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Creative water policies help cool tensions

Creative water policies help cool tensions

Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories all have one thing in common: an intense need for water. Can this shared need provide opportunities to ease the dangerous tensions in the region?

When a team from international environmental group EcoPeace went to a beach of Ashkelon, Israel, in 2016, they didn’t find the signs of typhoid and cholera that they were looking for. But they did find something almost as alarming.

Ashkelon, just a few kilometres north of the Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean shore, is home to a desalination plant that produces much of Israel’s drinking water. But while there they heard rumours that sewage, which had entered the sea from Gaza, had flowed into the plant and shut it down. They filed for information from the Israeli government to confirm that – and they learned that it was not only true, but had happened multiple times. So they notified local communities, as well as Israeli and international media, resulting in publicity that created a need for change and eventually in an investigation by Israel State Comptroller, which issued a comprehensive report in 2017, said Giulia Giordano, international affairs manager for EcoPeace, at the 5th Annual AAAS-TWAS Science Diplomacy Summer Course in August. Netanyahu’s statement in Rome in 2016 even indicated that it was in Israel’s interests to improve water availability in the Gaza Strip as well as access to electricity, because of potential outbreaks of waterborne diseases, like cholera or typhoid.

If there is one thing that binds the fate of Middle Eastern nations together, it’s the desert region’s scarcest resource: water. Creating drinkable water relies heavily on desalination – converting salty sea water into fresh water – which is a costly, energy-consuming process. But because of this common need, it also provides opportunities to ease some of the region’s deepest tensions, even between Palestine and Israel.

Giordano discussed EcoPeace’s work using water diplomacy to ease tensions and mend rifts between Israel, Palestinians and Jordan at the 5th annual science diplomacy course in August, held in Trieste, Italy. The event brought dozens of early-career scientists and policymakers together for lectures, discussions and simulations that explored how science and diplomacy intersect. It was co-organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the TWAS Science Diplomacy programme.

EcoPeace – an Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian organisation – combines an environmental agenda with a peace-making agenda, and the result is a synergy between science and diplomacy that makes unique opportunities happen. 

“If you can effectively pressure the governments that can make an impact on the environment,” Giordano explained, “you can do it only by realizing that environment is shared.” 

Water and Energy

Life in the Middle East, and especially in the Palestinian territories, revolves around the scarcity of two essential needs: Water, for drinking, and energy, which is needed to create drinkable water.

For nearly 25 years, water for Israel and Palestine has been regulated under the 1995 Oslo II Accord. It was supposed to be temporary, and Palestinians signed it anticipating that it would be replaced in 2000. But the peace process derailed, and Oslo II remained in force. So today, as in 1995, roughly 80% of the drinkable water from the shared Mountain Aquifer goes to the Israelis and 20% to Palestinians. 

But there is chronic water scarcity in the West Bank – and in Gaza, the situation is even worse. Ever since Israel withdrew, the Palestinians took control of their own coastal aquifer and began pumping the water from wells. Because they overpumped, sea water, dense with salt was drawn into the aquifer from the Mediterranean. In addition, the aquifer is contaminated by untreated sewage of 2 million people. The Palestinians now are left with salty, polluted water that is unhealthy for humans to drink. 

EcoPeace worked with  stakeholders on all  sides to create awareness and bring them to develop solutions, and one was to increase the amount of water Israel sells to Gaza. Israel is water-stressed, but has the desalination technology and infrastructure to handle the burden. Even still, Palestinians are heavily dependent on water sold from Israel. 

Palestinians are also mostly dependent on energy from Israel, and are trying to diversify their energy resources. The Israeli energy industry provides both electricity and diesel fuel to Palestinian companies which use that fuel to generate electricity for Palestinian towns. In Gaza, this amounts to just enough for four hours of electricity a day.

Palestine needs energy to deal with its wastewater, too. And historically, Giordano explained, Israeli leadership has used the Palestinian dependency as a deterrent. It’s therefore in the Palestinians’ political interest to limit that dependency by diversifying their energy sources.

“If you add another source, you change a little bit the balance of power,” Giordano said. 

A potential answer lies in Jordan. 

Jordan as a solar powerhouse

Neighbouring Jordan is one of the most water-stressed countries on Earth. But Jordan has a lot of desert, which is ideal for solar production. EcoPeace proposed to look at each country’s advantages, including Jordan’s, and create a community around the most precious resources in the region: water and energy. That approach could in turn deliver benefits to all three nations. 

EcoPeace have since joined with private interests to develop a first-of-its-kind project called “Water-Energy Nexus” The proposal is to to produce solar energy in Jordan and then transfer it to Israel and Palestine. This could produce the amount of energy needed to provide enough carbon-neutral clean water for the region – and enough energy for other needs as well, such as wastewater treatment plants and water for agriculture.

But, importantly, the project shows how the scientific work of providing people with basic needs can provide an avenue to address diplomatic solutions to stubborn political problems. That’s what makes it science diplomacy.

“The benefit for Palestine is to diversify its energy sources and reduce its dependence on Israel, which at the moment is the only energy provider,” said Giordano. “In addition, this would mean further integration of Palestine in the region, which could lead to further exchanges.”

There are also several incentives for Israel to go along with this proposal, Giordano said. Israel could use solar energy from Jordan because Israel currently relies on gas for energy, and is failing to meet in renewable energy requirements from the Paris Agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions. Also, there’s a need for Israelis to enhance their status in the region where they are often seen as the odd-country-out.

“What’s happening here is unique, because Israel and Palestine are not integrated into the region’s electric grid,” Giordano said. “So an Arab state selling energy to Israel could set a precedent for regional integration while producing carbon-neutral water, lowering local pollution, and starting Jordan down the path of becoming a regional force in renewable energy.”

Bonds of peace along the River Jordan

This project is not the only effort at water diplomacy that EcoPeace is engaged in. The Jordan River, another critical water source, rides the border between Israel and Jordan, as well as the West Bank and Jordan. 

Most people don’t normally have access to the lower river, which is mostly a militarized area except for the baptism site on both banks. So many were unaware that the river is now becoming a sewage channel, heavily polluted with agricultural run-off and untreated sewage from poor towns in the Jordan Valley – at least before EcoPeace started informing the public. 

The problem has many dimensions. In northwestern Jordan, which is close to the river, poverty runs deep. Unemployment climbs as high as 60% in some areas; because poverty drives radicalization, some villages in the region have emerged as major recruiting areas for the Islamic State (known locally as Daesh). The Jordan River Valley desperately needs sustainable economic development. But the only way to achieve that is to cooperatively share the management of the river. 

In one part of that effort, EcoPeace organized a regional gathering of mayors, municipal representatives and youth – from Israel, Palestine and Jordan – built rafts together, and then “jumped” into the Lower Jordan River with a clear message: a region-wide call aimed at the governments that need to step up efforts to rehabilitate the Lower Jordan River.

“They decided to take this action and jump into the river to prove they really want a clean and healthy river,” Giordano said. “In there, are representatives from Israel, Palestine and Jordan, with different cultural and religious backgrounds but still, they’re holding hands, because they all share the same interest”

Sean Treacy