For the dying Jordan valley, the 'water for energy' deal with Israel may be too little, too late
On November 22, Jordan and Israel signed an agreement under which Jordan will provide solar energy to Israel, and receive 200 million cubic meters of water per year in return. The deal will be implemented in five years and is arguably the most important joint project between the two former enemies since they signed a peace treaty in 1994.
The initiative was presented as a response to the climate crisis by the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, who brokered the deal. Its main beneficiary in this regard would be Jordan, the second-most water-poor country on earth, whose annual renewable resources of water per capita lie five times below the threshold of severe water scarcity.
This is not the first time Israel and Jordan cooperate on water issues, albeit uneasily. Key to the 1994 peace treaty were provisions on sharing joint water resources from the Jordan River. And since concluding this ‘cold peace’, Israel has periodically sold additional amounts of water to Jordan, despite tense relations between the two nations.
This waterline proved particularly valuable in July, when Israel agreed to sell 50 million cubic meters of water to drought-stricken Jordan, and once again in October as dams were running dry. But the idea of entrenching this relationship further has been met with popular backlash against what Jordanians – 80% of whom hail from Palestine– perceive as a step towards ‘normalising’ Israel.
"Farmers are suffering and many are thinking of abandoning the land"
A pressing water crisis
Marking the border with the Occupied West Bank and Israel, the emblematic Jordan River – now a feebly-running stream – has come to embody the urgency of Jordan’s water crisis.
“This is the place where water used to be,” Abla Abu Elhajj, a Palestinian refugee who implements a permaculture project in the Jordan Valley, told The New Arab. “Now, it has become a disaster. Farmers are suffering and many are thinking of abandoning the land.”
The Jordan River Valley is the nation’s breadbasket, accounting for 60% of Jordan’s agricultural production. The environment is productive but harsh, marked by extreme temperatures, low rainfall, and saline soil. This year, rains that should have started in October were delayed to the end of November. “The season is tired,” an elderly farmer sighed, contemplating a row of dusty banana trees.
“This is amazing water, but we cannot use it for farming,” lamented Ahmad, an agricultural shop manager, pointing to a small canal that runs in front of a row of greenhouses. The canal carries water that is reserved for domestic use, taken from the Yarmouk River at the border with Syria. Due to the need to preserve freshwater for human consumption, Jordanian authorities have developed a network of dams to store water for agricultural use. But this water, a mix of treated wastewater and rainwater, is twice as saline.
Over the years, the use of brackish irrigation water has increased the salinity of the soil, affecting the yield of crops. “In the past, this area was suitable for citrus trees, but they were particularly sensitive to salinity, and people abandoned them for seasonal vegetables,” Ehsan Al-Abed, the supervisor of a seeds trial station, told The New Arab.
Now, the valley mostly produces vegetables and tropical fruits including melons, bananas and dates – for which Jordan is renowned internationally- but these plants also struggle to flourish in the degraded land.
Saving the soil
Jordan’s water crisis has led to diminishing harvests and mounting costs for farmers, including electricity to power irrigation systems and calcium-based products to ‘treat’ the soil.
“No one benefits from this situation, except those selling fertilisers,” Hazem Alsayed, an agricultural engineer supervising a farm in the valley, told The New Arab. “As for us, we have started to look for new crops – mango, avocado - that can withstand the climate change we’re witnessing.”
To limit salinisation, those who can afford to mix agricultural irrigation water with freshwater. Some confess they sometimes use drinking water to water particularly salt-sensitive crops – such as strawberries. But at roughly one Jordanian dinar per cubic meter of trucked drinking water, this can be a considerable expense.
Others have excavated private boreholes, an increasingly controlled practice with uncertain results. As the aquifers deplete, people have to reach ever deeper to find water, which is often brackish. A handful of privileged farms have private desalination plants, an energy-intensive option unaffordable to most.
Smaller-scale farmers have accepted their shriveling yields or given up farming altogethier. A handful are exploring alternative techniques, such as Abu Elhajj, who uses compost to regulate salinity and hold moisture in the soil. Her garden is a green island in a sea of rocks, its soil a significant shade darker than the dusty land around it.
Across the street, a permaculture pilot project dubbed Greening the Desert is also developing and spreading agricultural techniques adapted to the region’s environment, but these efforts remain limited to small initiatives.
To compound these challenges, farmers across the country have been hit hard by regional crises. “In 2012, we had 70,000 greenhouses in the Jordan Valley, 20,000 of which were dedicated to exports,” Al-Abed highlighted. “The valley was full of Turkish traders.” But since the war in Syria, Jordan lost access to its northern markets in Eastern and Central Europe. This, combined with an increase in the cost of fertilisers partly linked to the pandemic and global shipping issues, has slashed farmers’ profits.
Many saw the full reopening of the border with Syria in September with hope. However, trade will likely remain well below pre-war levels for now, since active conflict lines bar the road to Turkey.
"Caught between regional instability and climate change, Jordan’s breadbasket faces an uncertain future – and the livelihoods of thousands of agricultural workers and small farmers hang in the balance"
Caught between regional instability and climate change, Jordan’s breadbasket faces an uncertain future – and the livelihoods of thousands of agricultural workers and small farmers hang in the balance. Already, swathes of agricultural lands located in prime tropical locations – only an hour away from the capital Amman - are being sliced up and turned into winter villas, surrounded by lush gardens and private swimming pools.
A contested deal
The water-for-energy swap with Israel could alleviate some of the immediate pressure on Jordan’s dwindling water resources, half of which are consumed by agriculture.
But the deal has elicited furor in Jordan and raised concerns about the water dependence of Jordan to an unfriendly neighbour. Thousands of Jordanians took to the streets in Amman and across several university campuses during several days of protest. Dozens were arrested, most of them students, signaling the Jordanian leadership’s determination to go through with the deal.
In this politically sensitive context, most farmers interviewed by The New Arab declined to share their thoughts on the deal, although several privately voiced their opposition. Since it is unclear whether Israel’s desalinated water will go to domestic or agricultural use, many feel they are not directly concerned by the deal.
The matter is widely perceived as a decision emanating from the top circles of Jordanian leadership – the royal court – a perception which seems confirmed by the Jordanian government’s shyness to defend the deal in public.
Last year, Israel started to export natural gas to Jordan after a similarly controversial deal that went forward despite nationwide protests and the opposition of parliament. On December 8th, the water agreement was discussed in parliament, but observers expect it will proceed with or without the deputies’ approval.
Lyse Mauvais is a freelance journalist based in Amman, Jordan. She covers environmental issues in the Middle East, with a focus on Syria and Jordan.
Follow her on Twitter: @lyse_mauvais