Deal or no deal? Jordan's water agreement with Israel

Deal or no deal? Jordan's water agreement with Israel
Analysis: Israel will need more water for its expansion of military bases in the Negev - and help from Jordan appears to be in the pipeline.
4 min read
04 February, 2015
A planned gas agreement between Israel and Jordan saw protests in Amman [Anadolu]

Jordan has announced plans to build a desalination plant next year in cooperation with Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The deal is set to see Jordan supply Israel with desalinated water from the Red Sea, in exchange for 50 million cubic metres of water per year from the Sea of Galilee.  

Omar Salameh, from Jordan's ministry of water and irrigation, announced that Jordan will begin the first stages of its desalination plant later this year.

He added that Jordan would bear the full cost of the project, which is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The government will borrow from the World Bank to fund the plant, Salameh said.

The bidding process for potential constructions firms is expected to begin shortly.

Jordan's decision to head the project is seen as a strategic move, due to the kingdom's frequent water shortages. Stocks have been further depleted by the entry of hundreds of thousands of Syrians into Jordan seeking refuge from bombing and fighting.

Tapping resources

The desalination plant will be built north of Jordan's Red Sea port, Aqaba, and will produce 100 billion litres per year. Salamah expects that 30 billion litres will be allocated to Jordan, 50 billion litres will be sold to Israel at cost price, and 20 billion litres to the Palestinian Authority.

To put this into context, each Jordanian currently uses around 29,200 litres of water per year, which is 80 percent less than the global average. United States residents, in comparison, use around 135,000 litres each year.          

A number of tax incentives will be offered to investors, including exemptions from customs duties on imported equipment.

Jordan will also purchase water from Israel's Sea of Galilee at $0.27 per cubic metre (one cubic metre equals 1,000 litres).

Going against the flow

Despite huge opposition from the Jordanian public, which remains uneasy about any relations with Israel, the government is set to press ahead with the plan.

The timing of the announcement follows huge opposition from civil society groups, the public, and parliament, about a deal to import gas from Israel.

A majority of Jordanian MPs refused to sign the gas deal, and many threatened to resign from their posts if a deal to buy $15 billion of Israeli gas through US-based Noble Energy went ahead. Talks were suspended following the massive public opposition.

Instead, Amman will purchase Gaza gas through the British BG Group. Gas supplies from Egypt had been interruped due to militant activity in the Sinai, through which the pipelines snake.

But analysts say that, despite the failure of the Israel-Jordan gas agreement, the water deal would be an important step for Tel Aviv to strengthen its economic relations with its Arab neighbours. It may also prove more beneficial for Israel than either Jordan or the PA.

     The water deal would be an important step for Tel Aviv to strengthen relations with its Arab neighbours.

Israel is developing the Negev desert through a series of new villages, a military academy and bases - and will need access to a cheap and reliable supply of water for the project.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Bedouin Palestinian villagers have been forcibly evicted by authorities. Israel deems these Bedouin villages to be "illegal".

There are around 260,000 Bedouins living in the Negev, and half of their villages are not recoginised by Tel Aviv.

In the pipeline

Sofian al-Tal, a strategic expert, told al-Araby al-Jadeed that Amman should approach the water deal with caution. He believes will be sold as an "Israeli-US" initiative. 

A planned pipeline will extend from the the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba, in south Jordan, to the al-Raisha area, 90km north of Aqaba city, where the desalination plant will be established.

Tal added that water levels in the Dead Sea, where the run-off salt water will be pumped into, will not rise by more than a few centimetres.

Jordan will bear the huge costs of obtaining water from the Sea of Galilee, which also needs to be desalinated.

Manaf Majali, head of Jordan's anti-normalisation committee, told al-Araby he was surprised the government had agreed to the water deal after the outcry over the gas deal.

Majali demanded the government withdraw from the water desalination project, as this would further "normalise" relations between the two countries.

He said he expected cooperation between civil society organisations and the parliament would be enough to stop the deal in its current form, and will pressure authorities against adopting similar joint projects with Israel in the future.

Jordan continues to suffer massive water shortages, which will likely become a major economic and social challenge for the desert country's administrators - and millions of thirsty citizens.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.