Middle East Studies Center Lunch & Learn: Arab Israeli Conflict and Cooperation: The Question of Water
Thursday, October 18, 2012 - 12:00pm
Middle East Studies Center Lunch & Learn: Arab Israeli Conflict and Cooperation: The Question of Water

East Hall, room 109, 632 SW Hall

This talk will explore the relationship between shared water resources and conflict and cooperation between Arabs and Israelis, and poses the question, "Does territory exist over which sovereignty has been sought politically or militarily, or which would be insisted upon in the course of current territorial negotiations, solely because of its access to water sources, and in the absence of any other compelling strategic or legal rationale?"  The question as a whole is divided into three components:

  1. Have boundaries been drawn historically on the basis of the location of water access?  It is found that water sources have played a role, albeit subservient to other concerns, in the delineation of international boundaries, first between the British and French Mandates, then between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.  In particular, the political and military policymakers of Israel had explicit interests in retaining the northern headwaters of the Jordan River, arguing for them in political arenas and reinforcing claims through settlement policy.  Yet it is also clear that once boundaries were agreed-to in a legal forum in 1923, development plans were modified to fit the legal boundaries, not vice versa.
  2. During warfare between competing riparians, has territory been explicitly targeted or captured because of its access to water sources?  Despite a growing literature which suggests that Israel-Arab warfare has had a "hydrostrategic" component, the evidence suggests that water resources were not at all factors for strategic planning in the hostilities of 1948, 1967, either intifada or any of the Lebanon wars.  By this I mean that the decision to go to war, and strategic decisions made during the fighting including which territory was necessary to capture, were not influenced by water scarcity or the location of water resources.
  3. In the course of negotiations, has territory with access to water sources, and no other strategic component, been seen vital to retain by any of the riparians?  The questions of water allocations and rights have been difficult components in the Arab-Israeli peace talks.  Nevertheless, with the concluded negotiations between Israel and Jordan, and the ongoing talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and despite the quantity of studies identifying hydrostrategic territory and advising its retention, no territory to date has been retained simply because of the location of water.  Solutions in each case have focused on creative joint management of the resource, rather than insistence on sovereignty.

Aaron Wolf is a professor of geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.  He has an M.S. in water resources management (1988, emphasizing hydrogeology) and a Ph.D. in environmental policy analysis (1992, emphasizing dispute resolution) from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  His research focuses on issues relating transboundary water resources to political conflict and cooperation, where his training combining environmental science with dispute resolution theory and practice have been particularly appropriate.

Wolf has acted as consultant to the US Department of State, the US Agency for International Development, and the World Bank, and several governments on various aspects of international water resources and dispute resolution.  He has been involved in developing the strategies for resolving water aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including co-authoring a State Department reference text, and participating in both official and "track II" meetings between co-riparians.  He is author of Hydropolitics Along the Jordan River: The Impact of Scarce Water Resources on the Arab-Israeli Conflict (United Nations University Press, 1995); co-author of Core and Periphery: A Comprehensive Approach to Middle Eastern Water (Oxford University Press, 1997), Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Resolution: Theory, Practice and Annotated References (United Nations University Press, 2000), and Managing and Transforming Water Conflicts (Cambridge University Press, 2009); and editor of Conflict Prevention and Resolution in Water Systems (Elgar, 2002). All told, he is (co-) author or (co-) editor of seven books, and close to fifty journal articles, book chapters, and professional reports on various aspects of transboundary waters.

Wolf, a trained mediator/facilitator, directs the Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation, through which he has offered workshops, facilitations, and mediation in basins throughout the world.  He developed and coordinates the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database, which includes a computer compilation of 400 water-related treaties, negotiating notes and background material on fourteen case-studies of conflict resolution, news files on cases of acute water-related conflict, and assessments of indigenous/traditional methods of water conflict resolution (  He was also a member of UNESCO’s task force for the development of the Sixth Phase of the International Hydrology Program (2002-2007), the UNESCO/ADC Third Millennium Program on International Waters, and IWRA’s Committee for International Collaboration, and is a co-director of the Universities Partnership on Transboundary Waters.

Wolf is a member of the Oregon Academy of Sciences, the Association of American Geographers, the American Water Resources Association, and the International Water Resources Association, and an associate member of the International Association for Water Law.  He is an associate editor of World Water Policy, and the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, and is on the editorial board of Water International (he was an associate editor from 1995-1999).  Wolf was named “Outstanding Freshman Teacher” at the University of Alabama in 1997 and, with Ariel Dinar, was awarded “Best Paper” for 1997 in Agriculture and Resource Economic Review.

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The Middle East Studies Center at Portland State University promotes understanding of the people, cultures, languages and religions of the Middle East. As a National Resource Center for Middle East Studies under the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI program, the Center serves as a resource on issues pertaining to the Middle East through activities that reach students and scholars, as well as businesses, educators, and the media. The Middle East Studies Center supports academic conferences, workshops, cultural events, lectures, and a resource library.

The Center’s Lunch & Learn series offers students, faculty, and members of the community an opportunity to learn about events in the region from experts in the field.  Through informal presentations followed by discussion, scholars offer academic analysis of current events including subjects such as the Egyptian revolution, humanitarian aid in Libya, and the UN vote on Palestinian statehood.  These conversations provide a forum for the community to engage in thoughtful dialogue about the region, ask questions, and share their opinions.  This responsive series fosters an increase in international awareness and a community of learning with a shared interest in the Middle East. | | 503-725-4074