Following the War of Independence (Nakba), riparian neighbours took the unilateral approach to the use of the River Jordan as an essential water resource.
At the start of the 1950s Israel and its riparian neighbours of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon were still technically at war and any attempt between Arab and Israeli, to share the water resources of the Jordan River and its two northern feeds the Hasbani river, with its sources in Lebanon, and the Banais River, with its source in Syria, would have been inconceivable.
Draining of Lake Huleh
In the absence of any region-wide plan to share water resources, the Arab states and Israel turned to unilateral schemes. The Arabs, for example, planned to take advantage of the Hasbani and Banais resources and Israel developed their All Israel Plan, focused on the draining of Lake Huleh situated north of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret), to create agricultural land.
Diversion of River Jordan
Diversion of the northern part of the Jordan River and the construction of a carrier to its coastal cities was also on Israel’s agenda. Meanwhile Jordan planned, in an attempt to irrigate the East Ghor, to draw from the Yarmuk River, which originates at the base of Mount Hermon.
With such a complex set of proposals it was little wonder that they created military conflict in the region. In particular the Lake Huleh scheme was always going to heighten tension between Israel and Syria because it lay within the demilitarised zone. Eventually it did lead to border skirmishes between the countries, with the threat of a greater war never far away.
Johnston Water Plan
At this point (October 1953) American president, Dwight Eisenhower dispatched his special envoy to the region. Eric Johnston had the daunting task of bringing the hostile riparians together to negotiate an equitable solution to the problem of sharing the Jordan River system resources.
The Johnston Plan or The Unified Development of Water Resources in the Jordan Valley Region was based on a study, on behalf of the United Nations, by Charles Main and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).
It was proposed that a joint technical committee would firstly ratify the Johnston plan before being considered by their political masters. While established as technically feasible, Eric Johnston’s plans were not accepted by any of the riparian states.
Syria in particular would not accept the proposals because they feared that; “the acceptance of the plan would imply acquiescence in the existence of Israel.” David Ben Gurion called it an, “American mandate and pro Arab…”
Lebanon and Jordan also rejected it, Lebanon almost certainly because of its lack of military clout and its wish to remain within the pan-Arab fraternity. While Jordan also said no, there remained an implied (and secret) agreement, almost certainly encouraged by the Americans, to use the River Jordan resources as suggested by Johnston. It wasn’t until 1994 that an official water agreement was included in the Israel- Jordan peace agreement.
Arab-Israel War June 1967
With the failure of Johnston, each country continued to work unilaterally and tensions, particularly between Israel and Syria, continued to build as the region moved inexorably towards the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967.
- Amery A and Wolf A T (editors), Water in the Middle East, University of Texas Press (2000)
- Hambright D et al editors, Water in the Middle East: Cooperation and Technological Solutions in the Jordan Valley, Sussex Academic Press (2006)