Rivers of Conflict, Rivers of Peace

By Lowi, Miriam R. | Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Rivers of Conflict, Rivers of Peace


Lowi, Miriam R., Journal of International Affairs


In arid and semi-arid regions of the world where water scarcity is a fact of life, the search for water punctuates the history of communities and mediates their political relations. Fresh water is vital for human survival, yet its availability is uneven and substitutes do not exist. The struggle for access to, and control over, water supplies has consistently provoked tensions and conflict between communities and nations.

However, if the parties involved in the struggle for access to scarce water were to perceive a mutual benefit in sharing the resource, then perhaps that resource could become the vehicle for cementing cooperative relations among them. In part this is what political functionalists during and following the Second World War were suggesting as a solution to international conflict: Peace could be achieved if ways were found for adversarial states to collaborate in technical and other non-political matters.(1) Over time, continuous cooperation in technical areas would bind states together in such a way that their political differences would recede in importance and eventually disappear. The former adversaries would come to realize that there was far more to gain from peaceful relations.

Unfortunately, the record of technical collaboration among adversarial states spilling over into political cooperation is far more sobering than the idealists of mid-century would have us believe.(2) Furthermore, political conflicts are sometimes so visceral and primordial that they simply cannot be ignored; over the course of their duration, they become an inextricable part of the identities of the parties involved. Under such circumstances, technical collaboration cannot be facilitated; rather it must await political settlement.

The Middle East is the most water-poor region of the globe, with the world's lowest per capita consumption of water. The problem attendant to water scarcity is particularly acute in the Middle East, as the region has one of the fastest growing populations. In addition, there are a number of rivers in this region that traverse international boundaries established during the 20th century, and that have become a focus of interstate tensions.

            Per Capita Surface Water Availability in
            the Jordan and Euphrates Basins, 1990(3)

                Total                    Per Capita
             Water/year    Population       Water
               (bcm)       (millions)   (cubic meters)
Iraq           91.20         17.0          5364
Israel          1.95          4.6           424
Jordan          0.77          3.3           233
Lebanon         4.80          2.7          1600
Syria          23.00         13.0          1769
Turkey        100.00         55.0          1818
West Bank/
Gaza            0.20          1.8           111

In this article, I discuss two transboundary river basins in the Middle East: the Jordan River basin, which includes Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank; and the Euphrates River Basin, which includes Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In these basins, no binding arrangements for sharing the waters exist, yet some form of cooperation is imperative in order to meet the immediate and long-term needs of the states and peoples in question. The article is divided into four sections. I begin by outlining the prevailing views regarding how best to develop and manage the waters of a transboundary river basin. I explain why unitary basin-wide development under some form of supranational authority is considered optimal, and I describe the record to date in achieving this goal. In the second section, I focus on the Jordan and Euphrates River basins; I describe their geopolitical settings, outline the history of efforts to achieve cooperative solutions to water development and management, and analyze outcomes. I then summarize the obstacles to cooperation, emphasizing the preferences of the riparian states in each basin. …

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