The recent ISIS fiery murder of a Jordanian pilot triggered a fierce military response from Amman. It is in Israel’s interest to support their ally Jordan and not just militarily. Jordan is a poor, developing state that needs shoring up domestically, especially when it comes to supplying drinkable water to its growing population. Today Israel is in the position to continue its historic cooperation and to begin exporting water to Jordan.
For the three decades prior to the 1994 Peace Treaty, Israelis and Jordanians secretly met at a picnic table on the banks of the Yarmouk, a major tributary of the Jordan River. These rivals sometimes argued and shouted at each other but in the end cooperated in sharing their scarce water resources.
During difficult droughts, when Jordanian farmers were desperate for water, to save their orchards, Israel would loan water to them. Later in the season Jordan would repay by increasing the flow to Israel that would have otherwise gone to Jordan. Over time this cooperation built trust and confidence and helped pave the bumpy road to a historic peace treaty.
This past year, eight Israeli water officials met in Amman with Hazem Nasser, Jordanian Minister of Water and Irrigation, to discuss cooperation. This formal meeting of this Joint Water Committee is specified in the Peace Treaty and is a direct continuation of the secret picnic table meetings that took place before the peace treaty.
Nasser explained that Jordan — ninety percent desert and experiencing its worst drought since records were kept — is in severe water stress. Jordanian households, rich and poor, are limited to one or two days of running water per week and it will only get more challenging.
Further straining Jordan’s water resources are the estimated 1.3 million refugees, many who have fled the conflict in Syria. That amounts to a 20 percent increase in Jordan’s population. It would be as if 70 million Mexicans fled a narco-civil war for drought stricken California.
This provides an opportunity for cooperation at a key moment in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And breakthroughs in Israeli desalinization technology and water management can change the equation of water, which has always been a disputed, limiting factor in the region. Minister Nasser proposed to his Israeli counterparts that they augment the amount of water supplied under terms of the treaty and Jordan will pay for it.
Israel now has the additional water to cooperate. In the 1960s Israel was willing to go to war to protect its water resources when Arab states threatened to divert its rivers. More recently, water negotiations, like the picnic table talks, were difficult zero-sum games of dividing a shrinking water supply. For Israel, that has all changed. Its innovative water management and globally competitive water technology has it on track for a remarkable water surplus.
Israel is aggressively recycling wastewater and imposing innovative conservation and efficiency techniques. But more important, it has improved desalination technology. This additional water is allowing Israel’s renewable freshwater resources — Lake Tiberias and aquifers — to recover from years of overuse.
Israel’s desalination revolution started in 2005 with the opening of its first large-scale seawater plant in Ashkelon. Today it has five major desalination plants along its Mediterranean coast with more being planned. Israeli engineers reduced energy consumption and thus the cost of desalination by 40 percent. By next year, more than half of Israel’s total freshwater needs will come from saltwater. Israel is in position to become a freshwater exporter.
Already, desalination has generated extraordinary results domestically and could lead to historic forms of cooperation regionally. A year ago Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement at the World Bank to build a large-scale desalination plant in the Jordanian Red Sea coastal city of Aqaba. By piping the plant’s brine waste product into the already salty Dead Sea, the parties hope to begin rescuing the shrinking and shared Dead Sea as well as protecting the fragile Red Sea ecosystem.
For Israel and its developed economy, desalination is an insurance policy for future droughts. But for Jordan and the Palestinians desalination is a lifeline — not a water scarcity solution. Desalination diplomacy should not be about creating a dependency on Israel’s water. It should be about Israel assisting and encouraging its neighbors to have better water management and about building confidence and trust.
Jordan and the Palestinian Authority need to enforce their water laws and move away from domestic water related corruption, stealing and illegal wells while improving or instituting progressive and effective pricing, and public education.
At the same time, desalination diplomacy requires that Israel, along with the United States and other international donors, are there when water scarcity becomes overwhelming. If Israel can guarantee Jordan that its water needs will be met, Amman will be better able to defeat ISIS.