Water-sharing plan could keep peace in arid Jordan Valley

As the drought in Jordan worsens, the failure to reach a water-sharing arrangement with Israel may well lead to another round of conflict in the Jordan Valley.

Winter rains far below normal have diminished Jordan's water reserves. And most of the country's reservoirs are already virtually empty with the dry season still several months away.

Munther Haddadin, the president of the Jordan Valley Authority, discussed on television recently the severity of the drought and asked valley farmers not to plant summer crops. Under normal conditions, sufficient water flows through Jordan's East Ghor Canal to irrigate approximately 100,000 dunums (some 25,000 acres). This year's water shortage requires that close to half that must lie fallow. The income loss to Jordanian farmers will be tremendous.

Jordan's ability to use what little water flows in the Yarmuk River is reduced still further by an island of silt that has formed at the mouth of the 1 -kilometer tunnel channeling river water into the East Ghor Canal.

From the time the tunnel opened in 1962 until the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, silt accumulation was controlled through periodic maintenance efforts by the Jordanians. The Yarmuk River forms the post-1967 armistice line, however, and for more than five years after the war, Jordanian water authorities could not enter the militarized zone to service the river.

By 1976, the flow of water into the East Ghor Canal was seriously impeded. American mediation that year and again in July of the drought year 1979 enabled Jordan to remove rocks that had collected around the silt island, but not the silt itself, without Israeli intervention.

A few days later, according to well-informed local sources, Israelis slipped down to the river at night and replaced the rocks in such a way as to increase the flow of water bypassing the East Ghor Canal feeder tunnel. Both armies mobilized along the armistice line; a military confrontation was only narrowly averted.

Among the provisions of the 1954 Revised Unified Plan, a United States-sponsored regional water-sharing strategy, Israel was to receive 25 million cubic meters of water from the Yarmuk, which flows almost entirely in Arab territory, to irrigate its small land area in the Yarmuk triangle. This amount was to flow to Israel primarily during the summer, regulated by a dam to be built upstream at Maqarin.

While this plan was never agreed upon by all regional riparians, Israel stated its intention to use the generous share of regional waters allocated to it in the plan.

In 1978 the US Congress appropriated $150 million for the building of the Maqarin Dam, contingent on a regional settlement to the water dispute. By the time blueprints were completed in 1980, the US had already invested $20 million in the project and West Germany another $5 million. Contract bidding was scheduled to open in February 1981.

At this point, a US mission led by senior State Department official Philip Habib was sent to the region in an attempt to conclude a water-sharing arrangement by persuading the Jordanians to accept Israeli demands for much more Yarmuk water than the amount to which Israel had previously agreed. This included 35-40 million cubic meters (m.c.m.) within the Yarmuk triangle, and an additional quantity for use on the West Bank. (The Israeli press quoted 140 m.c.m. for the latter purpose, but this figure has never been officially confirmed.)

The Habib-led discussions failed to produce a solution to the problem. In the meantime, the Israelis continue to pump approximately 100 m.c.m. of unauthorized water from the Yarmuk into the Sea of Galilee. From there it is pumped up to Jewish settlements in the Golan Heights as well as into the National Water Carrier, Israel's elaborate system of pumping stations, steel conduits, canals, and siphons.

Regulation of Yarmuk water flow is crucial for Jordanian agricultural development, especially since Israel diverted the Jordan River out of the river bed to the Negev Desert in 1964. Water remaining in the Jordan River itself as it flows into Jordan is now little more than a trickle. Israel pumps saline spring water from the Sea of Galilee into the river.

Meanwhile, since September 1983, Israel has refused to participate fully in the Mixed Armistice Commission, the only legitimate means by which communication with Jordan on this issue had been possible.

In the five years since a conflict with Israel along the Yarmuk was averted, Jordan has accomplished little in securing access to its own waters. The consequences of the failure to arrange a water-sharing plan, which would in turn release US funds for building the Maqarin Dam - therefore enabling the regulation of river flow to the benefit of both Jordan and Israel - may again reach crisis proportions as the drought of 1984 intensifies.

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