Water economy in the Syria-Palestine region is subject to the influence of the Mediterranean climate on the one hand, and the desert climate on the other. The rainy season extends from October to May, with most of that rain falling between December and February. During the rest of the year (June-September), the amount of rainfall is negligible. Annual rainfall on the coastal strip is 500–600 mm; in the central hill country 600–800 mm; in the semiarid regions approximately 100–200 mm; and in the desert only 25–100 mm.

Because the region does not have any large rivers whose sources lie outside of it (such as Egypt's Nile River), its primary source of water is precipitation. Rainfall replenishes the water table and sometimes creates powerful streams of runoff water. The region has a great number of natural springs, mostly in the hill country and on the periphery of the coastal region. Most of the springs have a small flow, ranging from 10,000 to 350,000 cu m per year, with a considerable decrease in summer and fall. The few large springs, with flows ranging between several million cubic meters to 250 million cu m, depend on long-term rainfall patterns. Consequently, they yield a consistently strong flow of water through the summer and fall and until the following rainy season. In northern Israel and in the western Levant, such springs are large enough to create rivers. The largest sources, at the foot of Mt. Hermon, feed the tributaries of the Jordan River. The Yarkon River springs are the most important water source for the coastal region (220 million cu m per year).

Throughout history, humans have exploited these water sources in various ways. In the coastal region, most commonly, wells were dug or hewn to reach the water table. In the hill country, inhabitants enjoyed natural springs. In addition, cisterns were hewn to collect runoff. In desert areas, some water was obtained from springs at oases, but mostly from collection in cisterns.

Streams and springs served as the prime water source. Running streams attracted human settlement, especially in the Stone Age period. Material remains of human activity in the biblical period have been discovered along stream and riverbanks. Water that is both clean and of high quality is found in springs, which led humans to establish dwellings as close to their source as possible. In the classical period, aqueducts were built to bring water to cities, invariably from natural springs. Even the city of Tiberias, on Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), obtained water from a source 15 km (9 mi.) away via an aqueduct, rather than from the lake. [See Tiberias.]

Wells were a second best water source, providing clean water from an aquifer. In contrast to a natural spring, an artificial well could be located in accordance with a settlement's needs. Its major drawbacks were its great depth; the labor required to dig, hew, and construct it; and the possibility that water would not be found. Wells were used as early as the sixth millennium BCE, as was found in the underwater excavation near ῾Atlit.

Water cisterns were tertiary sources, although in many areas they were the only solution for collecting and storing water. Cisterns first appear in the third or second millennium BCE. To ensure the quality of cistern water, cisterns were cleaned annually, the channels leading water to them were maintained, and the top of the cistern was covered to prevent the growth of algae and to keep out dirt as well as to enable the cistern to be sealed and to prevent people from falling into it. In this way, it was often possible to preserve good drinking water in a cistern from the end of spring until fall. Domestic animals such as dogs and cats were kept away from the house to prevent them from soiling the courtyard or roof where rainwater was collected. In Pergamon, Turkey, city statutes were discovered that warn of strict measures against citizens who do not keep their cisterns clean. [See Pergamon.] In addition to cisterns, water was stored in reservoirs of various types: huge underground cisterns and open-air reservoirs such as dams and pools. These were all designed to store runoff or spring water conducted via an aqueduct to an open or closed reservoir. Drinking water did not generally come from open reservoirs because of the possibility of pollution. It was kept in the closed reservoirs and retrieved with pails or conducted into the city either by aqueduct or on beasts of burden.

In the course of time, the region has experienced both wet and dry climatic periods, which have dictated settlement patterns. Because the Chalcolithic period is known to have been wet, settlement proliferated in the Beersheba valley, which had many more water sources then than at present. [See Beersheba.] In the hill country, however, the climate was much colder than today, which explains the scarcity of settlement in that region. [See Judah.] There seems not to have been considerable climatic change between the Chalcolithic period and the present. As a result, today's hydrological data can serve as a basis for investigating the limitations of water use and seasonal differences with a margin of error of only about 20 percent. Climatic change is not to be confused with years of meager rainfall, when drought presented a threat to the inhabitants of the land, as is mentioned occasionally in the Hebrew Bible (Jer. 14). Nevertheless, some researchers have sought to attribute the proliferation of settlement in the Negev both in the Early Bronze Age and in the Roman period to wet periods.

[See also Aqueducts; Cisterns; Dams; Hydraulics; Irrigation; Pools; and Reservoirs.]


  • Garbrecht, Günther. “Hydrologic and Hydraulic Concepts in Antiquity.” In Hydraulics and Hydraulic Research: A Historical Review, edited by Günther Garbrecht, pp. 1–22. Rotterdam, 1987.
  • Karmon, Y. Eretz Israel, Geography of the Land and Its Regions (in Hebrew). Tel Aviv, 1973. See pages 36–38.

Tsvika Tsuk

Translated from Hebrew by Ilana Goldberg