Yarmuk River

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Type: river or creek
Length: 80km

Negotiations Over the Yarmuk River

Although the watershed-wide scope of the Johnston negotiations has not been taken advantage of, the allocations which resulted have been at the heart of ongoing attempts at water conflict resolution, particularly along the Yarmuk River, where a dam for storage and hydroelectric power generation has been suggested since the early 1950s.

In 1952, Miles Bunger, an American attached to the Technical Cooperation Agency in Amman, first suggested the construction of a dam at Maqarin to help even the flow of the Yarmuk River and to tap its hydroelectric potential. The following year, Jordan and UNRWA signed an agreement to implement the Bunger plan the following year, including a dam at Maqarin with a storage capacity of 480 MCM and a diversion dam at Addassiyah, and Syria and Jordan agreed that Syria would receive 2/3 of the hydropower generated, in exchange for Jordan's receiving 7/8 of the natural flow of the river. Dams along the Yarmuk were also included in the Johnston negotiations-the Main Plan included a small dam, 47 meters high with a storage capacity of only 47 MCM, because initial planning called for the Sea of Galilee to be the central storage facility. As Arab resistance to Israeli control over Galilee storage became clear in the course of the negotiations, a larger dam, 126 meters high with a storage capacity of 300 MCM was included.

While the idea faded with the Johnston negotiations, the idea of a dam on the Yarmuk was raised again in 1957, in a Soviet-Syrian Aid Agreement, and at the First Arab Summit in Cairo in 1964, as part of the All-Arab Diversion Project. Construction of the diversion dam at Mukheiba was actually begun, but was abandoned when the borders shifted after the 1967 war-one side of the projected dam in the Golan Heights shifted from Syrian to Israeli territory.

The Maqarin Dam was resurrected as an idea in Jordan 's Seven Year Plan in 1975, and Jordanian water officials approached their Israeli counterparts about the low dam at Mukheiba in 1977. While the Israelis proved amenable at a ministerial-level meeting in Zurich -a more-even flow of the river would benefit all of the riparians-the Israeli government shifted that year to one less interested in the project.

This stalemate might have continued except for strong U.S. involvement in 1980, when President Carter pledged a $9 million loan towards the Maqarin Dam project, and Congress approved an additional $150 million-provided that all of the riparians agree. Philip Habib was sent to the region to help mediate an agreement. While Habib was able to gain consensus on the concept of the dam, on separating the question of theYarmuk from that of West Bank allocations, and on the difficult question of summer flow allocations-25 MCM would flow to Israel during the summer months-negotiations were hung up winter flow allocations, and final ratification was never reached.

Syria and Jordan reaffirmed mutual commitment to a dam at Maqarin in 1987, whereby Jordan would receive 75% of the water stored in the proposed dam, and Syria would receive all of the hydropower generated. The agreement called for funding from the World Bank, which insists that all riparians agree to a project before it can be funded. Israel refused until its concerns about the winter flow of the river were addressed.

Against this backdrop, Jordan in 1989 approached the U.S. Department of State for help in resolving the dispute. Ambassador Richard Armitage was dispatched to the region in September 1989 to resume indirect mediation between Jordan and Israel where Philip Habib had left off a decade earlier. The points raised during the following year were as follows:

Both sides agreed that 25 MCM/yr would be made available to Israel during the summer months, but disagreed as to whether any additional water would be specifically earmarked for Israel during the winter months.

The overall viability of a dam was also open to question-the Israelis still thought that the Sea of Galilee ought to be used as a regional reservoir, and both sides questioned what effects ongoing development by Syria at the headwaters of the Yarmuk would have on the dam's viability. Since the State Dept. had no mandate to approach Syria, their input was missing from the mediation. Israel eventually wanted a formal agreement with Jordan, a step which would have been politically difficult for the Jordanians at the time.

By fall of 1990, agreement seemed to be taking shape, by which Israel agreed to the concept of the dam, and discussions on a formal document and winter flow allocations could continue during construction, estimated for more than five years. Two issues held up any agreement. First, the lack of Syrian input left questions of the future of the river unresolved, a point noted by both sides during mediation. Second, the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991 overwhelmed other regional issues, finally preempting talks on the Yarmuk River. The issue has not been brought up again until recently in the context of the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.

In the absence of an agreement, both Syria and Israel are currently able to exceed their allocations from the Johnston accords, the former because of a series of small storage dams and the latter because of its downstream riparian position. Syria began building a series of small impoundment dams upstream from both Jordan and Israel in the mid-1980s., while Israel has been taking advantage of the lack of a storage facility to increase its withdrawals from the river. Syria currently has 27 dams in place on the upper Yarmuk, with a combined storage capacity of approximately 250 MCM (its Johnston allocations are 90 MCM/yr. from the Yarmuk River), and Israel currently uses 70-100 MCM/yr (its Johnston allocation are 25-40 MCM/yr). This leaves Jordan approximately 150 MCM/yr for the East Ghor Canal (as compared to its Johnston allocations of 377 MCM/yr).

By 1991, several events combined to shift the emphasis on the potential for 'hydro-conflict' in the Middle East to the potential for 'hydro-cooperation.' The Gulf War in 1990 and the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a realignment of political alliances in the Mideast that finally made possible the first public face-to-face peace talks between Arabs and Israelis, in Madrid on October 30, 1991. During the bilateral negotiations between Israel and each of its neighbors, it was agreed that a second track be established for multilateral negotiations on five subjects deemed 'regional,' including water resources.

Since the opening session of the multilateral talks in Moscow in January 1992, the Working Group on Water Resources, with the United States as "gavel-holder," has been the venue by which problems of water supply, demand and institutions has been raised among the parties to the bilateral talks, with the exception of Lebanon and Syria. The two tracks of the current negotiations, the bilateral and the multilateral, are designed explicitly not only to close the gap between issues of politics and issues of regional development, but perhaps to use progress on each to help catalyze the pace of the other, in a positive feedback loop towards "a just and lasting peace in the Middle East." The idea is that the multilateral working groups would provide forums for relatively free dialogue on the future of the region and, in the process, allow for personal ice-breaking and confidence building to take place. Given the role of the Working Group on Water Resources in this context, the objectives have been more on the order of fact-finding and workshops, rather than tackling the difficult political issues of water rights and allocations, or the development of specific projects. Likewise, decisions are made through consensus only.

The pace of success of each round of talks has vacillated but, in general, has been increasing. By this third meeting in 1992, it became clear that regional water-sharing agreements, or any political agreements surrounding water resources, would not be dealt with in the multilaterals, but that the role of these talks was to deal with non-political issues of mutual concern, thereby strengthening the bilateral track. The goal in the Working Group on Water Resources became to plan for a future region at peace, and to leave the pace of implementation to the bilateral talks. This distinction between "planning" and "implementation" became crucial, with progress only being made as the boundary between the two is continuously pushed and blurred by the mediators.

The multilateral activities have helped set the stage for agreements formalized in bilateral negotiations-the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace of 1994, and the Interim Agreements between Israel and the Palestinians (1993 and 1995). For the first time since the states came into being, the Israel-Jordan peace treaty legally spells out mutually recognized water allocations. Acknowledging that, "water issues along their entire boundary must be dealt with in their totality," the treaty spells out allocations for both the Yarmuk and Jordan Rivers, as well as regarding Arava/Araba ground water, and calls for joint efforts to prevent water pollution. Also, "[recognizing] that their water resources are not sufficient to meet their needs," the treaty calls for ways of alleviating the water shortage through cooperative projects, both regional and international. The Interim Agreement also recognizes the water rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, but defers their quantification until the final round of negotiations.

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