In an effort to quench an ever-thirsty region through cooperation, representatives from the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian governments signed a trilateral memorandum of understanding on water exchanges and allocations in Washington on Monday afternoon.
The parties will begin pursuing three water-sharing initiatives over the next few months, Alexander McPhail, the lead water and sanitation specialist in the World Bank’s Water Practice division, told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview on Monday, prior to the signing.
Among the initiatives is the development of a desalination plant near Aqaba, from which the potable water will be shared by Israel and Jordan, and the salty brines will be pipelined to the Dead Sea, McPhail explained.
In return, Israel will increase the annual releases of water from Lake Kinneret to Jordan and will also increase its sales of water to the Palestinian Authority, he added.
“It’s like a swap,” McPhail told the Post, regarding the Israeli and Jordan portions of the agreement. “Israel needs water in the south because they want to settle that part of their country. Jordan needs more water in the North.”
Signing the memorandum of understanding at the World Bank headquarters were Regional Cooperation and Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom, Jordanian Water and Irrigation Minister Hazem Nasser and Palestinian Water Authority Minister Shaddad Attili.
“This is a historic agreement that realizes a dream of many years and the dream of Herzl,” Shalom said. “The agreement is of the highest diplomatic, economic, environmental and strategic importance.”
Taking in approximately 175 million cubic meters of water from the Red Sea annually, the desalination plant will produce about 80 million cubic meters per year of potable water – about 50 to 60 percent of which will be piped a few kilometers over to Israel, McPhail explained.
Because the Jordanian government still needs to issue a tender for the site’s establishment, it is impossible to know at this point what the water’s price will be, according to McPhail.
However, the water will already be treated and potable, as opposed to Kinneret water, which still requires additional treatment upon release, he said.
Israel currently releases approximately 50 million cubic meters of water from Lake Kinneret to Jordan annually, according to data from the Water Authority. According to the terms of the agreement, Israel will be selling Jordan an additional 50 million cubic meters annually, Shalom’s spokesman said.
As part of the seawater desalination process, 100 million cubic meters of resultant salty brines will annually be piped nearly 200 km.
for deposit in the Dead Sea, McPhail explained.
The pipeline will cost $300- $400 million and will take an estimated three years to complete, following the publication of a Jordanian tender in 2014, Shalom’s spokesman said.
Despite media reports to the contrary all day Sunday, McPhail stressed that this program is not the same as the proposed Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance project.
The Red Sea-Dead Sea project in question involved establishing 180 km. worth of pipelines and tunnels that would transport water from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Dead Sea, with desalination processes four times that of the Aqaba facility, as well as hydroelectric power generation occurring along the way.
In January, the World Bank released three detailed reports about the plan – a feasibility study, an environmental and social assessment, and a study of strategic alternatives, which all examined methods of replenishing a dwindling Dead Sea.
One of the major results of the studies conducted was just how expensive the project would be – the foreboding, nearly $10b.
price tag that none of the players would be able to pay, McPhail told to the Post.
Meanwhile, environmentalists feared that the 400 million cubic meters of Red Sea brine that would enter the Dead Sea annually through the program would cause problematic buildups of red algae and gypsum, he explained.
Now, as sort of a pilot test program, the 100 million cubic meters worth of brine from the new Aqaba desalination plant will arrive through a Jordanian pipeline to the Dead Sea, and a consortium of international scientists will asses the results, McPhail said.
Although critics have said that such a pilot program would not provide a realistic picture as to what a much larger brine dump would look like, McPhail stressed that this is the most effective solution possible.
“We’re doing a large scale experiment here which nobody has done before,” he said. “So there are a lot of unknowns going forward. But certainly having this large body of water in which we can release the brine in a controlled fashion would lead to a much better understanding of this complex chemical relationship than what we have today.”
There are neither overall cost estimates nor time frames as to when work on the desalination plant will be finished. McPhail acknowledged, however, that the environmental tests required for its construction would require at least a year.
Meanwhile, although media reports early on Sunday claimed that the World Bank would provide a bridge loan for the process, McPhail stressed that this is untrue.
“We are very happy to play the facilitator role. We have definitely not agreed to any financing for this,” he said.
As far as the Palestinian element of the memorandum of understanding goes, a price still needs to be negotiated on an additional 20 million cubic meters of water that Israel will sell to the PA, McPhail explained.
Mekorot is obliged by the Oslo Accords to supply the PA with 31 million cubic meters of water per year, but actually supplies about 52 million cubic meters, according to Water Authority data. This amount is in addition to the 196 million cubic meters of water used annually by the PA through the region’s aquifers.
In McPhail’s opinion, Israel can only benefit from participating in this agreement.
Although regional cooperation may be the key motivation, McPhail stressed that Israel does not lose out financially by any means, as it would decrease the need for Israel to build an additional desalination plant.
“More than anything else, Israel has always said it wants a warm relationship with Jordan,” he said. “I think that’s the motivation for doing this.”
In response to the agreement's signing, regional environmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) praised the water-sharing elements but slammed the idea of conveying brines from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.
"Our take remains that if we¹re talking about a water exchange, FoEME supports a water exchange between Aqaba and Eilat and the Sea of Galilee and Amman," Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of FoEME told the Post. "FoEME also supports more water being supplied by Israel to the Palestinians. That¹s an urgent human issue.
"What FoEME sees as unfortunate and what will risk this from taking place is to link the water exchange with a pipe bringing brine from Aqaba to the Dead Sea," he continued.
The pipeline itself presents potential risks to an earthquake-prone region, but most problematic is the risk of mixing the brine with Dead Sea water and potentially altering its unique chemistry, Bromberg argued. In addition, the pipeline's high price tag will inevitably raise the price of water sold from the Aqaba desalination plant, presenting financial risk to Israel, he added.
"It opens real questions to the Ministry of Finance as to why would Israel pay for such expensive water," Bromberg said.
Options for depositing the brine other than through a pipeline to the Dead Sea must be examined such as funneling it through an enclosed canal to the Jordanian desert or injecting it into the deepwater of the Gulf of Aqaba, beneath the coral reefs, Bromberg suggested.
"We understand that there¹s a need for the water," he said. "We¹re not looking for something perfect. After a decade of studies on the impact on the Dead Sea, the refusal to come down off the tree of bringing brine to the Dead Sea is in no one¹s interest."