Bringing an historic deal to fruition, Israeli and Jordanian government officials on Thursday signed a bilateral agreement to exchange water and jointly funnel Red Sea brine to the shrinking Dead Sea.
The agreement, worth some $800 million, is the result of a memorandum of understanding signed among Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian officials on December 9, 2013, in Washington.
According to Thursday’s agreement, Jordan and Israel will share the potable water produced by a future desalination plant in Aqaba, while a pipeline will supply saltwater to the Dead Sea.
In return for its portion of the desalinated water in the South, Israel will double its supply of water to Jordan from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
The agreement was signed on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea by National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Minister Silvan Shalom and his Jordanian counterpart, Water and Irrigation Minister Hazim el-Naser.
“Today we are realizing the vision of Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, the father of the state, who in the late 19th century saw the need to revive the Dead Sea,” Shalom said. “This is the most important and significant agreement since the peace treaty with Jordan [in 1994]. This is the peak of fruitful and very good cooperation between Israel and Jordan and will assist in rehabilitating the Dead Sea and in resolving water issues in Jordan and the Arava.”
The project involves the construction of a 65- to 80-million cubic meter capacity desalination plant in Aqaba, from which Israel will buy some 35 m.cu.m. of water annually for its South, Maya Eldar, an adviser to Shalom, told The Jerusalem Post. In return, Jordan will buy an additional 50 m.
cu.m. of water annually from Lake Kinneret, roughly doubling its current allocation to quench its increasingly thirsty north.
In addition, the agreement entails the construction of a 200-kilometer pipeline to carry brine from Aqaba plant to the shrinking Dead Sea.
While the December 2013 memorandum of understanding also called for Israel to enable the direct sale of an additional 20 m.
cu.m. of water from the Mekorot national water company to the Palestinian Authority, Eldar said this issue is being worked on separately.
“We are going to provide water from the Israeli system to the Palestinians at points where they need water, and we are going to start discussing with them as soon as possible,” she said.
In addition to the commitment to the water exchanges and Red- Dead pipeline, the signatories committed to the formation of a joint administration for the project, where officials from both countries will be equally represented, Eldar explained.
During a conference in Jordan in May, Saad Abu Hammour, the secretary-general of the Jordan Valley Authority within the Jordanian Water and Irrigation Ministry, already told the Post that progress was being made in advancing the Jordanian-Israeli project. At the time, Abu Hammour – who has served as Jordan’s main negotiator in the agreement – called the plans “the first peace process project.”
“This is the first regional peace project between the two countries after the peace treaty,” Abu Hammour told the Post by phone on Thursday.
Not only does the agreement have the potential to save the Dead Sea and “solve the water shortage in two countries,” it can “build the peace process between the two countries,” he said.
Now that the agreement has been signed, each of the countries will shortly hire consultants who will be jointly responsible for preparing the build-operate-transfer tender for the desalination and pipeline mechanisms, Abu Hammour explained. The BOT tender will likely be complete by the end of 2015, he added.
Among the components of the BOT will be the intake mechanism at Aqaba, a pipeline transferring the water to the desalination plant and two pumping stations north of Aqaba, where salty brines will flow through the 200-kilometer pipeline to the Dead Sea, according to Abu Hammour. In addition, the plan includes a pipeline from the desalination plant to the city of Aqaba as well as another from the plant across the border to Israel, he said.
During the 200-kilometer journey of the brine to the Dead Sea, the salty water will be pumped up hill for about a third of the way, after which it will flow by gravity the rest of the way to the Dead Sea, explained Prof. Uri Shani, the chairman of the government’s steering committee for the project.
Building the pipeline alone will require raising about $400m. while constructing the desalination plant will cost around $300m.-400m., financed by water sales.
While Israel will be paying more for its Aqaba desalinated water than Jordan will be for its Lake Kinneret water, the Kinneret water being sold to the Jordanians will be valued according to a desalination price scale, said Shani, who formerly served as commissioner for the Israel Water Authority.
Israel must desalinate more Mediterranean water in order to free up more of Lake Kinneret, he explained, so the price must be higher than freshwater. However, because the Kinneret water is of lower quality than treated desalinated water, the price is accordingly lower, he said.
The project will serve as a pilot for a potentially expanded version of the program, with greater desalination output and more brine flowing to the Dead Sea, or possible additions such as hydroelectric power plants. Implementing a smaller-scale version first is critical in order to ensure that there are no bad consequences for the environment, Shani said.
“First we learn and then we continue,” he said.
Environmentalists praised the signing of Thursday’s agreement as a step forward in regional cooperation, but expressed several reservations regarding certain elements of the plan.
For years, EcoPeace: Friends of the Earth Middle East has objected to the idea of conveying brine from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.
EcoPeace, a regional organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists, has long theorized that the mixing of brine with Dead Sea water could alter its unique chemistry. In addition, the high cost of the pipeline could lead to higher priced water sold at the Aqaba desalination plant.
Another environmental issue that EcoPeace is concerned with is the proposal of Mekorot and the Water Authority to convey the soon-to-be 100 m.cu.m. of Lake Kinneret water to Jordan through a new pipeline. Instead, the organization wants Israel to convey the water to Jordan by releasing it down the Jordan River, which is desperately in need of increased flow.
“There is a strong movement locally of residents and authorities around the lower Jordan that this is an opportunity not to be missed,” Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director for EcoPeace, told the Post. “The Water Authority and Mekorot are more interested in moving water in pipes than thinking of the benefit for the region.”
Four kibbutzim – Degania Alef, Degania Bet, Kinneret and Beit Zera – submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice on Thursday morning attempting to prevent the signing of the agreement. It accused Shalom of “distributing the water as a gift to the State of Jordan, without allowing Israel to benefit from the water at all, to benefit from the river that is of utmost importance in Israel.”
Like EcoPeace, the kibbutzim favor instead that the newly allocated water be sent down the river, allowing Jordan to pump its share via the King Abdullah Canal.
“It doesn’t matter whether the water will come by trucks or pipes or by the river,” Yael Shavit, a spokeswoman for the kibbutzim and the Kinneret Drainage Authority, told the Post. “We want it through the river, because we want it alive.”
By releasing the increased quantities of water into the Jordan River, which is already under rehabilitation from decades of contamination, Bromberg argued that both residents on both sides could once again enjoy a fast-flowing, clean river.
“We have a real opportunity here to contribute to the rehabilitation of the river and the welfare of both Jordanians and Israelis,” he said.
Abu Hammour, on the other hand, said that he does not favor this solution and prefers to see the pipeline constructed as Mekorot and the Israeli Water Authority have planned. Jordan requires this water to be transferred in the country’s north rather than downstream, as the area is in dire need of freshwater, he explained. In particular, the influx of Syrian refugees has placed a huge amount of pressure on the country’s natural resources, he added.
“We need this water in the Northern Governorate,” Abu Hammour said. “We cannot dump it in the river. In the end it would go to the Dead Sea. We need the water to be treated and sent to the North.”
Regardless of how exactly the water is conveyed, all of the parties involved expressed their enthusiasm that the agreement has been signed, enabling continued cooperation between the two neighbors.
“I’m really excited,” said Shani, who has played a key role in the project’s development since 2007.
“I think to achieve such an agreement at this time is very exciting.”
Calling the signing an extension of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty, Eldar stressed that “this continues the chapter on water.”
“It’s a very historic moment,” she said. “We’ve been working for so many years on this, and this is the first cooperation that is real – it’s for many years ahead.”
To Abu Hammour, the project is key to both improving natural resource needs as well as furthering political compromises in the future.
“When there is regional project between the two nations, I think it is a step forward in improving the relations,” he said.