Last week, Israel and Jordan signed a letter of intent in Abu Dhabi for a so-called “water-for-energy” project, under which Jordan will build a massive solar farm in the desert that will generate clean energy to be sold to Israel in return for desalinated water.
“This is going to be the flagship example of bilateral relations and also of the Israeli integration into the region,” said Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies and former Israeli ambassador to Jordan.
“The responsibility for providing water is an international responsibility, and the international community must shoulder the responsibility,”
Dr. Duraid al-Mahasneh, Water expert
The idea was first announced in 2021 when Jordan planned to export 600 megawatts of solar power from its southern desert to Israel. In return, Israel would provide the water-scarce kingdom with 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water from the Mediterranean.
“This clearly makes use of the energy advantages of Jordan and Israel in the sense of the proximity of quantities of water that can be made available by desalination on the Israeli side, and the large areas that can be used in Jordan to produce solar energy,” Eran explained.
It is expected that the agreement will be signed during the COP28 climate conference, which will be held in Dubai at the end of the year. The project will be funded by the United Arab Emirates.
“I think it’s absolutely necessary in order to secure the financial source for such a project to have the UAE involved to ensure its success,” Eran said.
The project has been harshly criticized by water and energy experts in Jordan as well as political activists.
Water expert Dr. Duraid al-Mahasneh told The Media Line that Jordan is facing an “existential challenge, and this understanding or agreement will help alleviate the problem of a water crisis in Jordan, but it is not the solution.”
Jordan, 75% of which is arid desert, faces an acute water deficit. The kingdom ranks as the second most water-poor country worldwide, where water per capita is 88% below the international water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters annually.
“Jordan suffers from water scarcity, and the water currently available in it is only enough for 2 million people, while the population of Jordan is now about 11 million,” Mahasneh said.
According to the UN Development Program, Jordan has just 147 cubic meters of water per person per year, while renewable water resources are less than 130 cubic meters per person per year.
Jordan’s water crisis is exacerbated by the fact that it is also home to millions of refugees.
“With the displacement of the Palestinians to Jordan twice, in the years 1948 and 1967, and after that the displacement of the Iraqis, followed by more than 1.3 million Syrian refugees in Jordan—that put a great burden and pressure on the water resources in Jordan. Where will you get water from for all these people?” Mahasneh wondered.
To help alleviate the water crisis, Mahasneh says the refugee problem must be addressed.
“The responsibility for providing water is an international responsibility, and the international community must shoulder the responsibility,” he said.
A deal to supply natural gas from Israel to Jordan has been in place for more than 15 years. Delivery of the gas began in 2021, causing a backlash from the public and political parties over the kingdom’s increased dependency on Israel.
Jordan is also already dependent on Israel for water. Under the 1994 peace treaty, Jordan receives 50 million cubic meters of water annually from Israel, which “has major repercussions on the issue of water security,” according to Mahasneh.
Mahasneh explained this is not the first time that such an initiative has been discussed between the two countries and questions the wisdom of the project. Jordan already has a surplus of renewable energy that can be used to power a desalination station in the Red Sea coastal city of Aqaba, he said.
“We don’t need to buy desalinated water from Israel,” he said.
In 2013, Jordan and Israel signed an agreement to join forces in building a canal that would carry seawater from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. This project would generate electricity that would be used to desalinate water while dumping brine into the Dead Sea, helping to stabilize the rapidly shrinking sea. That ambitious project has been shelved for now, but Mahasneh says it is the ideal solution for the water problem and to preserve the Dead Sea, whose surface level drops by more than a meter every year.
“A water desalination plant in Aqaba, where saline water is pumped into the Dead Sea and drinking water delivered to Amman is what’s needed,” he said. “This project will have a benefit in providing the Palestinians and Israelis with drinking water as well.”
Jordan’s limited water sources are drying up
Jordan’s vital sources of water—rain, and wells—are drying up. This is caused by prolonged effects of climate change, namely drought and above-normal scorching temperatures, which are putting Jordan’s population and agricultural sector at risk. This, Mahasneh explains, is a regional issue.
“Water resources originally in Jordan depend on transboundary waters, as we share waters coming from Al-Wehda Dam on the al-Yarmouk River on the Syrian side. We are supposed to get about 400 million cubic meters from the Yarmouk Basin. But last year we did not get 30 million cubic meters,” Mahasneh said.