The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. At the 150 litres per day recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Jordan has an average of 70 litres per person per day. Groundwater is rapidly depleting (in some parts of the country the level is dropping by more than a metre a year), rainfall has fallen by 60 per cent in recent years and six of the 14 reservoirs have dried up. All this is happening against the backdrop of the Kingdom’s growing population and the influx of more than a million Syrian refugees.
The water situation in the Israeli-occupied territories of the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip is even more difficult. Palestinians have access to only 20 to 70 litres a day. At the same time, Israelis have access to 250 litres of water per person per day, and for Israeli settlers in the West Bank that number rises to 300. According to WHO, 97 per cent of water in Gaza has become unusable since Israel imposed a blockade in 2006.
Since the signing of the US-backed peace agreement between Jordan and Israel in 1994, the Jewish state has supplied Jordan with between 25 and 50 million cubic metres annually. In late November or early December 2023, a new water agreement between the countries was due to be ratified on the margins of the SOR28 international conference held in Dubai, which envisages replacing Israeli drinking water with Jordanian electricity to increase the country’s water reserves in the face of desertification.
As part of the deal, the UAE is building a solar power plant in Jordan. It will produce 600 megawatts of solar power for annual export to Israel. The proceeds are to be split between the Emirates and Jordan. In exchange, Israel will additionally send desalinated seawater from the Gulf of Aqaba (200 million cubic metres) to the Kingdom. However, due to the events in Gaza, there are doubts as to whether this deal will take place now.
The Jordanian authorities went along with the mood of the street. The fact is that more than two-thirds of the Kingdom’s population is Palestinian. They have solidarised with the population of Gaza, holding demonstrations of many thousands every Friday. Most Jordanians see Israel as the biggest threat to the Kingdom’s national security and to the entire Arab world. The authorities fear that the situation could spiral out of control amid growing anti-Israeli sentiment in the country. This may explain the statement of the Kingdom’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi that Jordan will not sign an agreement on the exchange of energy and water with Israel, as it will help to support the Palestinian people.
The old relationship between Israel and Jordan is crumbling. After the creation of Israel in 1948 and the first Arab-Israeli war, several countries fought for control of the region’s water resources. In 1955, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel reached an agreement whereby Jordan was to receive 740 million cubic metres and Israel 400 million cubic metres of water from the river basin.
However, in 1964 Israel built two dams on the Jordan River, diverting water to its own agricultural land through its National Water Company, effectively legalising massive water theft. Syria has also built dams on the upper reaches of the Yarmouk River, further diverting water from the Jordan River. As a result, its flow has dropped to less than 200 million cubic metres. The result is a polluted stream in Jordan that cannot be used for irrigation.
Water has become a weapon in conflicts in the Middle East. Israel occupied many water-rich areas: the Jordan River, Lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights. As a result, the diverted water allowed the Negev Desert to be turned into an agricultural zone.
At the same time, Israel is successfully developing new technologies. Since 2005, it has built numerous desalination plants that make seawater fit for human consumption, and has become a world leader in more environmentally friendly wastewater management and waste recycling technologies. Of the two billion cubic metres of water the country needs each year, half is produced through desalination and recycling.
Israeli control over Jordanian and Palestinian water resources is driving protests in the Kingdom. Human rights organisations claim that Palestinians are living under a “water occupation”, deprived by the Israeli army of access to the Jordan River, their wells and springs, and forced to buy water from the Israeli company Mekorot at high prices. According to a number of Arab researchers, 85 per cent of Palestinian water resources are under Israeli control.
Since Israel launched its operation in the Gaza Strip, the water situation has become catastrophic, with residents having access to less than three litres a day. To survive, they are forced to collect rainwater. The poor sanitation conditions have already led to a rapid increase in gastrointestinal diseases. According to the latest figures, the number of patients has reached 360,000, including many children and the elderly.
The problems of water supply not only in Jordan and Palestine, but also in the Middle East region as a whole need to be solved in a complex. If the situation does not change, by the end of 2100 water consumption per capita in many countries of the Middle East will be halved from the existing level.
The situation can, in principle, be resolved. Modern technologies of sea water purification and desalination, wastewater treatment and reuse can in principle meet the water needs of the countries of the region. But for this purpose, Israel needs to stop its aggressive policy towards its neighbours, recognise the Palestinians’ right to their state within the 1967 borders and offer the neighbouring countries mutually beneficial cooperation in the sphere of water resources provision. Reasonable water diplomacy can become the basis for stability in the Middle East.
Nikolay PLOTNIKOV, Head of the Centre for Scientific and Analytical Information, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Doctor of Political Sciences, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.