I was lucky enough recently to vacation in Israel—and I still have the jet lag to prove it. On the second day of the trip, as we crossed the Jordan River and entered the Golan Heights, our guide explained that people have fought over water throughout history—especially in the Middle East. “Aha!” I thought to myself. “Another example of how the average person mistakenly believes that water scarcity leads to conflict—whereas, as an Environmental Change and Security Program staff member, I know that interstate ‘water wars’ are actually incredibly rare.”
Yet our guide proceeded to describe several water-related conflicts between Israel and its neighbors before and after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. So when I returned to the States, I was inspired to look up these events in the Pacific Institute’s Water Conflict Chronology and in Oregon State University’s Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database. I found that Israel and its neighbors were frequently engaged in violent conflict with one another over water during the 1960s and early 1970s. For instance, after Syria began diverting the headwaters of the Jordan River in 1965—a project that would have deprived Israel’s National Water Carrier of approximately 35 percent of its water and the country as a whole of around 11 percent of its water—Israel responded with a series of military strikes against the diversion works. The back-and-forth attacks helped instigate the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
Another example: In 1969, Israel, which believed that Jordan was overdiverting the Yarmouk River, bombed Jordan’s East Ghor Canal. The United States mediated secret negotiations in 1969-1970, and the Jordanians were allowed to repair the canal in exchange for abiding by Johnston Plan water quotas and expelling the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Jordan.
So how do we explain the apparent disconnect between the numerous instances of violent conflict over water in the Middle East and political scientists’ insistence that water rarely leads to interstate conflict? I think the answer is twofold. First, I happened to be standing in the region of the world that is by far the most prone to conflict over water. There were only 37 violent interactions over water between 1946 and 1999, and 30 of these were between Israel and a neighbor. Water experts recognize that the Middle East is the exception to the general pattern of water disputes leading to cooperation, not conflict. But to Middle Easterners like my Israeli guide, it may indeed seem that water frequently leads to conflict.
Second, the devil is in the definitions. The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database classifies events according to its Water Event Intensity Scale, which runs from -7 (“formal declaration of war”) to 7 (“voluntary unification into one nation”). The East Ghor incident is classified as -6 (“extensive war acts causing deaths, dislocation or high strategic cost”). Events classified as -6 can include “use of nuclear weapons; full scale air, naval, or land battles; invasion of territory; occupation of territory; massive bombing of civilian areas; capturing of soldiers in battle; large scale bombing of military installations; [and] chemical or biological warfare,” so they seem to differ from war only in that war has not been formally declared.
Perhaps this is where much of the confusion comes from: Political scientists studying water conflict use a very narrow definition of war—probably a lot narrower than that of most non-experts. So while the average interested citizen would likely call the 1965-1967 conflict between Israel and Syria over the National Water Carrier and the Headwater Diversion project a war—or at least a high-level interstate conflict—the political scientist studying water conflict and cooperation would not.
Now, as a general principle, I’m all in favor of precise language and definitions. But formal declarations of war seem to have gone out of fashion over the past half century; the United States, for instance, has not formally declared war against another country since World War II. If the current war in Afghanistan were over water—which it decidedly is not—would it still merit only a -6 on the Water Event Intensity Scale because the United States has not formally declared war against the Taliban? It seems that requiring a formal declaration of war to classify a conflict as a war is perhaps defining the term too narrowly.
But although political scientists may be to blame for clinging to a somewhat outdated definition of war, the media are perhaps at fault for using the word too broadly in an attempt to make their headlines more enticing. This editor concludes—only somewhat self-servingly—that we would all benefit from using language more precisely. I welcome your responses.
Photo: The Golan Heights landscape still bears scars from the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Courtesy of Rachel Weisshaar.