Nomadic life does not work for a modern state, however, and arguments over water escalated as the map of the region began to take its current form after the European victors of World War I redrew maps to suit their own political and economic interests.
Engineers in the area that became Jordan drafted plans in the 1930s and 1940s for capturing waters from the upper reaches of the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee. Planners in the area of Palestine that became Israel based their own development program on the use of those same waters.
Israel and its Arab neighbors fought the first of their all-out wars in 1948, and the cease-fire lines left water resources divided. Syria controlled the main tributaries to the Jordan River, in the Golan Heights. Jordan controlled most of the river's length. Israel held the Sea of Galilee, the largest river-fed lake.
Efforts began as soon as the fighting stopped to change the division. Israel studied how to capture more of the water for itself, while Jordan and Syria agreed to build a dam to generate electricity -- and reduce water flow to the Galilee.
In the early 1950s, the United States sought to mediate by proposing a vast development program for both sides of the valley and asking Israel, Jordan and Syria to take only agreed-upon amounts of water. Three years of efforts failed to produce a formula acceptable to everyone, and the parties began carrying out their own, very different interpretations of the U.S. plan.
Engineers in Israel built a series of pumping stations and pipelines carrying water from the Sea of Galilee to the population centers on the Mediterranean coast and south to the Negev desert. Jordan began planning the water system that became the East Ghor Canal.
Syria began work to divert two tributaries of the river, and Israel responded by firing artillery at the bulldozers. When that failed, aircraft bombed the site in 1966.
Control of the waters shifted again in the 1967 Six Day War, the event that drew most of today's borders and ensured the water issue would come back to haunt the combatants. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria along with control of the main tributaries of the river. It also captured the West Bank from Jordan and thereby obtained effective control of the river.
Both sides of the river valley were in turmoil. Israel was anxious to secure its hold on the West Bank. Jordan was confronted with a large refugee population needing work and food. For both countries, the solution was to encourage agriculture in the valley. It would attract people and give them useful work. Not incidentally, the establishment of new communities also would help secure the borders.
Water was to be the magnet -- cheap water. Jordanian farmers using water from the East Ghor Canal pay about 1 cent for one cubic meter that costs the kingdom about 45 cents. In Israel, farmers have paid about 16 cents a cubic meter for water whose real cost is 35 cents.
Those policies succeeded all too well. Farmers established themselves on both sides of the river and planted bananas and melons -- crops requiring large amounts of water -- because water was cheap.
They kept planting, and populations began to grow at rates that double every 20 to 30 years. And, inevitably, demand for water began to exceed supplies.
"With the population we have, we can't afford irrigated agriculture the way we practice it," says Elias Salameh, director of the Water Research and Study Center at the University of Jordan. "The whole economy is going to have to be reformed."
Israeli experts concur in the need to change farming methods, if ever-increasing numbers of people are to have water to drink. A government study of Israel's water problems blamed shortages on the quantities devoted to agriculture. "The water crisis," the study concluded, "is not a result of natural causes; it is man-made."
New sources of water
There are several potential solutions, but none of them is practical until all the parties establish a durable peace. Otherwise they will find it impossible to obtain the necessary financing from abroad and have reason to fear that any new water project automatically will become a prime military target.
While none of the potential new sources of water is revolutionary in technology, all would require a revolutionary degree of political cooperation:
* Desalination. It is one of the most expensive, but most readily available sources for additional water. With existing technology, desalination plants purify sea water for a minimum of $1.50 to $2 a cubic meter, three times the highest price paid in the region today.
The largest single expense is the oil or natural gas used to run the plants, and those costs are likely eventually to rise. Some experts propose Israel and Jordan depend on other solutions for the next 20 to 30 years in hopes that by then, improvements in technology will lower the costs.