Last week, Israel and Jordan signed a water-sharing agreement that will form the basis for building a large desalination plant near Aqaba. The signing of any cooperation agreement between Israel and Jordan at this time is definitely important, but the headlines accompanying the reports were misleading at best. International and Israeli news outlets published articles about the “‘historic’ water deal to save Dead Sea” (TOI, JP, Newsweek). Environmental groups (mainly Friends of the Earth Middle East) published their objections to the plan. I am in favor of this project, but it is only marginally concerned with the Dead Sea.
While the megalithic original plan approved in 2013 has been publicized mainly as an international effort to save the Dead Sea, it is also meant to provide water for Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, at a cost of about $10 billion. From the beginning it has been questioned because of environmental uncertainties, which I will address later. The agreement signed last week is about ten percent of the original plan, in terms of both cost and amounts of water. It will do nothing to halt the shrinking of the Dead Sea in the near future, despite being pushed as “look how well Jordanians and Israelis are playing together to save the Dead Sea.” Quite frankly, these days anything that will get Jordanian and Israeli officials to smile at each other is positive. So is this project: it will solve Israel’s problem of quality irrigation water in the Arava and Southern Negev (minor for the entire country but pretty major for those of us living here), and will begin to address the critical water shortage in Jordan.
The plan is to build a large desalination plant in Aqaba, producing about 100 million cubic meters a year (about the same amount as the Ashkelon desalination plant). Half of this will be sold to Israel in exchange for the same amount of water farther north, for use in Jordanian population centers. (Ironically, because of the Disi aquifer in south Jordan, Aqaba is the only Jordanian city with a constant, secure water supply.) The brine will be mixed with sea water and pumped to the Dead Sea.
Why is this a good project? It provides four important results:
1) The enormity of Jordan’s water crisis cannot be exaggerated, and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees has only worsened the situation. With this project Jordan, in addition to 100 million cubic meters of water, will gain important technology — perhaps eventually building its own “national carrier” from Aqaba to Amman.
2) The main concern regarding the original project is that mixing the waters on a massive scale can lead to layering of the different types of waters, as well as the formation of algae blooms and gypsum crystals. By beginning with much smaller amounts of water, the project could be halted if adverse results occur before they become disastrous. (Note: if we give up on the major project, as I suggest later, this is unnecessary, and we can leave the Aqaba desalination plant as a local project at about half the cost discussed now.)
3) The major resource missing in the Middle East today is trust*. Even if this project will not solve all our problems, any cooperation between Israel and Jordan that helps to strengthen our trust in each other is good. (*Thanks to David Lehrer of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies for this sentence!)
4) Agriculture is the main source of income in the Arava and southern Negev, which together make up a third of the ground area of Israel. Agricultural land makes up most of the border between Israel and Jordan. This area has relied until now on saline irrigation water, which is unfit for drinking. According to research from from the Southern Arava Agricultural Research and Development Center, this low-quality water reduces the yield and profitability of the produce. Mixing saline and desalinated water will give the farmers the quantity and quality needed to allow this region to continue to grow and support itself.
On the other hand, the large-scale project is not a feasible solution. The best way to save the Dead Sea is to let fresh water come through the Jordan River in its natural course. But to do this we must stop pumping from the Jordan’s sources, relying on desalination on the Mediterranean instead. This leaves Jordan dependent on either Israel or Lebanon and Syria for its water source, which Jordan quite understandably wants to control on its own.
In other words, until we have true peace in the Middle East, allowing us to trust each other enough to share the source of our most vital resource, we have to make difficult compromises. Israel, as the stronger and wealthier country (and with access to the Mediterranean), should take the first step by unilaterally stopping all pumping from the sources of the Jordan without forfeiting the right to do so — figuratively pumping the water back into the Jordan. A third party could buy water from Israel for Jordan, which could resume pumping immediately if Israel did not hold up its end of the agreement. In this manner, we could begin to reverse the environmental damage done to the Dead Sea basin over the past hundred years at the same time that we begin to build the trust needed to prevent regional destruction in the next hundred years. Let’s leave the Aqaba desalination plant as a good mid-scale solution for local problems, and start solving the real problem at its source.