Foreign Policy

Water-for-Vitality Is Higher Than Land-for-Peace

This November, Jordan and Israel signed a breakthrough water-for-energy deal that will ease the impact of climate change on both countries. The deal represents a step forward from the Abraham Accords between Israel and other Arab countries, as it fully abandons the “all or nothing” approach to enhancing regional ties. 

Under the deal, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will set up a solar power plant in Jordan that glistens under the sun 300 days a year. The plant will produce 600 megawatts of solar energy to be exported yearly to Israel at a price of $180 million; the proceeds will be shared between the UAE and Jordan. But more importantly, in exchange Israel will send 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water to a parched Jordan. The project is slated to take off in the next five years, if it indeed takes off. 

Jordan’s ample sun and Israel’s technological know-how in the water sector makes the deal an obvious solution to emerging challenges. Yet mistrust between the nations is deep-rooted and the passage of the letter of intent to go through with the deal was not without hiccups. Seventy percent of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin, and much of this group fears that its cause is being sacrificed at the altar of coexistence. There is massive opposition in the country to enhancing ties with its neighbor; and to display it, some of Jordan’s politicians walked out from parliament and hundreds of locals gathered on the streets in protest. 

This November, Jordan and Israel signed a breakthrough water-for-energy deal that will ease the impact of climate change on both countries. The deal represents a step forward from the Abraham Accords between Israel and other Arab countries, as it fully abandons the “all or nothing” approach to enhancing regional ties. 

Under the deal, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will set up a solar power plant in Jordan that glistens under the sun 300 days a year. The plant will produce 600 megawatts of solar energy to be exported yearly to Israel at a price of $180 million; the proceeds will be shared between the UAE and Jordan. But more importantly, in exchange Israel will send 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water to a parched Jordan. The project is slated to take off in the next five years, if it indeed takes off. 

Jordan’s ample sun and Israel’s technological know-how in the water sector makes the deal an obvious solution to emerging challenges. Yet mistrust between the nations is deep-rooted and the passage of the letter of intent to go through with the deal was not without hiccups. Seventy percent of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin, and much of this group fears that its cause is being sacrificed at the altar of coexistence. There is massive opposition in the country to enhancing ties with its neighbor; and to display it, some of Jordan’s politicians walked out from parliament and hundreds of locals gathered on the streets in protest

But Jordan’s King Abdullah II appears to be mindful of an existential threat to his kingdom: The country has nearly run out of water. Jordan is the second most water-scarce country in the world. As temperatures, and population, rise, Jordan has been struggling to quench the thirst of its people. The influx of a million Syrian refugees—who have increased the country’s water bill by $600 million a year—has compounded the problem. Groundwater is fast depleting, rainfall has reduced by 60 percent and six of the country’s 14 water dams have dried up. As a result, farmers are struggling to grow their crops, and in parts of the country people receive their water supply from the government, as frequently as twice a week to once in two weeks. According to the Ministry of Water in Jordan, one Jordanian has access to 16 gallons of water per day—in comparison, an average American uses nearly six times that. 

Israel, meanwhile, has multiplied its water sources by adopting newer technologies. Since 2005, Israel has built many desalination plants that make sea water fit for human consumption and become the world leader in more environmentally friendly wastewater management and recycling technologies. 

Consider this: some 70 percent of Israel’s drinking water is now desalinated sea water, and about 85 percent of wastewater is treated and recycled (about half of which is then used for agriculture). Of the two billion cubic meters of water the country needs every year, half is obtained through desalination and recycling. 

Israel once fought wars with its neighbors over water, but according to EcoPeace Middle East, an Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian non-governmental organization, the country now desalinates more water than it requires. “Water sources are simply not limited anymore,” Yana Abu-Taleb, the Jordanian director of EcoPeace, told Foreign Policy

Experts said technology has made water wars in the region redundant and opened prospects for a symbiotic, interdependent future. There is a growing sense that cooperation to combat climate change, providing for an increasing population amid depleting reserves, is not only smart but also inevitable to avoid instability in the region. 

Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow in the Washington Institute’s Irwin Levy family program on the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship, said that a realization that climate change is a direct national security threat can be expected to bring higher urgency to regional cooperation. “Israel is a world pioneer in desalination, which can help address Jordan’s water challenges,” Omari said. “For its part, Jordan is a regional leader in terms of renewable energy, with roughly 20 percent of its electricity produced from renewable sources, positioning it to help Israel meet its renewable energy needs. The UAE has been investing in renewable energy both as a way of addressing its own climate change challenges as well as diversifying its economy. … These three countries not only face similar threats, but also offer unique contributions to addressing it.”

The UAE’s role in bringing about the deal also displayed how the Abraham Accords—normalization deals by Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, under the initiative of U.S. President Donald Trump—can be used going forward. Omari said the Abraham Accords could be further leveraged to deepen the peace between Israel and the “first generation of Arab peacemakers, namely Egypt and Jordan.” 

Jordan and Israel signed a peace deal in 1994 that was focused on security issues but also included water sharing. Israel has since given Jordan 30 million cubic meters of water a year; Jordan often buys much more to meet its increasing requirements. Jordan also purchases gas from an Israeli field. 

But the latest water-for-energy deal is the biggest step yet towards civilian cooperation. The United States and UAE hope that this agreement will reveal to Arab countries the benefits of diplomatic engagement with Israel and soften their attitudes in the longer run. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry reportedly encouraged Tel Aviv and Amman to sign the deal, while the UAE made it possible. 

But it was EcoPeace that first proposed the idea under the umbrella of its regional project the Green Blue Deal, which proposes harnessing the sun and the sea to create water and energy security in the region. It described the Jordan-Israel deal as a win-win agreement, one geopolitically unique because of the interdependencies it creates between historically hostile nations. 

Abu-Taleb responded to critics who called for Jordan to desalinate its own sea water rather than bank on Israel. “Jordan cannot rely on one water source,” she said. “We have a severe water crisis, and yes, we can desalinate our own sea water, but we also need to make it economical. Purchasing additional water that we need from Israel is economical.” 

Abu-Taleb is aware of the difficulties of making the announced deal into a reality, but she dares to dream of a day when there are more such agreements. “EcoPeace thinks the next step should be for a similar agreement with Palestine: Jordan provides solar energy to Palestine while Israel negotiates a fairer share of water for Palestinians,” she said.

But Abu-Taleb and several other experts we spoke to had no hope of a similar arrangement between Israel and Syria. Daniel Levy, president of the U.S./Middle East Project organization, described the idea of water diplomacy between the two countries as a non-starter. Syria and Israel are far from any such agreement, he said. 

The Sea of Galilee, or Lake Tiberias, captured by Israel in the 1967 war along with the Golan Heights, has been a major source of contention between Israel and Syria. Talks between then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, moderated by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, collapsed when Israel refused to give up the lake, offering Syrians only recreational access. Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad official and author of the forthcoming Death Tango: Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, and Three Fateful Days in March, said that throughout Israel-Syria peace talks, when Golan territory was on the table, “Israel made it clear that the Sea of Galilee waters were not on the table”; this is not expected to change now.

But Syria’s water problems have multiplied manyfold. A severe drought preceded the civil-war, and 10 years later Syrians have access to 40 percent less drinking water. Moreover, water in the Euphrates river, on which more than five million Syrians depend, has dwindled. The situation is only expected to get worse since the Mediterranean region is heating 20 percent faster than the global average. 

Israel could, hypothetically speaking, use its excess desalinated water to entice war-struck and thirsty Syria, but no one believes it would lead to anything. “If at some stage Israel goes to Syria and says, ‘We keep the Golan Heights and the lake, and in return we will give you desalinated water,’ it is hard to imagine a Syrian leader who would agree,” says Daniel Levy. Syria can of course, in theory, desalinate its own sea water like Jordan, but it is currently in the throes of a debilitating economic crisis and struggling to feed its people, and it will take decades to recover. 

The Arab world remains split between those who say Israel must be treated as an enemy until the Palestine issue has been resolved and those who believe diplomatic exchanges and trade are an important path to a resolution. Environmentalists, for their part, are clear where they stand. They think that all states must cooperate in ushering in a cleaner future before it is too late.

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