As Jordan, Israel and Palestine move forward with the Red Sea-Dead Sea water conveyance project–the first major peace process project since the 1994 Peace Accords – Jonathan Andrews asks if it could become a model for further cooperation in the region.
It doesn’t take a scientist to see that the Dead Sea is in trouble. Over 1,000 sinkholes, some as large as tennis courts, have opened up at increasing rates along the western shoreline, ripping up houses, beaches and even parts of the major north-south highway that cuts through Israel and the West Bank.
The sinkholes are occurring as the level of the Dead Sea drops by one metre a year exposing sediments previously covered by water. The Jordanian government reports that the water level of what is technically a lake has fallen from 394 metres below sea level in the 1960s to 423 metres in 2012, losing one-third of the Dead Sea’s total surface area.
The decline has been due the mining of minerals in the surrounding area as well as decades of diverting the Dead Sea’s major source of water—the Jordan River and the tributaries—with Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan all sourcing water for agriculture, industry and drinking water purposes.
Furthermore, a report released in August by the Word Resources Institute reveals that the pressure on water resources in the region is only likely to get worse over the next 25 years with 14 of the world’s most water-stressed countries located in the Middle East and North Africa, including Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
“This water shortage incites new armed conflicts,” warned Dr Abdulla Ensour, Prime Minister of Jordan, in his keynote address during Stockholm’s World Water Week, which took place in August. “Experts have solid evidence that water disputes are already an integral part of many countries’ international relations and water security is increasingly being addressed as part of national strategic security approaches.”
Added to the depleting resources of the Dead Sea is the continuing humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Jordan, already recognised as one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of water resources, has over the last four years received 1.4 million refugees, mainly from Syria.
With a population of only 7 million, the country has become overwhelmed by the demand on its groundwater supplies leaving its government desperate to protect its water supplies.
Countering the threat to water
If necessity is the mother of invention, it can also make politicians remarkably pragmatic. With Jordan’s Prime Minister predicting that the projected water deficit will cost the region US$300 to US$400 billion by 2030, the country’s government has been instrumental in driving forward the Red Sea-Dead Sea conveyance project for which a bilateral agreement was signed with Israel in February this year.
As well as being the first such project since the Israel- Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994, Palestine has also been part of the ongoing discussions to exchange water supplies between the three countries.
“Jordan is using the water element for cooperation rather than conflict and confrontation,” says Prime Minister Ensour. “We are a nation already burdened with extreme water scarcity.”
Under the proposals, a US$900 million desalination plant will be built on the shores of the Red Sea in Aqaba, Jordan. Financed on a build-operate-transfer model, the plant will provide 85 million cubic metres of fresh water a year, 50 million cubic metres of which will be sold to Israel at
Under the proposals, a US$900 million desalination plant will be built on the shores of the Red Sea in Aqaba, Jordan
commercial rates, and pumped to the dry terrain of southern Israel. In return, Israel will sell the same amount of water to Jordan’s water-scarce north, where the majority of refugees have settled, with the water coming from Lake Tiberius (also known as the Sea of Galilee and Lake Kinneret) and from Israel’s desalination plants on the Mediterranean Sea.
“The fact that you can desalinate water, export some of it to Israel, and then take water from Lake Tiberius in the north and export it to Jordan, makes sense from a transport energy objective,” says Dr Anders Jägerskog, Counsellor for Regional Development Cooperation and Water Resources at the Swedish Embassy in Amman, Jordan. “It also cements the relationship between the two parties. We will still see political conflict yet also cooperation happening at the same time between Jordan and Israel and this is an opportunity for other countries to work more in this way.”
A political convenience?
The project has been criticised by Palestinian groups, who have questioned their own leadership for signing a Memorandum of Understanding with Jordan and Israel in December 2013 at a ceremony at the World Bank. Under the proposals, Israel will sell an additional 20 to 30 million cubic metres to Palestine with the cost based on the desalinated price, taking into account the water quality standard at supply points.
“The signature of the Palestinians on this agreement is just meaningless because first it is a project that will be established in Jordan and will supply Israel in the south, and Israel will then take water from Lake Tiberius to supply northern parts of Jordan,” explains Dr Ayman Rabi, Director of the Palestinian Hydrology Group and Chairman of the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network and critic of the project. “And second, we will be committing ourselves to purchase water from Israel on a commercial basis.”
Both the Israelis and Jordanians argue that much needed water for Gaza will be provided through the deal. The UN released a report in 2012 stating that the Coastal Aquifer, Gaza’s main source of water, will be unfit for human use by 2016 due to rising salinity levels from over extraction. Representatives from EcoPeace Middle East, a regional environmental NGO run by Israel, Palestine and Jordan, although not specifically supporting the project, say that a boost of 10 million cubic metres of water sold to Gaza a year would help alleviate this problem.
Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Co-Director of EcoPeace Middle East paints a dark picture if an increase in water and energy supplies is not forthcoming. “If Gaza’s water economy is allowed to collapse, tens of thousands of Gazans will be walking towards the border fences of Israel and Egypt and what will the Israeli and Egyptian military do? Would they dare shoot at civilians desperate for drinking water?”
Professor Uri Shani, Chairman of the Israeli Steering Committee for the project and former Commissioner of the Israeli Water Authority, says that the project needs to be looked at not as just a Red Sea-Dead Sea project but a ‘Red-Med-Dead’ project involving the Mediterranean Sea.
“All three sources are involved,” he says. “Water from the Red Sea will supply Israel and water from the Mediterranean Sea to Jordan [via Israeli desalination plants as well as Lake Tiberius] and to the Palestinians. The project serves Palestine no less than Jordan and maybe more than Israel because it is bringing needed water to Gaza and Hebron [in the West Bank].”
Decades old disagreements on water rights and access in the West Bank and Gaza are however ever present in the background with Palestinian groups finding it difficult to see the project as a separate step toward cooperation.
“Cooperation within the region is important, yet cooperation should be among equals and not between occupier and occupied,” says Rabi. “Agreements need to be made on an equal footing.” Safeguards are in place to protect each party’s interest although Jordan insists that the water supply to Israel will not be disrupted. According to Professor Shani it is not in any party’s interest to disrupt the water supply as if one party decides to “turn off the tap” the other party can easily do the same.
Threat to the eco-system
As well as the increased supply of water between the countries, the project is also intended to have positive environmental benefits for the Dead Sea. The brine produced from the desalination plant, around 300 million cubic metres a year, will be piped 180 kilometres to help replenish the Dead Sea. The water will be pumped one-third of the length of the pipeline with the remaining two-thirds gravity fed down to the sea, allowing for potential hydropower generation.
But regional environmental groups have raised concerns about the untested consequences of pumping brine into the Dead Sea’s unique saline and chemical composition.
“It will have a negligible impact on Dead Sea depletion rates anyway because the volume of water is so much less than needed,” says Professor Tony Allan, Kings College London, who participated in the study of alternatives. “And international and Israeli scientists in one of their studies showed that it would not be safe to put more than 400 million cubic metres of Red Sea water and brine from desalination into the Dead Sea because of the uncertainty of their impact on the Dead Sea ecosystems.”
In the pilot phase therefore, no more than 400 million cubic metres of brine will be pumped into the Dead Sea
Safeguards are in place to protect each party’s interest although Jordan insists that the water supply to Israel will not be disrupted
until results can be assessed, although future flows of brine could reach more than 1 billion cubic metres a year. Allan says the scaled down approach is better.
“In 2009, the plan was to convey 2 billion cubic metres of Red Sea water with about 1.2 billion going to the Dead Sea and the rest supplying desalinated water for domestic and industrial consumption mainly in Amman,” says Professor Allan. “The incremental approach is more realistic in that adjustments can be made as new technologies emerge and new policies become possible. Mega-projects often go wrong in retrospect.”
In August, Jordan issued tender papers with the first contactors to be announced by the end of the year. Jordan is the only eligible party of the three to borrow from the World Bank and the bank is providing technical assistance and will help Jordan organise a donors’ conference at the end of the year to finance the US$350 million cost of the environmental component of piping the water to the Dead Sea.
Despite disagreements as to the benefits and some criticisms overhanging the project there does exist an air of optimism from all three parties–although to varying degrees. As Dr Hazim El-Naser, Minister of Water and Irrigation in Jordan, says in an in depth interview in this edition of The Source (see page 48) the whole world will be watching.
“Everyone is saying that water is an element for conflict but if we are successful with this project, we can show the world that even in the most troubled, sophisticated and complicated political issue in the world–Israel, Palestine and Jordan–we have managed to get the water to flow through cooperation and peace building.