Chapter 06

Jordan River Basin

Executive Summary 

Originating from the Anti-Lebanon and Mount Hermon mountain ranges, the Jordan River covers a distance of 223 km from north to south and discharges into the Dead Sea. The river has five riparians: Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria.

The Jordan River headwaters (Hasbani, Banias and Dan) are fed by groundwater and seasonal surface runoff. The Lower Jordan River originally received its main inflow from the outlet of Lake Tiberias and the Yarmouk River, the largest tributary, as well as from several wadis and aquifers. The flow of the Upper Jordan River into Lake Tiberias remains nearly natural, but flow rates in the downstream part of the river have decreased sharply in the last 50 years due to the construction of a series of infrastructure and diversion schemes established in the basin. For instance, the mean annual historic flow of the Yarmouk that was estimated at 450-500 MCM in the 1950s has today decreased to 83-99 MCM. The current annual discharge of the Lower Jordan River into the Dead Sea is estimated at 20-200 MCM compared to the historic 1,300 MCM. Moreover, water quality in the Lower Jordan River is very low.

Water use in the Jordan River basin is unevenly developed. Palestine and Syria have no access to the Jordan River; hence their use of water resources from the river itself is nil. However, Syria has built several dams in the Yarmouk River sub-basin, which is part of the Jordan River basin. The country uses about 450 MCM/yr of surface and groundwater resources in the basin, mainly for agricultural purposes. Annual abstractions in the Hasbani sub-basin in Lebanon are estimated at 9-10 MCM, which are mainly used for domestic water supply. Israel is the largest user of water from the Jordan River basin, with an annual withdrawal of between 580 and 640 MCM. It is also the only user of water from Lake Tiberias. Jordan uses about 290 MCM/yr of water from the Jordan River basin. Water diverted from the Yarmouk River to the King Abdullah Canal is used for irrigation of crops in the Jordan Valley and for domestic use in Amman. Overall, the Jordan River basin has an estimated total irrigated area of 100,000- 150,000 ha of which around 30% is located in Israel, Jordan and Syria, 5% in Palestine and 2% in Lebanon.

The quality of water in the Jordan River has severely deteriorated in recent decades. While the headwaters are relatively unaffected, the Lower Jordan River consists primarily of untreated sewage and agricultural return flows, groundwater seepage, as well as brackish water from springs diverted into the river away from the Lake Tiberias area. The Lower Jordan River in particular is extremely polluted. Other environmental concerns include water-level fluctuations in Lake Tiberias and the associated risk of saline water intrusion from below, and, more importantly, the decline of the Dead Sea, which all threaten the stability of the basin ecosystem.

Since the early 20th century, numerous attempts to foster cooperation between basin riparians have been hampered by the regional political conflict which continues to stand in the way of any basin-wide agreement on water. A number of bilateral agreements encourage cooperation over water between Israel and Jordan, and Israel and Palestine.

Main Agreements 

Jordan - Syria

1953 and 1987 – On the use of the Yarmouk River, including the construction of the Wahdah Dam and 25 dams in Syria. The agreement also establishes a joint commission for the implementation of the provisions on the Wahdah Dam.

Israel - Jordan

1994 – Annex II of the Treaty of Peace concerns water allocation and storage of the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers, and calls for efforts to prevent water pollution as well as the establishment of a Joint Water Committee.

Israel - Palestine (PLO)

1995 – Article 40 of the Oslo II political agreement states that Israel recognizes Palestinian water rights in the West Bank only and establishes the Joint Water Committee to manage West Bank waters and develop new supplies.
Palestinians are denied access to the Jordan River under this agreement.

Key Concerns 

Water Quantity

Ensuring adequate quantities of water for all riparians is a key challenge in the basin given the relatively small volume of water available and the large population. River flow has been greatly reduced over the years as a result of increased exploitation of water resources in the basin. The rapid decline of the Dead Sea is an indicator that the region's ecosystem is at risk.

Water Quality

Water quality rapidly deteriorates along the course of the Jordan River and its lower portion displays extremely high salinity and pollution rates.

Geopolitical

The question of water sharing in the Jordan River basin is inextricably linked to the ongoing conflicts between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and Palestine, and while a wide range of issues are at stake, control over water in the basin has added to existing regional tensions.

  • The Jordan River at one of its narrowest points, Jordan, 1992. Source: Ed Kashi/VII.
  • The Banias River, Golan Heights, 2008. Source: Nethanel H.
  • Yarmouk River, Jordan, 2004. Source: Benjamin.
  • The Hasbani River, Lebanon, 2003. Source: Ralf Klingbeil.
  • The National Water Carrier in the Galilee, Israel, 1992. Source: Ed Kashi/VII.
  • The Dead Sea, 2009. Source: Marc Haering.

Basin Facts 

Riparian Countries Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria
Basin Area Shares Israel 10%, Jordan 40%, Lebanon 4%, Palestine 9%, Syria 37%
Basin Area 18,285 km2
River Length 223 km
Mean Annual Flow Volume

Natural conditions (1950s)
Upper Jordan River: 605 MCM
Yarmouk River: 450-500 MCM
Lower Jordan River: 1,300 MCM

Current conditions
Upper Jordan River: 616 MCM
Yarmouk River: 83-99 MCM
Lower Jordan River: 20-200 MCM

Dams 45 (max. storage capacity ~390 MCM)
Projected Irrigated Area 100,000-150,000 ha
Basin Population 7.18 million