugees and settlements to the multilateral discussion because these discussions made it beneficial for the regional hydrohegemon Israel to participate in compromises. Thus, the Jordan River Basin supports both the Hydraulic Imperative and the Hydraulic Toolbox explanations for cooperation over water.

Euphrates Basin

Hydropolitics in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin take on a much different character than hydropolitics in the Jordan Basin. This is principally because the discharge of the river system is more than enough for the three riparian states, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Turkey, the most powerful of the three riparians, is also upstream, water-abundant, and uses only about 30% annually of its available surface water (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 119). Syria depends on the Euphrates for 86% of its water supply and relies on the waters for hydro-power production and irrigation (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 120; Kliot 1994, 143). Downstream Iraq, however, is entirely dependent on the Euphrates and the meager flow of the Tigris for its water. Also, although the Euphrates has a stronger flow than the Jordan, it is more heavily influenced by seasonal fluctuations, and therefore requires more integrated engineering proficiency to guarantee water access (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 123). Despite the relative water abundance, the three states still have issues of hydraulic contention between them.

Each of the riparians also has a number of non-water-related issues with the other two. Turkey's membership in NATO is a source of bitterness for both Syria and Iraq, Turkey and Syria quarrel over the ownership of the Hatay province, Syria has supported Kurdish insurgents in both Turkey and Iraq, and Syria and Turkey are influenced by rival factions of the Ba'ath party (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 137-8; Kliot 1994, 165). These non-hydraulic contests have largely shaped the disputes over water in the Euphrates Basin, not an innate concern for water.

The first major hydraulic confrontation between the riparians was during the 1974-5 drought that hit the Euphrates Basin, prompting Turkey and Syria to begin storing water in their dams. Iraq, which suffered the most of the three riparians, blamed Syria for cutting off its water and moved its army to the Syrian border. Syria, in turn, blamed Turkey for the deprivation. Tensions escalated as rumors flew about Syrian plans to attack the Ataturk Dam until Saudi Arabia mediated the dispute and persuaded Turkey and Syria each to divide the waters proportionally. Many use this drought as an example of a water-scarce state willing to go to extremes to secure its lifeline (Starr 1991, 31), but as Lowi (1993) points out, the origin of the dispute was more likely in the accession of the Iraqi Ba'ath party whose rival faction in Syria was looking to agitate (58-9). Although the drought put Iraq in an unfavorable position, other tensions had to be present to catalyze this conflict.

Since 1975, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq have established the Joint Technical Committee for Regional Waters (JTC) to manage the river basin. While the JTC does not generate many cooperative projects to ensure the long-term sustainability of Euphrates waters, it has successfully provided a forum for clear communication during times of drought and tension in 1983 (Kliot 1994, 161). The institution soon came to a standstill, however, over differing views on whether to include the Tigris as part of the Euphrates system and whether the Euphrates would be considered a transboundary river that could be shared (Kibaroglu 2007). The many political maneuvers of the 1980s and 1990s sufficiently demonstrate that the JTC had little power in mediating the weightiest hydraulic bargains.

In nearly all of these affairs, Syria and Iraq tried to prevent Turkey from continuing with its major development project, the GAP (Southeastern Anatolia Project). The GAP is a system of irrigation systems, dams, and hydroelectric power plants in Turkey that would greatly increase its industrial output but also its consumption of water from the Euphrates river before it reaches Syria or Iraq (Kliot 1994, 125). Plans from the early 80s projected a reduction in the flows of the Euphrates by 30-50% (Kliot 1994, 131). Turkey justified its investment to Syria and Iraq by arguing that storing waters in its upstream dams would allow it to release flows to downstream riparians during droughts and that it was in Syria's and Iraq's best interests to allow the wealthiest country of the three to manage this massive investment. Neither country felt comfortable relying so heavily on Turkey for its well-being. Aware that Turkey needed World Bank money to finance the entirety of its plans for the GAP, Syria convinced the Arab League to lobby internationally on its behalf in favor of greater water allowances to the downstream states. The World Bank acknowledged the complaint and withheld funding from Turkey unless the other riparians consented to the project. After Syria and Iraq refused to give consent, Turkey was forced to finance the GAP itself and limit its ambitions (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 153). During the 1990s, Syria also frequently supported Kurdish PKK rebels in Turkey, which caused an internal security issue for the Turkish regime. This tactic successfully brought Turkey to the negotiating table where it pledged to let more water through to Syria in exchange for a halt of Syrian support to the Kurds (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 154-5). Through creative tactics, Syria forced Turkey to negotiate water resources it clearly had a monopoly on.

How has Turkey responded to these maneuvers? Early on, Turkey advanced an extreme water claims argument in international law by declaring that all waters physically in Turkey are Turkey's to consume or waste regardless of the downstream effects (Dolatyar and Gray 2000, 147). As Lowi (1993) argues, "the most powerful state in the basin has no interest in negotiating water quotas" (74). This situation has changed. Kliot (1994) points out that Turkey has been surprisingly conciliatory toward Syria's and Iraq's requests for more water (161-3). In 1990, Turkey began filling its Ataturk Dam but, after Syrian and Iraqi protests, chose to release more water to them than planned. Turkey has also adopted peaceful rhetoric with Syria and Iraq, stressing the need for technical solutions reached by all three riparians to ensure the sustainability of the river. Rather than accusing Syria or Iraq of wasting their waters as it once did, Turkey has proposed plans for studying water planning and irrigation methods with its downstream riparians. Finally, Turkey has always given its downstream riparians advance notice when it plans to fill any of its dams and has increased the flow of the Euphrates prior to impoundment to make up for the loss of water.

While the Hydraulic Imperative can explain water-deprived Iraq's behavior, it doesn't account for Syria's belligerence toward Turkey. Syria is not water destitute, but given its reliance on the waters of the Euphrates for its own energy and economic development and its relative weakness compared to Turkey, it is more strategic for Syria to invite cooperation with Turkey in order to reap the benefits of the pricy GAP. Syria is more concerned with proving to Turkey that it has leverage than it is with gaining access to more water. This fact may lead us to believe that the Hydraulic Security Dilemma has occurred because Syria's primary motivation seems to be eliminating Turkish control over their water resources by halting construction of more dams. Unfortunately, this hypothesis cannot explain why Turkey, an upstream riparian with its hands on the tap, cares so much about investing huge amounts of capital into making even more and fancier dams. Upstream riparians have less need to build control of their water resources. Even without the GAP, Turkey has command of Syrian and Iraqi water flows, and it does not sense a serious threat from either state to its own water.

The Hydraulic Toolbox hypothesis, though, is strongly supported by the Euphrates case. More than as an affront to Syria and Iraq or because of water scarcity, Turkey invested in a development project that promised huge returns to Turkey's industrial sector. When Syria and Iraq prevented it from receiving World Bank funds, Turkey's behavior became much more conciliatory. Even more important than the material benefits it can gain by appeasing Syria and Iraq, Turkey desires a status that will invite its entry into the European Union. Acting as the "town bully" will not gain it many friends in Europe (Kliot 1994, 163). This same motivation has inspired cooperative public rhetoric from Ankara and has likely driven Turkey to spearhead the "Peace Pipes" plan, which will convey water throughout the Middle East to Saudi Arabia. Regardless of whether Turkey is motivated by its immediate material returns or by its reputation in Europe, it makes use of its access to water to fulfill non-hydraulic goals and is an excellent example of a water-abundant country using the Hydraulic Toolbox.

Nile Basin

Analyzing the cooperative efforts of the Nile Basin is simpler than analyzing the Jordan or the Euphrates Basins because the basin lacks protracted inter-state conflict over non-hydraulic issues and therefore its literature lacks the polarized opinions typical of the other Middle Eastern water basins. Instability, not animosity, largely fuels political issues. Nonetheless, this case yields valuable insight about riparian behavior because it offers such a different power distribution than either the Jordan or the Euphrates.           

The Nile flows from south to north, leaving Egypt as the most downstream riparian, yet Egypt clearly has the strongest economy of all the riparian states. In fact, throughout the basin, the countries that contribute the most water use the least of it (Hillel 1994, 192). Egypt has long suffered what is frequently termed a "Fashoda complex," a fear of losing control of enough waters to satisfy Egypt's economy, so named for the days of the French and British mandates along the river. It is easy to compare the astronomically greater flow of the Nile to the puny discharge of the Jordan and think that Egypt cannot qualify as a state facing water scarcity, but Egypt already imports over half of its food, and losing its agricultural sector due to inadequate water supplies would cripple its economy (Starr 1991, 21). Unlike in the cases of the Jordan or the Euphrates, Egypt fears not so much that its upstream states will intentionally cut off its flow but that a crisis in Sudan or technical mismanagement in poor African countries will have external ramifications on Egypt (Kalpakian 2004, 78).

Even more than in the Euphrates case, climate and geography complicate issues. In order to irrigate properly, the Nile needs to have a fairly constant water level throughout the year, but the river is wont to extreme flooding and draining. Egypt had a crisis during the summer of 1988 when the Nile water level reached its lowest point for the whole century. As the waters returned, however, floods consumed Sudan, causing a different crisis at a different part of the river (Hillel 1994, 128). These vagaries have demonstrated the importance that management take place at a basin-wide level to prevent environmental tragedy.

Egypt addressed some of these issues in the mid-20th century by constructing the Aswan High Dam. The dam successfully mitigated times of temporary drought by allowing the country to build a reservoir of water to supply irrigation systems during dry periods, but could not halt something as critical as the 1988 drought (Hillel 1994, 128). Especially while facing an increasing population, Egypt has since recognized that it must deal with its upstream riparians to effect a sustainable solution. Its major obstacle is that the riparians with the most control over the Nile waters also suffer from poverty and internal instability, making it difficult for them to prioritize capital-intensive projects that ultimately affect Egypt.

The last two decades have seen two major cooperative institutional efforts pushed by Egypt: the Technical Cooperation Committee for the Promotion of the Development and Environmental Protection of the Nile Basin (TECCONILE) and the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). The NBI has been the most active institution on Nile issues since 1997, and its goals have been strategically designed to focus on win-win technical issues such as water quality management and disease control. It has begun the collection of publicly available data on water consumption that will be useful to making any progress on water management. Significantly, many of the proposals aim to eradicate poverty in riparian countries and the NBI's first environmental action project was launched in Sudan in 2004, proof of Egypt's desire to improve the economic and political stability of its neighboring upstream states (Kibaroglu 2007, 158).

The Nile case demonstrates the cooperative arrangements that occur when downstream states have much greater power than upstream states. Egypt's interest is water; the upstream states' interests are domestic stability and economic development. By including mutually beneficial tradeoffs in the NBI talks, Egypt has made it feasible for upstream states to invest in water development where they would otherwise prioritize national issues like civil war or disease. Making water the central issue between the riparian countries, as the Hydraulic Imperative would have prescribed for Egypt, would have been unproductive because it is the differing needs of the Nile riparians that enables Egypt to consume water as it pleases. Moreover, seizing control of more water resources in efforts to improve its hydrosecurity, as the Hydraulic Security Dilemma would hold, would only destabilize Egypt's upstream riparians even further, making effective water management a more distant possibility. The Nile case clarifies the value of mutually beneficial exchanges and demonstrates the cooperative side of the Hydraulic Toolbox view of water.


Although all three river basins suffer from periodic or perpetual water scarcity, the cases of the Jordan, the Euphrates, and the Nile demonstrate that whether a river basin experiences conflict or cooperation is largely contingent on the antics of the states at hand, not the availability of water.

Certainly, water plays an important role, especially for countries like Jordan and Iraq that are dependent on others for a meager water supply, or for Egypt, whose economy is closely tied to its river. But just as it is impossible to characterize civil war as the driving concern for all states merely because of countries like the Sudan, it is similarly illogical to contend that states innately follow a Hydraulic Imperative. The only case study that supported this theory was the shift from conflict to cooperation in the 1990s in the Jordan Basin, but the obvious linkage of water to other issues like settlements and refugees demonstrate that water is not the only resource valued by states.

The Hydraulic Security Dilemma only genuinely occurred in the Jordan basin in 1967, which clearly showed the most rivalry between riparian countries to begin with. Evidently, then, water can be used as a means of threatening other actors, but the reason why states may seize water unnecessarily (e.g. Syria) is no different from why they may seize other things like land unnecessarily. This school of thought collapses into an iteration of the security dilemma, with nothing unique about water to support it.

All of the cases show that states use access to water to achieve other objectives, explaining the divergent situations of conflict and cooperation between them. In the Jordan Basin, before water was a priority for any of the states, Syria seized Israeli access to water to provoke a larger conflict. Once it was evident that water was a significant regional concern, water-deprived states like Jordan coaxed Israel into making concessions based on its other concerns. Moreover, the hydrosecurity regime that has resulted, as many argue, will provide a step in the direction toward peace by recognizing the need for Israel and Arab states to cooperate on regional issues. In the Euphrates Basin, Iraq and Syria have used Turkey's control of water to extort concessions, while Turkey has used its water projects to reclaim a good reputation, hopeful of admission to the EU. Finally, the Nile basin demonstrates that recognizing the hydraulic interests of some countries alongside the non-hydraulic interests of others can produce mutually beneficial exchanges that facilitate cooperation. As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, the water disputes of the Middle East are both the most geologically critical and politically charged. The fact that all three basins have managed to transcend the water issue to weave value-creating solutions (in varying levels of success) is an optimistic indicator for how water disputes worldwide may be handled.

Having discerned that the Hydraulic Toolbox framework most accurately characterizes riparian behavior, two other conclusions can be drawn. First, water has significance. The bulk of this paper has been spent discrediting the inflammatory rhetoric that attributes many conflicts to water's unacknowledged significance, but water is, in fact, a pressing issue for the world and especially for the Middle East. It would not have the power to push states to accomplish other objectives, as the Hydraulic Toolbox argument concludes, if it did not have some strategic value. As the rest of the world begins to participate in more talks on climate change and recognize the transnational significance of freshwater resources, it will be interesting to see how this affects international behavior in the Middle East. Second, not only is water a useful tool to accomplish other objectives, but in two of the three river basins, it has also supported fairly successful security regimes around water. In both the Jordan and the Nile Basins, the results meet Jervis's (1982) four components of a security regime: all powers have an interest in establishing the regime, they believe others benefit from mutual cooperation, they recognize the limits of expansionist behavior, and war is seen as costly (360-2). In the Jordan Basin, states have recognized that they waste enough resources fighting over other issues that it is in their mutual best interests to cooperate on hydraulic issues. The agreements of the 1990s faced harsh international criticism for their structural flaws and inability to address major issues, but when viewed as confidence-building measures rather than as institutional solutions to water shortage, these agreements made major headway in eradicating unproductive, violent conflict over water in the Middle East. The Nile Basin regime, lacking the animosity of the Jordan Basin, even more productively enables riparian states to focus on the many internal, domestic issues that plague them rather than water conflicts. The water situation contributes to the Jordan and Nile Basins' "ripeness" for confidence- building measures, which may have some role in resolving larger interstate conflict (Levite and Landau 1994, 151).

What implications does this analysis have for the future of the Middle East water disputes? Israel and Palestine will likely remain in their current, limited regime until they are able to formally recognize one another and make headway on other issues. Thirsty Jordan's push for economic development will prolong its dependence on Israel, which also will slow progress toward a sustainable solution. During this time period, however, none of the riparians will go to war over water because they now understand the environmental havoc this would wreak. In the Euphrates Basin, as Iraq recovers from war and begins to realize the toll the drought of the last decade has taken on its weakened economy (BBC News 2009), it will become increasingly reliant on Syria and Turkey for its water supply. Turkey, acting as the regional hegemon hoping to gain the approving eye of Europe, and who has been facilitating peace talks between Syria and Israel, may be in a position to negotiate the waters that may be let through to Iraq, but the economic benefits of the GAP will likely prove too tempting to sacrifice. Finally, in the Nile Basin, Egypt will begin increasing its investment in the Sudanese economy after the heat of the civil war has passed, eager to stabilize the country and therefore its ability to participate in water management solutions. In all three cases, despite the increasing imminence of a water crisis, states realize the shared benefit to cooperating on the water issue, and, while they are at different stages in their progress toward Kliot's ideal of a productive water-sharing solution, water will continue to be an issue that unites them in their way toward building confidence and security in a conflicted region.


  1. Salination can result when states overdraw freshwater supplies too nearby to saltwater resources.
  2. Value deriving from the water resources themselves would fall into either the Hydraulic Imperative or Hydraulic Security Dilemma explanations.
  3. Other numbers have pegged the Palestinian allowance at 20% of renewable groundwater (Kliot 1994, 247).


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Lindsay Dolan is a sophomore honors Economics major, History minor and course major. This final paper for Barak Mendelsohn's Political Science course at Haverford College, "International Relations Theory: Conflict and the Middle East,"  is the result of a semester-long process of research, peer review, discussion, writing, and revision. She enjoyed analyzing the puzzle of the Middle Eastern water question through the lenses of international relations theories and hopes later to apply economic and historical tools to this contemporary issue.