A dried-up irrigation dike in the village of Sayyed Dakhil, east of Nasariyah city some 300 kilometers south of Baghdad. Water scarcity is a serious problem in much of the Middle East, but Jordan and Israel have put aside historic differences to find a way forward. Photo: AFP / Haidar Mohammed Ali

In late November, the governments of Israel and Jordan penned a landmark agreement trading water resources for energy.

According to the terms of the deal, a joint project between the two countries would see Jordan build 600 megawatts of solar generating capacity that would be exported to Israel. In return, Israel will provide water-scarce Jordan with 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water through a yet-to-be constructed water-cleansing facility in Israel.

The signing took place at the UAE Leadership Pavilion during the Dubai Expo. Highlighting the importance of the event, the signing was witnessed by Sultan bin Ahmed Al Jaber, the United Arab Emirates’ industry and advanced technology minister and special envoy for climate change, and John Kerry, US special presidential envoy for climate. 

The cooperation between the two countries will be a long-term venture, with feasibility studies scheduled to begin in 2022.  

The milestone deal, really the first of its kind in the region, has been in the makings for quite some time. Diplomats from the UAE and the US had been busy brokering the agreement for at least a year, hoping to bring about a significant cooperation between the two nations, which while technically having a peace treaty, still relate through low-level tension.  

While the agreement signed in Dubai marks a significant achievement, water has for long been a key element in the tense but relatively stable relationship between Israel and Jordan. One of the central elements of the treaty signed by their respective governments in 1994 was Israel’s commitment to provide Jordan with much of its potable water.

The recent deal is set to at least double Israel’s water transfers to Jordan, reaching a total of 50 million cubic meters initially. The designated goal of 200 million will be reached gradually over time.

Regional water scarcity

The historic deal is more than just a pragmatic achievement on energy and water. It marks a significant move forward in diplomatic relations not just for Israel and Jordan, but for the entire region.

Israel and Jordan have a spotty history, to say the least. 

Much of the territory Jordan gained during Israel’s war of independence was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, an event that triggered nearly three decades of antagonism. The peace treaty of 1994 produced a cold peace as well as some low-level cooperation, but opposition to collaborating with Israel remained quite strong in Jordan’s government. 

More than anything, the water-for-energy deal marks Jordan’s commendable progress in shifting to a pragmatic approach toward its western neighbor. And water has provided the perfect venue to accomplish this.

The water-scarce Hashemite Kingdom has always struggled to find desalinization and storage solutions to the few water resources it does have. 

Recently, the age-old water challenge reached crisis levels, with officials declaring the situation critical. Accordion to regional media reports, the water level of King Talal Dam, the kingdom’s largest, has reached dangerously low levels. King Talal irrigates nearly four-fifths of the agricultural areas and units in the Jordan Valley.

This news was a major cause for concern for Jordanian farmers, who in recent years saw six dams in Jordan dry up because of the scarcity of rainwater. The head of the Jordan Valley Farmers Union, Adnan Khaddam, told news sources that farmers’ needs in the Jordan Valley “amount to 400,000 to 550,000 cubic meters per day, but the available quantity in the dam is 19 million cubic meters.”

Khaddam explained that even that scarce amount is mostly unusable silt, making the threat of drought “only a matter of time.”

Indeed, water scarcity has become perhaps the single most urgent issue facing the Middle East today. 

Egypt’s water scarcity has prompted the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project in collaboration with Ethiopia and China. A similar water crisis in Iran prompted the government to shut down the Internet in restive Khuzestan province, where protests have been occurring over the lack of clean drinking water.

The main cause of the water problems in the southwestern province is understood by experts to be a combination of unusually low water levels due to drought and mismanagement of water resources by authorities.

The water threat has also spread to Iraq because of Iran’s diversion of water from the Karun River to the Persian Gulf, water that used to flow to the Shatt al-Arab river in Basra governorate. 

Bold initiative

The decision by Jordan to foment the deal with Israel demonstrates how leaders in Amman have boldly decided to take a different approach to the water-scarcity issue. 

Instead of allowing the crisis to stir national tensions and escalate conflict, Jordan has used the opportunity to strengthen ties with a regional partner while providing practical solutions to a very real problem.  

At the deal’s signing, Israeli Energy and Water Resources Minister Karine Elharrar commended the efforts of all those involved in solidifying the agreements, stating that the deal was a breakthrough for regional cooperation.

“The declaration of intent that we are signing today is not just good for the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, but for the region as a whole,” Elharrar said. “It will send a strong message around the world about how nations can work together to battle the climate crisis.”   

The exemplary steps by Jordan’s leaders have produced one of the most important successes in solving regional challenges and strengthening national cooperative bonds. It’s time for additional governments in the region to follow that example.

Anita Haugen

Anita Haugen is an Oslo-based security adviser with a focus on Asian and MENA affairs. She works with a number of research centers and consultancy agencies in the Nordic region.