Syrian Civil War Has Several Environmental Side-effects on Israel and Jordan

Quantities of water flowing in the Yarmouk River have increased amid steep reduction in agriculture in southern Syria.

Water gushing through the opened Yarmouk River dam, March 2, 2012.
Yaron Kaminsky

The bloody civil war in Syria has had a number of unintended environmental side-effects, one of which was revealed last week: A steep reduction in agricultural activity in the southern part of the country. As a result, farmers have used much less water from natural sources and much more water now flows in the Yarmouk River, the largest tributary of the Jordan River. This means much greater quantities of water are reaching the parts of the river that flow through Jordan, and later reach Israel too.

An article published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States shows how the use of imagery from the Landsat 7 satellite to study agricultural land and water use in southern Syria showed the increased flow of water to Jordan, one of the world’s most water-poor nations, and “illustrates that conflict and human displacement can significantly alter a basin’s water balance with dramatic effects on the transboundary partitioning of water resources.”

The Syrian government developed a series of 21 dams in the Yarmouk drainage basin to divert water into large reservoirs used for irrigation of agricultural land. Jordan built a large dam of its own on the Yarmouk, the AL-Wehda (Unity) Dam, to exploit the water for its own agriculture, but in previous years the amount of water it collected has fallen as Syria dammed the river upstream. While the Yarmouk flows into the Jordan River, most of its water has been used in Syria and Jordan before reaching the river.

Since the civil war broke out in 2011, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the area of southern Syria, many of whom were farmers. Most fled to refugee camps in Jordan.

The remote sensing data shows how the area of irrigated cropland has dropped by almost 50 percent since 2012, though almost no change has been seen in the level of irrigation just across the border in Jordan – a clear sign the cause is the mass exodus of refugees from Syria.

The increase in flow in the Yarmouk is critical for Jordan, which has one of the worst water shortages in the world. Yet these increased amounts are still less than the quantities of water the country was promised in past agreements it signed with Syria.

One of the solutions for Jordan in the coming years is to receive more water from Israel, which could come from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). Israel and Jordan have already agreed that Israel will provide Jordan with an additional 50 million cubic meters of water a year, in addition to the same amount it already supplies to Jordan every year since the peace agreement between the two countries was signed over 20 years ago. Israel recently approved a plan for the pipeline to transport the water from the Lake Kinneret area to Jordan.

The Yarmouk River mostly flows into the King Abdullah canal on the Jordanian side of the Jordan Valley, and mostly is used for agriculture in the area. A smaller amount of water from the Yarmouk enters the Jordan River near Naharayim, meaning the impact of the Yarmouk on the Israeli or Palestinian water supply is minimal.