Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) sign a water pact meant to combat the contraction of the Red Sea and provide much-needed drinking water to the region.
The water crisis facing the Middle East is no secret. Analysts believe that the current shortage of freshwater faced by the region may soon escalate into an international crisis, with some ominously predicting that the next war in the Middle East will be over water. A recent report published jointly by American intelligence warned that the Middle East, “the most water impoverished region of the world”, will soon by susceptible to water wars.
But nowhere in the region is this crisis as acutely felt as it is in the Dead Sea and the Jordan river. The water level in the Dead Sea has dropped by more than one meter, or three feet, each year in the past decades. The main reason behind the withdrawal of the Dead Sea has been the overuse of the waters of the Jordan river for irrigation and domestic purposes. As a result, the flow of the river, which on some sections forms the border between Israel and Jordan and Israel and the West Bank, which is claimed by Palestinian residents as part of a future Palestinian state, dropped from 1.3 billion cubic metres per year to just 20 to 30 million cubic metres per year.
According to Friends of the Earth Middle East, an environmental advocacy group, the diversion of the Jordan river by Syria, Jordan and Israel is dangerously reducing the water flow of the river below a threshold point, and may have serious consequences on water supply and political stability in the region.
On December 9, the governments of Jordan and Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed a deal in an effort to diffuse a potentially disastrous situation. The deal was described as the result of “strategic cooperation of diplomatic significance between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority” by Silvan Shalom, the Israeli energy and regional development minister.
Under the agreement, 22,000 gallons of water will be pumped northwards annually from a desalination plant to be built at the Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan, near the mouth to the Red Sea. Some of the water will be distributed by a 180 km pipeline to Israel, Jordan and the occupied West Bank, while four pipes will pump the rest to the Dead Sea.
The agreement was signed despite signs that negotiations for a wider peace deal between the PA and Israel are stalling, signaling that states are recognizing the importance of cooperation over freshwater issues and raising the hopes that more cooperation agreements may be signed in the region in the coming years. The signing of the ‘Red-Sea-to-Dead-Sea’ water pact would then be a watershed moment and could potentially be the first step towards broad water cooperation in the Middle East.
A number of reasons lie behind the current Middle East water crisis, including high population growth (aggravated by the recent Syria crisis), rapid depletion of water supply, climate change, and poor water management, according to the report by US intelligence agencies, leading some analysts to worry that the region’s water stress will intensify in the next few decades and create a situation that could lead to the outbreak of war.
The deal has been criticized by environmental groups, which have opposed it on the grounds that water from the Red Sea would upset the ecosystem of the Dead Sea through the introduction of alien plant species and that the proposed amount of water pumped will fail to replenish the Dead Sea, returning only 10 percent of the amount of water lost through diversion and evaporation, according to Eli Raz, a geologist and biologist at Israel’s Dead Sea and Arava Science Center.