Israel agrees to swap water with thirsty neighbors - but can it quench demand?

Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority will exchange water from filtration plants to feed thirsty towns and agriculture. A more ambitious plan for a new canal is still up in the air.

Nir Elias/Reuters
A camel used to take tourists for rides stands on the side of the road in the Dead Sea, in southern Israel Dec. 5. Israel heralded a new water agreement Monday, Dec. 9, with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, which will tap the Red Sea to bring more water to the arid region and the fast vanishing Dead Sea.

Israel today heralded a new water agreement with Jordan and the Palestinians, which will tap the Red Sea to bring more water to the arid region and the fast vanishing Dead Sea.

"This is a historic agreement that realizes a dream of many years and the dream of [Zionist leader Theodore] Herzl," said Israeli water minister Silvan Shalom after the signing at the World Bank headquarters.

Regional cooperation on the vital issue of water is always noteworthy, especially given tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and the potential for water shortages to spark conflicts. 

But the deal should not be confused with the long-anticipated, much more ambitious project to connect the Red Sea with the quickly vanishing Dead Sea, known as the Red-Dead canal. 

The Red-Dead project would have brought 2 billion cubic meters of water from the Red Sea to the salty Dead Sea, whose surface area has shrunk some 30 percent in the past few decades – due in part to Israel diverting water from the Jordan River upstream for agriculture. 

That project was also expected to yield about 800 million cubic meters (mcm) of drinkable water. However, the project was shelved due to economic and environmental concerns raised in a World Bank study.

Today's water exchange deal, by contrast, is one-tenth of the scale. It involves only 200 mcm per year, 80 mcm of which will be desalinated. A Jordanian desalination plant near the northern Red Sea port of Aqaba will supply 30 to 50 mcm of water to southern Israel, as well as 30 mcm to Jordan. In exchange, Israel will allow Jordan to take 50 mcm from the Sea of Galilee, located near the Jordanian border. 

Jordan's water needs have increased substantially with the influx of more than half a million Syrian refugees over the past 18 months, who have mainly settled in the northern half of Jordan. This water exchange would ease Jordan's costs in supplying the north with water.

Palestinian control

Israel will also sell an additional 30 million cubic meters of water to the Palestinian Authority. But that does not address the long-running Palestinian concern that Israel is dealing with water as a good rather than a joint natural resource to be divided fairly.

"This fails the Palestinian interest because they are not going to have control over the new amount of water," says Nader Khateeb, Palestinian director for Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), one of the region's most prominent environmental groups dealing with water. "It has nothing about Palestinian fair share of joint water resources."

While FoEME supports water exchanges in principle, it has raised environmental concerns with today's deal and urged further environmental study before the three-year construction of the pipeline commences. Mr. Khateeb adds that a regional body is needed to manage the project.

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