Exclusive: Israel, Jordan, PA to sign trilateral water swap, sales agreements

World Bank's Water Practice division tells Jerusalem Post deal will increase Israel's water sales to PA by 20 million cubic meters annually.

Dead Sea with palm trees 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Dead Sea with palm trees 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In an effort to quench an ever thirsty region through regional cooperation, representatives from the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian governments will be signing a trilateral memorandum of understanding in Washington, D.C. this afternoon on future water swaps and sales.
Following the memorandum's signing, the three 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 afternoon. Among the initiatives is the development of a desalination plant near Aqaba, where the water produced will be shared between Israel and Jordan, McPhail explained. In return, Israel will increase the annual releases of water from Lake Kinneret to Jordan, he said. For the Palestinian side, Israel's national water corporation Mekorot will increase its water sales by 20 million cubic meters annually, McPhail 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."
The desalination plant will produce about 80 million cubic meters per year of potable water, and about 50 to 60 percent of that amount 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.
In McPhail's opinion, Israel can only benefit from participating in this agreement.
"More than anything else Israel has always said it wants warm relationship with Jordan," he said. "I think that's the motivation for doing this."
Although the relationship may be the motivation, McPhail stressed that Israel does not lose out financially by any means.
"It voids the necessity [for Israel] to build another desalination plant," he said.
As far as the Palestinian element of the memorandum of understanding goes, a price still needs to be negotiated on the 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.
Despite radio reports on Sunday morning quoting Energy, Water and National Infrastructures Minister Silvan Shalom as saying that an agreement on the enormous Red Sea - Dead Sea Water Conveyance project would be signed on Sunday afternoon, McPhail stressed that this is not the case.
The Red Sea - Dead Sea project in question involved establishing 180 kilometers worth of pipelines and tunnels that would transport water from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Dead Sea, with desalination processes and hydroelectric power generation occurring along the way . According to World Bank estimations, the project would have cost the parties involved a total of approximately $9.97 billion.
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, drafted by different external authors. The series of studies were issued after a decade of pondering the project in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and as the Dead Sea water level continued to decline at a rate of more than a meter per year. These severe losses have been largely attributed to the progressive decline of Jordan River flow to the Dead Sea, as a result of upstream diversion by Israel, Jordan and Syria. 
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 would cause problematic build-ups of red algae and gypsum, he explained.
Now, as sort of a pilot test program, about 100 million cubic meters worth of brine from the new Aqaba desalination plant will be conveyed through a 200-kilometer pipeline to the Dead Sea, in Jordan's territory, McPhail said. A consortium of international scientists will study the results, to see what the effects might be, he explained.
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 experiments 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 neither cost estimate nor time frame 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 quoted Shalom as claiming 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.