Waters Wars

Mineral resort. Dead Sea. West bank, Palestine/Israel May 2009. Photo by Paolo Pellegrin

Text by Don Belt. For a biblical stream whose name evokes divine tranquillity, the Jordan River is nobody’s idea of peace on Earth. From its rowdy headwaters near the war-scarred slopes of Mount Hermon to the foamy, coffee-colored sludge at the Dead Sea some 200 miles downstream, the Jordan is fighting for survival in a tough neighborhood the kind of place where nations might spike the riverbank with land mines, or go to war over a sandbar. Water has always been precious in this arid region, but a six-year drought and expanding population conspire to make it a fresh source of conflict among the Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians vying for the river’s life-giving supply. (…) The fight over the Jordan illustrates the potential for conflict over water that exists throughout the world. We live on a planet where neighbors have been clubbing each other over rivers for thousands of years. (The word “rival,” from the Latin rivalis, originally described competitors for a river or stream.) Worldwide, a long list of watersheds brims with potential clashes: between India and Pakistan over the Indus; Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile; Turkey and Syria over the Euphrates; Botswana and Namibia over the Okavango. Yet according to researchers at Oregon State University, of the 37 actual military conflicts over water since 1950, 32 took place in the Middle East; 30 of them involved Israel and its Arab neighbors. Of those, practically all were over the Jordan River and its tributaries, which supply millions of people with water for drinking, bathing, and farming.

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