Israel Brings Water to the Negev Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After years of indirect overtures to uncooperative neighboring states, Israel carried out a unilateral system to bring Jordan Valley water to the Negev Desert. In addition to making irrigation possible and expanding Israeli agriculture accordingly, the project proved to have significant archaeological and diplomatic consequences.

Summary of Event

After the creation of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948, a number of plans that envisioned Arab-Israeli cooperation were presented to bring water to the Negev Desert region. Among them were the Hays Plan Hays Plan , the Johnston Plan Johnston Plan , and the Cotton Plan Cotton Plan . Because of the political climate of the Middle East, however, none of these plans as originally formulated was put into action: In each case, either Israel or neighboring Arab states argued that the plan favored one or the other. In the late 1950’s, Israel, without Arab cooperation, decided to construct a pipeline system along the Mediterranean coast. The first water flowed through the pipeline to the Negev region in 1964, enabling settlement and agriculture in the region to increase. Irrigation Israe l;irrigation Agricultural policy;Israel Negev Desert [kw]Israel Brings Water to the Negev (1964) [kw]Negev, Israel Brings Water to the (1964) [kw]Water to the Negev, Israel Brings (1964) Irrigation Israel;irrigation Agricultura l policy;Israel Negev Desert [g]Middle East;1964: Israel Brings Water to the Negev[07810] [g]Palestine;1964: Israel Brings Water to the Negev[07810] [g]Israel;1964: Israel Brings Water to the Negev[07810] [c]Environmental issues;1964: Israel Brings Water to the Negev[07810] [c]Agriculture;1964: Israel Brings Water to the Negev[07810] Hays, James B. Johnston, Eric A.

United Nations Resolution 181 Resolution 181, U.N. had partitioned the British-mandated territory of Palestine Palestine, partition of Israel;Palestinian partition into two zones in 1947. One zone was to be reserved for a future state of Arab Palestine. The second zone, comprising Galilee in the north, the west central region including Tel Aviv near the coast, and the triangular mass of the Negev Desert in the south, became the independent state of Israel in May, 1948.

Although there was major political disagreement over the U.N. decision that had led to the creation of the modern state of Israel (disagreement that would lead to Arab-Israeli wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973), one clear fact had to be recognized, whatever the political future of the region might hold: Scarcity of water would continue to limit the agricultural productive capacity not only of Israel but also of all its immediate neighbors. Inside Israel itself, concerns about areas already identified as attractive to potential Israeli settlers were more acutely applicable to the barren Negev zone.

Israel proved to be eager to develop the potential of all the land that the U.N. partition gave it, including the apparent wasteland of the Negev Desert. In fact, the new state of Israel already had well-defined plans for the use of state-of-the-art engineering techniques to bring water to areas of Palestine that could then support a carefully calculated level of population and local economic activity. Some of these plans came from well-intentioned outsiders who, in addition to fulfilling contractual assignments from individual governments or U.S. agencies, supported the idea that mutual advantages would come to both Israel and its neighbors if they cooperated in sharing engineering technology and applying it equally to the Syro-Lebanese, Jordanian, and Israeli segments of a regionwide hydraulic development plan.

People and animals crowd around a Negev village well in Palestine during the early twentieth century. Israel’s decision to bring water to the Negev transformed the region.

(Library of Congress)

The first such plan, published in 1948 by James B. Hays of the American Society of Civil Engineers, was based on the premature assumption that the 1947 Partition Plan, with its specific provision for “joint economic development” between Israel and a new Palestinian Arab state, would make joint hydraulic engineering projects possible within the total areas constituting historic Palestine proper. Since joint economic development did not materialize, Hays recognized that there had to be back-up engineering contingencies. These could allow Israel to proceed independently if it did not receive cooperation from Jordan specifically and Lebanon and Syria generally.

Hays’s plan, referred to as the Jordan Valley Authority Jordan Valley Authority (JVA) after the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) experiment in the United States, aimed at coordinating effective management of northern Palestine’s water resources with the goal of bringing at least minimal amounts of water into the Negev. Although Hays stated that the JVA should copy the strict soil conservation practices and other ecological standards applied by the TVA, his report makes it clear that, in 1948, the main objective of the plan was to provide a way to open these extensive arid spaces (nearly two-thirds of Israel’s total surface) to as many displaced Jews as possible. In many respects, therefore, the proposed JVA was based on questions of political and technical expediency for colonization in the particularly stressful period after independence was gained. Ecological considerations seem to have been less important than the numbers of hectares that could be reclaimed from the desert. By 1964, considerably more attention would be given to the ecology of the Negev area targeted for “imported” water.

A total of seven pre-Negev stages of the 1948 JVA proposal had to be completed (completing all seven would be optimal, but functioning with fewer segments would be possible, depending on degrees of cooperation from Arab neighbors) before the eighth and final stage could bring water to the Negev. A main characteristic of stage eight of the JVA (as well as all subsequent plans that included the Negev as a target area for imported water) was that the Negev would obtain all surplus waters collected from prior stages engineered to provide water to the more accessible northern areas of Israel for transmission via a coastal collector canal into the Negev zone.

Essential to any examination of the problem of bringing water into the Negev was a calculation of the “duty of water” for prospective recipient subregions. The duty of water calculation combines estimates of surface evaporation as a result of average annual accumulated heat with estimated annual rainfall. These totals are then subtracted from the estimated total water required to grow certain types of crops on a given surface—a dunam in Israel—under carefully controlled conditions. The resultant duty represents the amount of water that must be imported into a given region. Hays found that the duty of water in Gaza, just outside the Negev Desert, would be 827 cubic meters per year per dunam. In the Negev Desert proper, substantial differences divided the Beersheba zone in the northern Negev, ranging from 999.5 to 958 cubic meters, from the southern Negev, where the duty of water was substantially more than 1,050 cubic meters. Already in the north, the added need for water to service the Beersheba zone was 19.5 percent higher than the need of the Beit Hanun-Rehovot area directly north of Beersheba (with a duty of water of 802 cubic meters).

Using these calculations, the JVA estimated total costs that would be involved in gathering surplus water from the first stages of the project and delivering it to different areas of the Negev for agricultural use. The goal was the irrigation of a total of 342,000 dunams: 100,000 in Beit Hanun-Rehovot, 162,000 in the northern Negev, and 80,000 in the southern Negev. Variable duties of water in the three zones brought the estimated total of water needed annually to 319,700,000 cubic meters. In 1948 dollars, the total cost estimate for including the Negev Desert in the JVA, including capital costs for minor runoff valley dams, canals, syphon systems, booster pump stations, and tunnels, came to $53,882,000, an average of $157.50 per dunam.

For nearly four years, the initiative represented by the Hays Plan remained dormant as various attempts at achieving political and military peace via the U.N. Conciliatory Commission on Palestine stalled and then stopped. Subsequent initiatives by internationally sponsored agencies or individuals, such as the Johnston Plan and the Cotton Plan, which formed the basis for actions taken by Israel in the mid-1960’s, were no more successful than the Hays scheme in overcoming political obstacles created by Arab-Israeli hostilities.

In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;international relations named Eric A. Johnston, of the Motion Picture Association of America, as his personal emissary with the job of reviewing the JVA water question with both the Arab states and Israel. Johnston had two key means of persuasion: a U.N. Relief Works Agency-commissioned JVA study carried out by a private company working for the American TVA, and Eisenhower’s tacit agreement that the United States would help pay for a unified Arab-Israeli development effort. This plan combined key elements of the Hays scheme and a second approach suggested by private advisers of the Jordanian government. Important differences between the Johnston Plan and Hays’s 1948 proposal affected Israeli hopes to bring water to the Negev. Israelis also objected to what they considered Johnston’s miscalculation of realistic irrigation possibilities in the lower Jordan Valley. They claimed that if too much water was removed for Jordan’s use, not enough would be left to meet Israel’s needs.

The main consequence of Israel’s reaction to the Johnston Plan was a counterproposal called the Cotton Plan, prepared by Joseph S. Cotton Cotton, Joseph S. . The Cotton Plan had one new and one old element in it that made it attractive to Israel. The new element, which would destroy prospects for cooperative development of a total water system among Israel and its Arab neighbors, was a proposal to tap water from the Litani River in Lebanon for purchase by Israel. Cotton estimated that Lebanon had effective need for only about one-half of the water flowing into the Mediterranean, and that the addition of Litani River water would have a major impact on the “old factor” he carried over from the Hays Plan of 1948: creation of a substantial water surplus that could be brought via a coastal canal to the Negev. These two factors (particularly Arab opposition to the diversion of Litani waters into a system that would work to Israel’s long-term benefit) led to the failure of the international round of discussions sparked by the Johnston mission.

After the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, which dashed all parties’ hopes for a political settlement of the Arab-Israeli dilemma, the Tel Aviv government decided that the future of its claims to Jordan River water would depend upon its own plan of action. It determined to refine Hays’s and Cotton’s long-reach canal scheme along the level terrain of the Mediterranean coast and bring fresh water into the Negev.

By 1964, when the first fresh water was tapped from the Sea of Galilee and transported via a complicated system of dykes, tunnels, and pipelines to the arid Negev, Tel Aviv could at last claim that superior technology, combined with dogged determination, would make the desert bloom again. The completed project, however, created new concerns. The project sent political shock waves through Israel’s neighbors. The first Arab Summit meeting in Cairo in 1964 placed a scheme for upstream diversion of Sea of Galilee and Jordan River tributary waters on its agenda but failed to act. Other questions concerning new development prospects arose. Some of these came not from engineers’ notebooks, but from accumulated documentation from archaeologists, agronomists, and mineralogists studying both the natural ecological and settled agricultural history of the Negev region.


Since the water that came within reach of the thirsty Negev in 1964 was very limited in volume, priorities were set to use the water as effectively as possible. First, an important element of the Hays Plan would be abandoned: The southern Negev zone was not scheduled to receive imported water. At the same time, plans for use of scarce piped-in water for agricultural development per se had to take second or third priority in what came to be known as Israel’s Northern Negev Master Plan Northern Negev Master Plan , first published in 1966.

Although the Northern Negev Master Plan did not concern itself specifically with the original body of archaeological evidence that had been collected beginning in 1936, it was apparent that much could be learned about the productive potential of the Negev Desert by examining traces left there by much earlier populations. Even more important than restricting areas for agricultural use of water was the Northern Negev Master Plan’s concern that economic development potential would encourage concentrated population centers. Attracting Israeli settlers to planned towns and cities would necessitate planning for careful use of imported water to sustain such population centers.

Thus, archaeological studies of ancient sites that had supported human communities in antiquity provided guidelines for adopting technological strategies to repopulate the Negev in the most ecologically efficient way possible in the twentieth century. Perhaps the key task for archaeologists was to find traces of early sites where rudimentary methods of collecting surface moisture in the form of dew-like condensation had provided at least enough water to feed home cisterns, and possibly some surplus moisture for very careful gardening. Generally speaking, the zones that would eventually be identified in the 1966 master plan as suitable for small Israeli villages would be located in areas where such archaeological evidence was promising enough to risk strictly controlled colonial arrivals.

Combined archaeological and mining resource explorations made it possible to calculate whether remaining mineral deposits near the sites of larger ancient towns were significant enough to base the local economy of full-sized Israeli towns on extractive industries. In cases where evidence was encouraging, bigger settlements were planned, with the assumption that a steady pattern of economic development would justify spending more money on technology to bring more water to communities with little agricultural development potential. Irrigation Isra el;irrigation Agricultural policy;Israel Negev Desert

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Almi, Orly. No Man’s Land: Health in the Unrecognized Villages in the Negev. Jerusalem, Israel: Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, 2003. Discussion of all factors impacting the health of people living in the Negev; includes a section on clean water.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evenari, Michael, Leslie Shanan, and Naphtali Tadmor. The Negev: Challenge of a Desert. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. A major collective work published by the Israeli archaeological teams that provided key information on ancient schemes for scarce-water collection for the Northern Negev Master Plan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, James B. T.V.A. on the Jordan. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1948. The official report presented by the U.S. engineer contracted to draw up the first comprehensive plan for political and engineering cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors to share the water resources leading into and out of the Jordan River Valley.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Seth S. “The Negev: Challenge and Hope.” In Economic Development and Economic Growth, edited by James V. Cornehls. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972. A general essay describing the status of development projects in the Negev Desert seven years after the introduction of imported water from the Sea of Galilee region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Portnov, B. A., and U. N. Safriel. “Prospective Desertification Trends in the Negev: Implications for Urban and Regional Development.” In Environmental Challenges in the Mediterranean, 2000-2050, edited by Antonio Marquina. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 2004. Looks ahead to the mid-twenty-first century and discusses the continuing issues of water rights and water availability in the Negev. The anthology also contains a more general study of water issues in Jordan and Israel by Shlomi Dinar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rizk, Edward. The Jordan River. New York: Arab Information Center, 1964. This short book, written by the director of the Arab Information Center in London, presents Arab objections to Israel’s decision to proceed with water development plans after both sides rejected unified development plans in 1955.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Norman Alfred Fisher. Man and Water: A History of Hydro-technology. New York: Scribner, 1975. A good overview of water-supply history and technology. Bibliography.

Arab-Israeli War Creates Refugee Crisis

Israel Is Created as a Homeland for Jews

Jordan Annexes the West Bank

Palestinian Refugees Form the Palestine Liberation Organization

Israel Defeats Arab States in the Six-Day War

United Nations Security Council Adopts Resolution 242

Meir Becomes Prime Minister of Israel

Categories: History