Tiding Over the Water Wars-New Epoch on Israeli Hydro diplomacy and Cooperation

The flag of Israel © Ekaterina Lin/
Lonely Planet
The flag of Israel © Ekaterina Lin/, Lonely Planet

Till the 1990s, the fact that water resources can be diplomatically politicized was unheard of, other than in two or three instances, though on a minor scale. Hydro diplomacy as a concept was popularized mainly during the decade of the 1990s.

The goal of “Hydro diplomacy” is defined as an initiative to promote cooperation, ensure mutual benefits in a transboundary water basin, and avoid militarization of water-related disputes, thereby facilitating avenues for peace and concord. As had been very precisely projected by many international analysts long back, water-related conflicts and the looming threat that it poses, have increased exponentially all over the world, in recent decades. In water starve regions such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Water security now has been synonymous with state power and stability.

Israel, a middle eastern state without being blessed by “liquid gold”, has found a way to diplomatize “water” to cool down a volatile political surrounding and simultaneously has allowed itself to project its diplomatic prowess far and beyond the Middle East, through water cooperation and collaboration.

A Brief History Towards Hydro Diplomacy

Israel shares most of its natural hydro resources with its neighbours. It shares the most important river system in the region, the Jordan Basin with Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. The importance of hydro diplomacy and the increased risk of “water wars”, was precisely anticipated by Israel since its very inception as a state in 1948. The nascent state soon, unfortunately, found itself amidst the “War over Water” (1964-1967) with its Arab neighbours, which had huge ramifications for the political future of the region. Israel’s journey in establishing cooperation and ensuring water security began as early as the 1920s, still as a mandate (Palestinian Mandate) under the British Empire. The construction of a hydropower plant saddling the Yarmouk and the Jordan rivers, with Jordan, was one of the first such attempts at hydro diplomacy.

The heat of the de jure political conflicts in the Israeli neighbourhood, in the decade of the 1950s, was felt in the arena of water cooperation in the region as well. The UN-brokered several talks during that time on water sharing, which later became the skeletal base for many water-sharing agreements in the world. Although never officially implemented the Johnston Plan of 1955, formulated at the US’ behest, involving Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, later became one of the founding bedrocks of Israel’s hydro diplomacy.

The following decades however saw hydro diplomacy dormant within broader bilateral agreements, not pursued separately. As late as 1996, the Political Division for Water Issues was formed within the Peace Process Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israeli Government-A crucial milestone in Israeli foreign policy history, highlighting the growing importance of hydro diplomacy.

Israeli Neighbourhood and the Success of Hydro Diplomacy

Israel’s initial experiment with hydro-diplomacy began in its neighbourhood first. While its success remains limited in certain aspects, nevertheless it has been successful in preventing further water wars and conflicts in the region. Israel has been very pragmatically steering “hydro diplomacy”- a part of the so-called “low politics” in International Relations, culminating in political gains and cooperation in the region.

A politically volatile area like the Israeli neighbourhood found their shared ground when it came to water security. The Madrid Conference of 1991, was an important milestone to re initiate the Arab-Israeli Peace Process. The conference had a rough initial beginning in arriving at a common ground until the water issue was put on the table. It provided the parties with a mutual footing, to deliberate and cooperate, that ultimately had the potential to open avenues for political talks. This further reinstates water’s role in manoeuvring Israel’s foreign policy.

Jordan: Israel and Jordan both lie on the Jordan River Basin system and are the tributaries of the Jordan and the Yarmouk rivers. Both of these rivers are transboundary. The war of 1948, between Israel and its Arab neighbours, and unilateral activity to reroute the river basin by Jordan through the construction of the East Ghor Canal and the construction of the National Water Carrier by Israel for the same purpose, made cooperation unachievable. The 1955 US-brokered Johnston Plan failed to make any concrete headway to abate the conflict. However, the secret “picnic table” meetings during the period of 1960s and 1970s, which were fashioned along the lines of Johnston’s plan, ultimately paved the way for hydro diplomacy between Israel and Jordan.

The first seed of diplomatic relations between Israel and Jordan was laid through bilateral hydro cooperation, which further blossomed into full-fledged diplomatic relations, and culminated in the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994. Along with establishing peaceful relations, the treaty chartered a plethora of water-related agreements like sharing of water, the establishment of bodies like the Joint Water Committee, Water Data Banks, and desalination projects. Recently in 2015, Israel and Jordan signed a treaty to initiate the transfer of water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea in an attempt to save the latter from perishing, after a joint study conducted in 2001. Climate change and the ever-increasing risk of drought and acute water scarcity have further bolstered ties between Israel and Jordan. Israel a world leader in desalination research and programmes, has also taken up the task of somewhat guaranteeing Jordan’s water security, along with its own. Hopefully, Hydro diplomacy between Jordan and Israel will only spill more into broader ties and cooperation.

Egypt – The Egypt- Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, had far-reaching implications in the geopolitics of the region. It heralded a new epoch and prepared the ground for collaboration; something deemed beyond impossible at that point in time. Since then, Egypt-Israel diplomatic relation has remained lukewarm, hovering mostly over the security aspect. In recent years, attempts have been made to look beyond security relations, and work together on civilian purposes like water cooperation and hydro diplomacy. Along the lines of water co-operation, irrigation and agricultural co-operation have also been undertaken. In 2021, a high delegation from both countries visited the city of Sharm el-Sheikh, where further cooperation on water, irrigation, and agriculture was discussed. Given the looming water scarcity over Egypt and the end of Egyptian “hegemony” over the Nile Basin, water cooperation with Israel is now a serious issue to be pondered over at the table. Israeli technology in water desalination, recycling, and conservation is being highly sought after in Egypt. The Egypt- Ethiopian tension over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and water sharing of the Nile, has prompted Egypt to look for other recourses to guarantee its water security. Already, Egypt has been in talks with Israel on desalination projects, water treatment, and recycling projects.

Lebanon and Syria- Unlike Israel’s other two neighbours, with lukewarm cooperation and relation, the case is extremely different when it comes to hydro diplomacy with Lebanon and Syria. Although, the three countries, share a part of the Jordan River Basin, (the Jordan River originates at the Syria-Lebanon border and flows into the northern part of Israel into the Sea of Galilee), the desired cooperation on water resources has been absent. The Israeli-Lebanese conflict over the Wazzani spring, (one of the main tributaries of the Hasbani River, which in

turn feeds the Jordan River), is growing more unsolvable over the Lebanese plan to divert water from the Wazzani spring.

The Israeli-Syrian conflict over the Sea of Galilee, and the lingering effects of the “War Over Waters” (1964-1967), are still very much perceptible. Syria suffers from extreme water scarcity, almost throughout its entire territory. Its north-eastern part once blessed by the Euphrates has been facing the same fate; thanks to the upstream dam-building by Turkey. Despite the presence of political animosity between the two countries, during the Syrian civil war, Israel through United Nations sent shipments of water treatment tablets from Israeli, Ireland-based company Medentech, for treating water contamination.

The lack of any political relations and the constant atmosphere of hate and mistrust between Israel and its neighbours Lebanon and Syria, is costing the latter two heavily. Guaranteeing water security would have had far-reaching beneficial spillover effects in the domestic political scenarios of Lebanon and Syria as well. A host of misfortunate turn of events could have been avoided.

Hydro diplomacy and Water Cooperation Beyond the Israeli Borders

Like the ancient twelve tribes of Israel, the modern Israeli nation has adapted itself to the harsh conditions of the region and has thrived. Not only did they manage to guarantee domestic water security, but the Israeli research and technology on water conservation, recycling, treatment, desalination, and irrigation in arid regions have been nothing less than path-breaking.

Middle East and North Africa– In the last few years Israel has entered into several hydro diplomatic endavours with a host of nations in the Middle East. The Abraham Accords of 2020 have further eased the path for collaborations. Recently, Israel has entered into talks to enhance water cooperation, sharing of technologies, and arid irrigation tactics with Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2012, the state of South Sudan signed a landmark agreement with Israel on water cooperation, research, and technology. Since 2020, a comprehensive discussion has been undergoing with Sudan on cooperation over water, agriculture, and irrigation.

Africa- Israel’s relations with the African nations go all the way back to the 1950s when many new African nations were still being born. In 1956, Ghana became the first African nation to establish relations with Israel. Today Israel holds bilateral relations with 44 African countries. Co-operation has been ranging in a wide array of aspects from security and defense to agriculture, irrigation, and hydro diplomacy (water conservation, recycling, desalination, and treatment).

In 1975, along the lines of the Israel-South Africa Agreement, a desalination plant was set up in South Africa, based on Israeli technologies. Israel has been collaborating with private organizations, research teams, and NGOs to serve an increasingly thirsty population better and faster. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been collaborating with G.A.L. Water Technologies, in order to contribute water treatment techniques to many water-scarce African nations. In Ghana and Cameroon, the Israeli company NUFiltration has taken up many projects involving water treatment and recycling. Another Israeli organization, Innovation Africa, has been working in Malawi, Uganda, and Tanzania to ensure clean water, install drip irrigation, and facilitate water treatment without using electricity. Since 2018, Zambia has also put Israeli technology into use for water treatment and conservation.

The 2016 visit of the then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, culminated in a plethora of memorandums on water cooperation, water technology, infrastructure, irrigation, etc, along with other fields. In 2009, Israel and Kenya signed an agreement on water cooperation, followed by the Jerusalem Declaration on irrigation and water cooperation. In 2017, understandings on similar lines were finalized with Gabon, Uganda, Tanzania, and Namibia. In 2018, a multitude of plans related to water cooperation was undertaken with Ethiopia, following the visit of Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin.

Given the parallelism of water availability, between Israel and some African countries, cooperation over irrigation technology has also been increasing. The drip irrigation technique, an Israeli technology, has proven immensely valuable for many African countries. In 2014, the drought-stricken Senegalese city of Fatick inaugurated the drip irrigation system. In 2018, Ghana signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Israeli Government, to undertake water conservation projects and initiate irrigation based on Israeli techniques.

India – Agriculture is a major livelihood provider for a large section of the Indian populace. Coupled with it, a booming population and rapid urbanization have made India confront water scarcity and is facing a looming threat despite the abundance of rain, river systems, and groundwater. Climate change, haphazard rainfall, and severe groundwater depletion have forced a hefty percentage of Indians into the face of water insecurity. Israeli cutting-edge water conservation techniques are seen as a panacea for this looming disaster. Israel and India have been collaborating dynamically on this front. In 2021, given the urgency of the matter, Israel has appointed its first-ever Water Attaché, Dr. Lior Asaf, to the Israeli embassy in New Delhi, to look over water cooperation and hydro diplomacy. India and Israel have signed numerous agreements and MoUs on water cooperation, research, and irrigation.

In 2017, during the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Israel, a first of its kind agreement, “Strategic Partnership in Water and Agriculture”. India’s ambitious plan under Jal Jeevan Mission, to provide running,safe tap water connection to every household by 2024, is also being materialized based on Israeli collaboration. Apart from the Indian Central Government, various Indian State Governments have also paired up with Israel to ensure water security.

In 2020 the Uttar Pradesh Government entered into an agreement with Israel to put the Israeli water management model to use, for the water-scarce region of the Bundelkhand region, officially dubbed the India-Israel Bundelkhand Water Project. Other Indian states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Punjab are also keen on adopting Israeli water management techniques. In 2019, the Indian Jal Shakti Minister (Department of Water Resources), directed a historic visit to Israel, to attend the World Water Technology and Environmental Control Conference and Exhibition, curated especially for Indo-Israel water ties, to further strengthen water cooperation and hydro diplomacy between the two countries.

On the side-lines of Track 1 diplomacy, Indian and Israeli companies have been actively cooperating on water conservation research. Indian company SUN Group with Water-Gen, an Israel-based company has signed a pact on the sharing of technology to develop water out of thin air!

Israel’s scientific innovations and research on water cooperation remain unmatched in the world. From big powers like the United States or China to smaller countries like Papua New Guinea, now seeks Israeli technology in safeguarding their water security. Since 2014, China has engaged in active talks with Israel over its growing water crisis. In 2014, Israel and China jointly launched “Water Technology Demonstration City” at Shouguang City in China, where Israeli techniques of water management and irrigation have been adopted. In many coastal cities of China, Israeli desalination technology has been implemented.

Along similar lines, the United States has also been adopting Israeli technology of water management and irrigation to mitigate water scarcity in states like California, Arizona, etc. A new epoch of collaboration on this front began in 1991 between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Israel. This does not only hover around water management and cooperation, but issues of Water Cybersecurity have also found equal attention.

The Necessity of Diplomatizing Water for Israel’s Political Future

The tumultuous background of the establishment of the state of Israel barred it from being at the end of cooperation and collaboration with its Arab neighbours. The transboundary river basins that Israel shares with its neighbours have always enhanced the risk of water wars. This threat, unfortunately, materialized in the “War Over Water” (1964-67) over the Jordan River Basin. The series of confrontations during this period had huge geopolitical ramifications for Israel vis-à-vis the region.

Unlike many other parts of the world, the contingency of hydro diplomacy for the region is not a subsidiary matter. Both domestic and international political fate of the countries is tangled up with guaranteeing water “security” and establishing water “supremacy”. Political upheavals in Syria or Lebanon, are prima facie examples of the same. After the culmination of the “War over Waters”, Israel came to control a hefty chunk of the Jordan River Basin. This gave it the much-needed water “security” and “supremacy” in the region. This led to a positive outcome for Israel’s international political fate- the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994 being a feasible example.

Today, amidst climate change, Water security is so much more than the availability of water or access to water. It is integrally associated with governance, policymaking mechanisms, as well as economic security. Supremacy over water resources now grants a country political and strategic mileage. Israel can very well be included in that category. In the absence of “liquid gold” (oil reserves), Israel has been astutely using its peerless water management technology to foster and enhance its diplomatic ties. In 1973, after the Yom Kippur war, Ghana severed its diplomatic relations with Israel. In 2011, ties were reinstated and as many international analysts observed Israel’s water technology had some role to play in this rethought approach.

Similarly, some countries of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), are also looking for prospects of cooperation and ties with Israel, faced with growing ecological disasters and agriculture and water insecurity. At this point, some of the IGAD countries do not share diplomatic relations with Israel. But diplomatizing its water prowess might lend Israel the leverage with IGAD and other African regional organizations like the ECOAWS or the SADC. It will further ease Israel’s prospect of re-achieving its status as an observer nation in the African Union, conferring it with a greater likelihood of rallying diplomatic support and establishing a strategic and economic partnership. A step that will provide the Jewish state with additional international legitimacy and will go on to secure its political future and existence.

Still water runs deep”- This tiny country of Israel has once again proved to the world, that power can be materialized with the commonest of objects, with the right degree of wisdom and farsightedness.

About the Author
I am based in New Delhi, India and currently pursuing my master's in International Politics from the esteemed School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I also hold a Bachelor's Degree with Honors in Political Science, from St. Xavier's College (Autonomous), Kolkata. I have worked and researched with a number of organizations and at present as a researcher with the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi.