Will Politics Kill a ‘Win-win’ Deal to Swap Israeli Water for Jordanian Solar Power?

While Israel is swimming in desalinated water, its eastern neighbor is desperate for more H2O, as are the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The hope is that necessity will dampen any political opposition to the deal

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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The newly-installed solar panels in the Arava desert.
Solar panels in Israel's Arava desert.Credit: Morey Chen
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

On paper, it’s a win-win situation. The kingdom of Jordan is desperately in need of water, and Israel has excess supplies being made by its desalination plants. Israel needs to develop more renewable energy sources to meet its climate change targets, and Jordan has lots of land available to build solar power farms.

It could even be a win-win-win situation if the Palestinians were included, says Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of the environmental organization EcoPeace Middle East – because the West Bank and Gaza are also facing a severe water deficit, and could address it by desalinating water in Gaza.

The win-win scenario with Israel and Jordan, in any case, is slowly moving forward. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on an energy-water deal earlier this month, at the COP 27 Climate Change Conference at Sharm el-Sheikh. The United Arab Emirates’ Masdar, a company that develops renewable energy projects, is also a partner and will build the solar power facility.

The deal could set a precedent for the kind of cooperation the Middle East and North Africa will need as the impact of climate change grows more severe, with cross-border collaboration the only way to address it.

But not everyone is sold on the win-win scenario. In Jordan, opposition leaders opposed to any kind of “normalization” with Israel staged protests against the energy-water deal. In Israel, no grassroots opposition has emerged, but the religious-right government expected to come to power in the next weeks may be less enthusiastic about the deal than its outgoing predecessor.

Bromberg, whose organization’s 2017 paper proposing an energy-water swap dubbed “A Green Blue Deal for the Middle East,” set the process in motion.

“We identified the harnessing of the sun and sea as two natural sources that can build trust, which is the foundation of any peace. We’re not talking about an economic peace. But meeting people’s basic needs for energy and water on a regional cooperative basis is critical,” he says.

Under the MOU, Jordan will supply Israel with 600 megawatts of electric power to be generated by a solar photovoltaic generating and storage facility to be constructed by Masdar. In return, Israel will supply Jordan with 200 million cubic meters (7,060 million cubic feet) annually of desalinated water produced from its existing plants or new ones being planned.

The signing of the memorandum of understanding between Israel, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to develop a 600-megawatt solar photovoltaic plant in Jordan as well as a sustainable Israeli desalination program to export water to Jordan.Credit: AFP

The MOU follows a letter of intent the parties signed a year earlier, after which they undertook studies to ensure the plan was feasible.

Jordan is desperately in need of more water. Due to climate change, the country has been buffeted by shrinking supplies of groundwater and by more volatile weather.

“It’s not just that there’s less rain, it’s also that there’s more variation,” says Sandra Ruckstuhl, a senior researcher based in Amman for the International Water Management Institute. “It doesn’t matter if the numbers say we got just as much rain this year as last year.”

Moreover, Jordan’s population has grown quickly due to a high birth rate and an increasing number of refugees – most recently, Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war. Today, the population is more than 11 million, up from 7 million just a decade ago, including more than 1 million refugees.

Jordan’s water system is creaky and inefficient, with half the water lost to leaks, theft and metering errors. Water prices for households are low and bill-shirking is common, which encourages waste. With other sources drying up, Jordan has taken to pumping water from underground aquifers at an unsustainable rate.

The authorities were left with no choice but to restrict the flow of water to consumers. “Water flows through the system in order to fill tanks once or maybe twice a week [in Amman]. Different parts of the country have it harder than others,” says Ruckstuhl. “This summer, there were times when water was coming every three weeks.”

Her building has three tanks, but not everyone has the money to buy that much storage capacity or supplement official water supplies with water trucked in privately. Pressure can be so low that homes at the tops of hills (and Amman is a hilly city) may have trouble accessing enough water.

Ruckstuhl expresses concern that because Jordan’s water system is so inefficient, water due to come from Israel under the deal will not reach enough consumers and address their needs.

The U.S. government has undertaken a project to help deal with these issues as it sees water as a strategic threat to the kingdom – a key U.S. ally in the region.

The water shortage is only going to get worse as groundwater and aquifer supplies continue to decline and Jordan’s population grows. A 2021 study published in the PNAS journal predicted that under its most optimistic scenario, per capita water usage in Jordan would drop by more than half by 2100 to a daily 43 cubic meters per person.

Wanted: Wide open spaces

By comparison, Israel’s electricity problems are small, but it has no choice but to cooperate with neighbors if it is going to do its part to fight climate change. Israel is currently committed to generating 30 percent of its electric power by renewables by the end of the decade, which is five times their current share. The vast majority of that alternative energy will have to come from solar, which is a problem.

Israel has no shortage of sunlight, but it doesn’t have large reserves of wide open spaces to accommodate solar farms. Israel plans to erect solar panels on roofs and on farms, but that won’t come close to solving the land problem.

A pipe system used to transfer water from Israel to Jordan by Mekorot, Israel's national water company, near Kibbutz Masada by the border with Jordan.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP

“Israel will struggle to meet its Paris commitments if it doesn’t purchase renewables from a neighboring country. Although Israel has the Negev and other desert areas, half of the Negev is military training grounds and nature reserves,” says Bromberg, referring to the 2015 climate accord signed by most countries around the world.

In spite of Jordan’s need for more water and the paucity of options aside from cooperating with Israel, the water-for-energy accord has spurred protests. The latest was after the MOU was signed in November, when thousands protested in a march that began at Amman’s Grand Husseini Mosque. Security forces were present in large numbers.

“International pressure is being exerted on Jordan to abandon its identity, distort its compass and force it to sign the water-for-electricity agreement with the occupation, despite the existence of alternatives,” MP Musa Hantash was quoted as saying by the Al Mayadeen satellite news channel.

King Abdullah II has kept a low profile on the deal, but the political risk he faces doesn’t just arise from cooperating with Israel but from the danger that worsening water shortages will spark political instability.

“Opposition to the deal and to any normalization with Israel are real and widespread. However, the government recognizes the strategic importance of confronting the water crisis, and so it’s willing to absorb the criticism – as it has done in the past when it signed freshwater-purchasing deals with Israel,” says Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The kingdom has already faced the same kind of opposition from the deal to buy natural gas for Jordan’s National Electricity Company from Israel. The government played down its political significance then by saying it was between Israeli and Jordanian companies, rather than governments.

In Israel, there isn’t widespread opposition to a deal in principle, though some officials have expressed concern about whether Jordan will be able to adequately secure the solar farm and transmission lines against terror attacks. Terror attacks a decade ago on a Sinai pipeline delivering Egyptian natural gas to Israel cut off supplies and eventually led to the deal unraveling, casting a small energy crisis in Israel.

Wanted: Potable water

Sachs, for one, plays down those concerns. Israel will be increasing its solar-generating capacity to 17,145 megawatts by 2030, of which the Jordanian facility will contribute just 600.

“The deal would not make Israel reliant on Jordan for energy,” says Sachs. “Unlike the water side of the deal for Jordan, while the new supply would be a welcome addition of renewable energy to the mix in the Israeli market, it would not constitute a significant portion of the country’s energy resources.”

However, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to take over as prime minister sometime next month, has in the past taken a tough line on deals with Jordan and has had a frosty relationship with Abdullah.

When the outgoing government signed a deal last year to double the supply of water Israel provides to the Hashemite kingdom, Netanyahu lashed out at the agreement. “Now, while Jordan is strengthening its relations with Iran, [then-Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett today doubled the amount of water transferred by Israel to Jordan, without obtaining any political return for Israel,” Netanyahu tweeted.

The Jordanian east coast of the Dead Sea. While water levels are falling, Jordan's population continues to rise.Credit: Manuel Cohen / AFP

Says Sachs: “Netanyahu has a long history of bad relations with Jordan and its king. Still, one can hope that the deal will go forward. It’s a classic win-win, and support in Israel for the deal is considerable – especially given the Emirati involvement.”

The water crisis in the Palestinian areas is no less severe than in Jordan. EcoPeace Middle East’s Bromberg says just 1 percent of the natural groundwater under Gaza is potable. “People shouldn’t be drinking any of the water in their tap – they should be sourcing water from the small desalination plants that the international community supports or using imported water,” he says. “The water crisis that exists in Gaza also exists in the West Bank. If you go to towns like Yatta or the north around Jenin, it is severe, if not more severe, water scarcity,” he says.

The problem is the energy-for-water deal’s connection with the 2020 Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and four Arab countries.

“There is room and feasible plans for Palestinian cooperation, but so far the Abraham Accords framework has proved too unpalatable for them to join,” says Sachs. “Still, there are myriad policy options – including via unilateral Israeli decisions – that could alleviate some of the problems, and lessen the gaping disparity in water availability to Israel and Israeli settlements in the West Bank and to their immediate Palestinian neighbors.”

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