The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding last week in Washington DC, where Water Ministers from Jordan, Israel and Palestinian Authority declared a common intent to move forward on a water exchange and act towards “saving the Dead Sea,” received extensive worldwide media coverage. Even US Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated the parties on the effort.
The proposed conduit from the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea has attracted tremendous media attention for decades. Such grandiose ideas capture the imagination of the public as evidence of humankind’s ability to literally change the face of the planet. In no less dramatic ways, Middle East water issues often make the front page of the world’s press under the title of “Water Wars.” Despite the rhetoric, research undertaken by Prof. Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University has established that the shared nature of international cross border waterways overwhelmingly leads to differing levels of cooperation rather than military conflict. Other researchers have questioned whether what might look like cooperation over water is little more than domination of one side, the water hegemon, over her neighbors.
Water can plan a catalyst role in the Middle East peace process. Objectives must be well defined, advancing water equity must be a key outcome, and decisions must be taken on the basis of sound economic and environmental considerations. The Memorandum of Understanding signed last week is a clear case in point.
The idea of a limited water exchange between Israel and Jordan in principle makes good economic, environmental and political sense. To meet the growing needs of domestic water in Jordan’s capital city of Amman, the Sea of Galilee in Israel is the closest source of potential available water supply. Given that a pipeline from the Sea of Galilee already links Israel with Jordan’s capital, selling a limited quantity—50 million cubic meters annually—of additional water to Amman is a good economic deal for the Jordanian public. It’s better than any other alternative.
Eilat and the Israeli side of the Arava Desert also need more water, and given that they are not connected to the Israeli national water network, if Jordan would build a desalination plant in Aqaba to meet growing needs there, and also sell the 50 million cubic meters annually of water needed in Eilat, then Israel would benefit. It would avoid the financial burden and environmental damage associated with extending the national water network several hundred kilometers south.
Problems occur when a well-defined idea based on sound analysis is stretched to achieve additional unrealistic and infeasible goals. In the case of Israel and Palestine, the proposal is contrary to principles of equity. Instead of declaring a plan for a water exchange, the ministers meeting in Washington announced the launch of the Red Dead Conduit that they claimed would provide “plentiful water for all and save the Dead Sea.’”
Instead of sustainably disposing the emitted brine from the proposed desalination plant in Aqaba near source, as occurs on the Mediterranean and elsewhere, the plan would pump it about 200 kilometers north to the Dead Sea to supposedly “save the Dead Sea.”
The cost of building this pipeline is estimated at $400 million. Linking the desalination plant proposed for Aqaba with a pipeline to carry away the brine 200 kilometers to the Dead Sea makes the cost of desalination unaffordable. That is why Israel and Jordan are labeling this project as one that saves the Dead Sea — so the international community might pay the cost of the pipeline. Brine in the Dead Sea, according to the World Bank studies, is likely to only lead to the further demise of the Dead Sea (growth of algae and gypsum altering the very nature of the Dead Sea), and the quantity of brine in this project, at only 100 million cubic meters, will do next to nothing in preventing the continued drop in Dead Sea water levels. Furthermore, the additional operational cost of having to pay for energy and running costs of pumping brine 200 kilometers is estimated to increase the cost of desalinated water by 30 percent. Desalination costs on the Mediterranean are presently as low as 57 cents a cubic meter, while Aqaba-Dead Sea pipeline costs are estimated at close to a dollar.
Water could play a catalyst role in the peace process if Jordan and Israel were to move forward on the water exchange—but if delinked from the burden of the Red Dead. Palestinians need to receive their rightful share of shared Israeli Palestinian water and not be asked to buy more water from Israel. Because of Israel’s leadership in both wastewater reuse and desalination on the Mediterranean Sea, Israel has excess water. Sharing water more fairly with Palestine comes at low political cost for Israel as no sector will be asked to cut back their water usage. For the Palestinians, few measures could improve the lives of every resident than a more equitable share of water. Low political cost for Israel and high political gain for Palestine means low-hanging political fruit that can build confidence between the parties to move forward on the other final status issues of the peace process.
As for the Dead Sea, the sea will only be saved if the political will exists to take on the root causes that lead to its demise in the first place: Over-extraction of Jordan River waters and the failure to charge the mineral extraction industry for the Dead Sea water that they unsustainably exploit. Those are the two issues that need to be taken on to save, or stabilize, the Dead Sea—while preserving its unique features as a natural spa.