North Africa, West Asia

Water, water, everywhere

Jordan, Palestine, and Israel struggle to reap benefits from a groundbreaking water agreement.

Nikita Malik
16 December 2013

The scarcity of water resources and the relative power of countries that share them has long been a hotly contested topic. In a paper published in 2008, Mark Zeitoun and Naho Mirumachi argue that these ‘transboundary water interactions’ are inherently political processes, determined by broader political conflicts. Nowhere are these processes and conflicts more visible than the Dead Sea to Red Sea project, signed off by Palestine, Israel, and Jordan earlier this week. Whether this cooperative agreement sustains or transforms the conflict it is intended to resolve is a matter not only of opinion, but also, time.

Yaakov Garb, an Israeli environmental and social studies expert at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, stated to the New York Times that he suspects the project is “wrapped up in ‘Saving the Dead Sea’ clothing” in order to attract international financing. Others argue that Red-to-Dead is more concerned with providing freshwater to a desperate region, and less to do with reversing receding water levels in the Dead Sea. It is this demand for fresh water that has caused evaporation of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea in the first place: waters that flow into the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee are diverted for consumption. This has caused the amount of water that flows freely to Jordan to decrease over time: A 2011 report by the Indian-based think tank Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) states that even as consumption levels increase rapidly, the annual discharge of Jordan River decreased to 200 cubic metres in 2011, compared to 1,300 cubic metres in 1960. Conversely, the aggressive adoption of desalination plants, coupled with profitable waste-water reuse policies, has meant that per capita usage of fresh water has steadily declined in Israel: approximately 80% of all waste water is recycled in the nation, more than double the rate of any other country in the world.

It is natural that a cumulative decrease in water resources, an absence of water management, and a growing population that creates higher water demand, has culminated in a tense political environment in Jordan as I have argued elsewhere. As part of the project, approximately 100 million cubic metres of water will be desalinated in Jordan: the majority of water for drinking and irrigation will be directed to Israel’s Arava desert, but, as part of the cooperation, Israel will provide desperately needed water to Jordan’s Northern front. 

A water shortage for Jordanians could fuel growing instability for the Hashemite regime. Citizens without a fundamental human right are likely to express their dissent, voicing protest both on, and off, the streets. The focus for the Hashemite Kingdom remains two-fold: guaranteeing the fulfilment of domestic water needs to improve food security in the nation, and contributing to political stability through equitable sharing of water resources within the wider region. 

Despite current challenges, better water management holds possibilities for improved cooperation and trust-building in the future. Potential benefits are clear; indeed, overall welfare of the three participating states is vitally linked by dependence on this shared resource. Today, Israelis consume a daily average of 350 litres of water per capita, while Jordanians consume roughly 60 litres, and Palestinians, only about 30 litres. In the future, it is hoped that countries along the Jordan River establish a daily per-capita water usage of under 200 litres.

Current negotiations over water management rely on provisional figures from the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, even though studies show that water resources have depleted by 7% since that time. In the past, the lack of confidence between Israelis and Palestinians has been a crucial impediment to improving water resource management between the three nations. It is clear that a paradigm shift is needed to change how these partners view the politics at the crux of their water agreements. Perhaps, the Red-to-Dead deal will provide it.

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