Ben-Eliezer at Jordan water conference: We're a willing partner

Both Israel and Jordan are facing unprecedented water crises, though the situation in the Hashemite Kingdom is much worse.

Dead Sea good 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dead Sea good 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer joined his fellow water ministers from the Mediterranean region on Monday in signing a water management cooperation agreement. The agreement emerged out of the latest Euro-Med conference, held at the convention center on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. "My main purpose here was to sit at the table and show that Israel was a willing partner [in this process of strategizing about regional water issues] and was a close partner of Jordan's [as well]," Ben-Eliezer told Israeli reporters, at a briefing at the end of the one-day conference. "I was approached numerous times today by my fellow ministers and other delegates all interested in talking to Israel about water management. I spoke to the deputy head of the Arab League, the delegates from Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon, Libya and the PA. "What was really remarkable was that no one criticized Israel or even mentioned the diplomatic process. Water issues have superseded politics," he said. The Euro-Med forum on water emerged out of the Barcelona Process of 1995, which was meant to bring European and Mediterranean countries closer together. At the urging of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Euro-Med forum was created in July to focus on water. Last month, the organization's governing bodies were established. Israel was named one of six deputy secretaries-general, whose responsibilities have yet to be determined. While the speeches and sessions were largely ceremonial and nonspecific in nature, Ben-Eliezer said they represented the start of a long process that could bring very interesting results for Israel. Both Israel and Jordan are facing unprecedented water crises, though the situation in the Hashemite Kingdom is much worse. One of the potential solutions to the region's water crisis is the Red-Dead Canal Project. Ben-Eliezer said that Israel would wait for the results of the feasibility study the World Bank is carrying out on the project. Stephen Lintner, the World Bank's chief environmental troubleshooter, said on the sidelines of the conference that it plans to submit its final report in December 2010. The study teams will look at the proposal's logistical feasibility and the environmental and social aspects of the project, as well as evaluate possible alternatives. They will look specifically at the effects on the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba and the Dead Sea. The study's budget also increased to $16.7 m. after Italy, Sweden and South Korea decided add funding, he said. The feasibility assessment and the enviro-social assessments are either under way or about to begin, while the alternatives would be checked as soon as a panel of experts is agreed upon. Lintner estimated that a team of experts recommended by Israel, Jordan and the PA would begin looking at the options in February. From Israel's perspective, the canal project's value is largely strategic, Ben-Eliezer said during the briefing. It was a way of gaining the goodwill of Israel's neighbors and making peace, as well as saving the Dead Sea, he said. While desalination would be part of such a canal, the lion's share of any desalinated water would go to Jordan and the PA rather than Israel, the minister said. Israel's desalination efforts are focused on the plants being built along the Mediterranean coast, Ben-Eliezer said. Water Authority Head Prof. Uri Shani said the tenders for increasing the output of the existing plants would end next week and a tender to build a plant at Nahal Soreq would go out at the end of the month. Shani stressed that the tenders represented the point of no return for reaching desalination goals of 600 million cubic meters annually by 2013, and 750 million cubic meters by 2020. Once the tenders go through, the government can't back out, even if several years of good rainfall lessened their enthusiasm for desalination, he intimated. No option for producing or importing potable water was discarded out of hand, both Shani and Ben-Eliezer insisted. Even wild options were considered and only dismissed after being analyzed. One such option was that portable desalination containers would be set up along the coast to desalinate limited amounts of water. These small units would be more expensive than the larger ones, but would alleviate an acute crisis. According to Shani, that option was being investigated but there was no intention of implementing it in the near future. Shani said they were also keeping an eye on the desalination ship market, but that containers was the more practical solution of the two. In the event the economic crisis worsened and investors could not be found to build desalination plants, Ben-Eliezer did not rule out asking the government to fund the construction of the plants itself. However, there were still people coming to him saying they wanted to build private desalination plants, so the possibility was rather remote, he said. The minister said he had encouraged anyone who wanted to build such a plant to do so. The conference was widely covered by the Arab media, with camera crews from as far away as Bahrain and Abu Dabi.