One drop at a time

Jordan tackles growing water problems

The shrinking of the Dead Sea has environmental and economic repercussions

Growing populations, rising demand on resources and mounting environmental pressures are putting an increasing global strain on water resources. In the Middle East in particular, stressed river basins shared by countries are increasingly experiencing problems, and global climate change will only exacerbate this.

December’s landmark Paris Agreement on climate change was not primarily about water-related issues, but a strong connection exists: climatic change continues to have an impact on many things, including water. Yet how seriously are governments and institutions taking this imminent threat? Some answers have come in a new book, “Transboundary Water Management and the Climate Change Debate”, by a group of international scholars covering global examples as well as ones from the Middle East. The book’s premise is that actors within transboundary water management institutions respond to the climate change debate in three ways: adapting to predicted impacts; resisting them (by ignoring the issues); or subversion (using the climate change debate to fulfill their own agendas). The authors then apply this framework to cases with global repercussions, such as the Jordan River basin.

Further elaborating these themes through an article entitled “Adaptation, Resistance, or Subversion: How Will Water Politics Be Affected by Climate Change?” in the New Security Beat blog of the respected Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, three of the book’s co-authors make the interesting point that the hydraulic impacts of climatic changes are quite often deemed to be of such a magnitude that responses are unreasonably crafted in the context of national security. They call this ‘securitization’, and in all of the cases analyzed for “Transboundary Water Management and the Climate Change Debate”, there is evidence of responses to climatic debates becoming subject to such a threat, whereby “impacts are deemed to be of such a magnitude that responses should be crafted in the context of national security”, emphasizing that “this is important because it creates an incentive to close off deliberation to outsiders and makes it less likely decisions will be made in an open, transparent way with multiple stakeholders represented.”

In the case of Jordan and much of the region, problems of securitization are evident in water diplomacy. This entwining of water and national security requires confidentiality, which is a common need in diplomatic or political discussions. However, subjecting vital negotiations on water issues to blanket blackouts for reasons of security is not a good idea. As an antidote to this state of affairs, the authors note that “ultimately, renewed political commitment to open institutional structures will be needed to mitigate these risks.” The key of course is openness: “We need to find ways to bring the fears, hopes and aspirations which basin actors may harbor about climate change into open discussion within joint institutions.” By doing so, these frameworks become more legitimate and resilient, making securitization less likely as they become better at dealing with changing conditions, including climate change, and demands from various parties.

Examples of this problem can be seen in Jordan and its neighbors to the west, who are together trying to implement elaborate water schemes in the Jordan Valley, also extending through the Dead Sea basin to the Gulf of Aqaba. It should be mentioned that water is very scarce in Jordan, where about 9 percent of the land is desert. The kingdom, home to a growing local population as well as a large influx of refugees from Syria, is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world.

Red–Dead Sea Project

Like other water-short countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, Jordan seeks to preserve domestic hydraulic resources through importing water “virtually” through commodities with a relatively high volume of water used for production, such as agricultural products, while exporting those that are less water-intensive. As such, Jordan imports about 7 billion cubic meters (m3) of virtual water annually compared to 1 billion m3 withdrawn from domestic water sources per year.

However, such dependence of Jordan and other water-scarce states on external supplies of water can be exploited politically. In that respect, amid regional disputes and diplomatic tension that increasingly prevail in the Middle East, the pursuit of solutions to hydraulic problems within a classic basin framework may offer the false argument that neighbors sharing the same geo-hydraulics have an interest in cooperating while “setting politics aside”. An example of this came in December 2013 when Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement involving the Jordan River–Wadi Araba area, aimed at constructing in the south of Jordan a plant with a capacity of about 80 million m3 per year to desalinate water from the Red Sea, 30 million m3 of which will be retained by Jordan. The facility will supply the southern Israeli city of Eilat with 50 million m3 of desalinated water at cost value, and Israel will deliver the same amount to central Jordan for JOD 0.27 ($0.38) per m3, to be pumped from the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, from where Palestine will also receive 30 million m3 of freshwater. In addition, a pipeline will dump brine from desalination into the Dead Sea to mitigate its current annual decline, estimated at one meter.

However, the deal is seen as continuing to ignore riparian rights of Palestinians, meaning their rights to use water that flows through their territories, on the Dead Sea. Additionally, environmental groups have warned that the project could undermine the fragile ecosystem of the Dead Sea, which they fear could be contaminated by Red Sea brine. (The agreement was signed in Washington DC and brokered by the United States under a shroud of secrecy in the name of securitization, a factor that is felt to have contributed to the scheme’s weaknesses and reservations about it.)

Similar issues have arisen in connection with the Red Sea–Dead Sea Conveyance Project, another — albeit much larger — Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian initiative in the same area seeking to meet increasing water needs while stemming the shrinking of the Dead Sea. For that, Jordan signed an agreement with Israel last February on the first phase of the project’s implementation to build a pipeline linking the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. In December, Jordan issued a call for tenders for the project’s first construction phase. This first phase — at an estimated cost of up to $900 million — involves a transfer of 300 million m3 of seawater each year from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. In the following phases, the project entails transferring up to 2 billion m3 annually. Jordan has invited private companies to submit prequalification documents for the development and execution of the project’s first phase by the end of March 2016.

However, one of the project’s further shortcomings may be that it does not sufficiently answer to — possibly yet unknown — global climate change factors. Such factors could upset project calculations through, for example, much higher or lower rainfall in the Jordan Valley.

The Politics in Hydraulics

Both of these accords are a continuation of Israel’s policy of “economic peace” which simply means collaboration on various projects without restoring Palestinian and other Arab rights. These basin agreements that the cash-strapped governments of Jordan and Palestine might be pushed to accept would end up undermining rights and, in the longer run, stunt sustainable development. At the same time, secrecy and the culture of securitization in general help to ram such accords through, flouting public and expert opinion.

Israeli governments have taken this approach since the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo agreement and the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty, both of which include water provisions and call for joint hydraulic projects. However, these ideas and plans should contribute towards a just, lasting and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab countries, and not as a substitute for it. Meanwhile, regional and global hydraulics have changed dramatically over the past two decades, partly due to climatic changes. In such a context, a narrow basin-based approach can, unwittingly or not, result in false solutions to water problems.

Unless drastic measures are taken, climate change (and the whole issue of a two-degree celsius rise in temperature as debated in Paris at the COP21 conference) will continue to affect our region negatively, particularly when it comes to water scarcity and desertification. Extreme versions of hot, dry summers with record high temperatures in some parts of the region at two degrees celsius or more above previous maxima have become more prevalent in the Middle East. The large temperature spikes that have been seen in the past few decades in Jordan and throughout the Middle East, combined with inadequate systems of land and hydraulic management, are leading to a profound spread of deserts and water shortages.

In this kind of situation, more open debate and transparency are needed, not less. Sadly, the political cultures of Jordan and Palestine largely accept restrictions on public discussion imposed by securitization — restrictions Israel and America largely frown upon at home, despite practicing them abroad. At the same time, as hapless leaders and populaces from Ramallah to Amman look on, Israeli decision-makers can ignore water-related climatic issues to push through regional political agendas based on unsustainable and unjust normalization of relations.

Riad Al-Khouri is Middle East director of GeoEconomica GmbH