Water for Energy: A controversial deal in a thirsty region

Dead Dea - Jordan
© George Thalassinos from Getty Images - Jordan - Dead Sea.

It could become one of the largest energy projects between Jordan and Israel since the Wadi Araba Treaty was signed in 1994: the newly envisioned “water-for-energy” deal, as it has been dubbed by the media, has the potential to strengthen green, cross-border cooperation in the Middle East.

The project would allow Jordan to receive 200 million cubic meter of desalinated water per year from Israel, while the latter would draw yearly at least 600 megawatts of clean energy from a Jordanian solar power plant, which could be built in the desert of the Hashemite Kingdom by the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

According to the declaration of intent (DOI), that was finalised at the end of November in Dubai, the three countries have agreed to conduct feasibility studies related to the construction of the solar power plant as well as the necessary infrastructure in Israel to desalinate water from the Mediterranean Sea and carry it to Jordan. The preliminary assessments should be concluded in autumn 2022.

Despite the agreement being signed by political institutions, the idea behind it comes from a non-governmental organisation, Ecopeace Middle East, an environmental NGO which operates in Palestine, Israel and Jordan. “In 2020, we produced the Green Blue Deal for the Middle East report which included exchanging renewable energy and desalinated sea water between Jordan, Israel and Palestine”, explains Yana Abu Taleb, Ecopeace’s Jordanian director.

The project is supposed to capitalise on the natural resources of each country. “Jordan has the potential to become a regional hub for producing renewable energy, while Israel has an advanced desalination technology”, she says. “The major benefit of this project is that it enables the parties to meet their carbon reduction commitments and to secure extra quantities of water and renewable energy at relatively cheap prices.”

Yet not everybody in Jordan is happy about the prospect of the new project, as the deal also has some political implications. Every Friday since the announcement, protesters have gathered in the narrow streets of Amman’s downtown, in front of the Grand Husseini Mosque, and chanted slogans against a cooperation with Israel.

“I don’t want this deal, it is a shame”, says a 57-year-old female protester in a white niqab. A bit further, two young women in jeans and kufiyas are waving a Palestinian flag. “We are protesting as Jordanians and displaced Palestinians to prove that we are against any kind of normalisation, and totally supporting the Palestinian resistance”, says one of them. “This is our gas, why do we pay for it? The Jordan river is ours, why do we pay for the water?”, adds a man who is holding a prayer bead in one hand and a sign against a five-year-old gas deal between Israel and Jordan in the other.

The demonstrators come from different milieus, political directions and civil groups. “They are protesting the Abraham Agreement”, says Jawad Anani, Jordanian ex-foreign minister and ex-vice-minister for Economic Affairs. “The Palestinians feel betrayed. It is not a question of the water.” Through the Abraham Accords, the UAE and Bahrain started in 2020 a normalisation of their relations with Israel. The “water-for-energy” deal is seen by some as a byproduct of this agreement.

More than two million registered Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, and many Jordanians can trace back a Palestinian ancestor. It comes to no surprise then, that the announcement of the deal has caused some stir, even though both the Jordanian and the Israeli governments have been keen to stress in the past few weeks that the cooperation is still in its initial evaluation phase.

The DOI is indeed not a legally binding contract, and many wonder whether the project will be carried out in the end. This year already the long planned Red Sea-Dead Sea water conveyance, which had previously been agreed on by Israel, Jordan and Palestine, was abandoned after years of political stall.

What is sure, is that Jordan needs water. According to UNICEF, the water share pro capita in the country is around 90 cubic meter per year, well below the threshold of 500 cubic meter, under which a country is deemed absolutely water scarce. And a recent multi-institutional study predicts that the share will halve by the end of century, if no measures are taken.

“We need more water”, says Anani. “Any additional water is welcome – at a manageable, reasonable cost.” The alternatives to the deal could be to desalinate water from the Red Sea, which is already part of the so-called “National Water Carrier Project”, or to dig and pump more underground water. Both solutions are more expensive, says Anani. The Jordanian Water Ministry has estimated the cost of the National Water Carrier Project at 2.5 billion dollars. The final costs of the new water-for-energy deal are still unclear.  

But the economist knows that the political context of the deal is complicated. “It is not easy for Jordan”, he says. Not only because of street protests: according to unconfirmed media reports, Saudi Arabia would have tried to pressure the UAE to block the deal, in an attempt to gain regional leadership on climate issues. The Saudi and UAE governments did not comment on the reports.

And then, there are the delicate political balances in the conflict-ridden region. As Amer Al-Sabaileh, a Jordanian geopolitical expert and scholar, points out, the deal raises several questions. “Jordan is one of the countries that have a Peace Treaty with Israel, as well as cooperating on subjects such as security and borders. Why is there a need for the mediation of the UAE?”

For Al-Sabaileh, the deal is part of a UAE initiative to promote their role as peacemaker in the region. The risk for Jordan is that its political importance is weakened in the process. “I would have preferred, from a geopolitical point of view, that Jordan were at the centre of this”, he says. Then if we look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vision for a peace process is different in Jordan from the one in the UAE. “The UAE do not have such a strong Palestinian migration, common borders or a past conflict with Israel”, he explains. “For us, there are different issues that need to be taken into account.”

While some experts worry about a possible dependence from Israel on such a vital issue like water, others point out how cross-border projects in the natural resources field might eventually become crucial for the Middle East region. Sherri Goodman, senior fellow at the Center for Climate and Security and at Wilson Center, sees the new deal as very positive. “This cooperation might be a sign of possibilities for more climate and water security cooperation”, she says. “There are abundant solar resources in Jordan, and Israel has great capacity to provide water. They both have incentives, in their own national interests.”

As the climate change and the population growth are likely to exacerbate water scarcity in the region, the potential for conflicts might increase as well. According to different studies, droughts in Syria have likely been one of the many factors that contributed to the civil unrests which preceded the civil war.

For Goodman, there is, though, a point that might constitute a risk in the new project: the deal does not directly address the challenges related to the water scarcity in Gaza and the West Bank. “These are also very important”, she says, adding that maybe they could be included in the agreement. “I think it would be helpful.”   

Serena Bilanceri
Serena is a freelance journalist and author based in Germany.