Middle East peace depends on separation of water rights from sovereignty

The peace talks between Israel and Syria could be resolved if negotiators could separate the issue of sovereignty over the land from the right to use the land's water, two geographers have claimed.

The conflict over water rights and borders in the Golan Heights is one of the sticking points preventing the resolution of peace talks between Israel and Syria. However, geographers from the US and Israel claim a compromise could be reached if the two sides could look at concerns about water rights and water resources separately from claims to sovereignty over land (see related story).

The researchers say that it should be possible to trade water for peace and point to historical examples when agreements were made concerning the purchase or exchange of water. The researchers claim water rights can often be negotiated to the satisfaction of both sides.

“If history has taught us anything, it’s that even the most serious water disputes can and usually are settled peacefully. You hear a lot about water wars, but in reality one of the last recorded wars over water was in 2,500 BC,” says Aaron Wolf, an assistant professor of geosciences at Oregon State University (OSU) and expert on the resolution of water resource disputes.

Wolf has created a computerised database of 3,600 water treaties over almost 5,000 years that show different ways problems have been solved and how water treaties have been honoured even as wars raged around them. There’s almost no type of water conflict that hasn’t been seen before somewhere else, Wolf says, and those ancient conflicts can point the way to modern solutions.

Wolf is currently collaborating in OSU laboratories with Arnon Medzini, a visiting professor from Haifa University in Israel. Both academics believe lessons from history can probably help point the way to a resumption of talks and solutions acceptable to both Syria and Israel.

“Right now, Israel is seeking a full peace agreement with Syria, considering the return of the Golan Heights to Syria and essentially working out a land-for-peace accord,” Wolf says. “But the devil is in the details, exactly what land and under what conditions.”

A current sticking point is a dispute over a comparatively small amount of land, about 60km2, scattered in three tracts along the border between Israel and the Golan Heights. But ownership of those pieces of land is based on water rights.

In this case, those water resources include access to parts of the Sea of Galilee, the Banyas Springs that are part of the Jordan River headwaters, and control of both sides of the lower Jordan River. “These water resources together comprise about one third of Israel’s total water supply, and they will insist that those rights be protected,” Medzini said. “There are other considerations about the Golan Heights region, such as military security, but a lot of the concern goes directly to this water.”

Even when borders are finalised, the researchers say, Israel will probably demand access to some water, such as the Banyas Springs, land that will be on the Syrian side of the border. Protection of water quality will also be a consideration, as Israel will want to ensure that Syrian agricultural or industrial activities don’t pollute the water that flows downstream into its drinking water supplies.

According to Wolf the key is the separation of the issue of sovereignty over the land from the rights to the water that flows through it. “There are places where one side or the other will demand, with justification, sovereignty over certain tracts of land,” Wolf said. “But the actual borders in some cases were drawn the way they were because of concerns about water rights and water resources. If we look at those concerns separately from the issue of sovereignty, there are usually ways that a compromise can be reached.”

In the arid Middle East, the researchers said, it’s becoming increasingly common to trade not only land for peace, but water for peace. Formal leases can and have been drawn up providing for purchase or exchanges of water. And bartering is possible, where a water rights concession is made in one locale in exchange for other water rights elsewhere.

“Once you get past the issue of sovereignty over the land, there are a lot of things we can do with the water,” Wolf said. “For instance, Turkey and Syria have an ongoing water dispute on the Euphrates River. But Turkey and the US are important NATO allies. Maybe Turkey could be persuaded to concede a modest amount of water to Syria in this different dispute, in exchange for some Syrian concessions on the Israeli border. That’s just one of several possibilities.”

The researchers said because of its very value and complexity, water rights can often be negotiated to produce ‘win-win’ situations that both sides can live with. Some critics, Wolf said, are alluding to the problems over water as a final reason that Israel should not even consider giving up the Golan Heights or pursuing other peace initiatives with Syria. “There are extremely strong feeling in this area that go back to conflicts of the past, and there may be people who don’t want any type of treaty between Israel and Syria,” Wolf said. “Those are different problems. But I can guarantee you the issues over water should not stop this peace process from going forward. These are problems we can solve, and history will show us the way.”

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