Inside Story

Middle East: The politics of water

Who stands to gain from the historic deal signed to address a critical shortage of water in the region?

Last updated: 11 Dec 2013 12:30
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An agreement between Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian ministers to provide new sources of water for the three neighbours, has been sold as a rare example of regional cooperation. And it may save the Dead Sea along the way.

But it is a deal swirling with political, environmental and moral undercurrents.

Palestine is suffering the most. [It has] not been able to control any kind of resources, not even the aquifers … so the region is not at all the same. Israel is relax [ed] in the water economy and two other countries are in trouble in my opinion.      

Munqeth Mehyar, chairman of Friends of the Earth, Middle East

The new project would see the construction of a desalination plant on the northern tip of the Red Sea in Aqaba, providing Jordan and Israel with a new source of drinking water.

Israel would in turn sell desalinated water for use in the occupied West Bank.

A later phase could see a 180km pipeline carry brine from the desalination plant on the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The idea is to replenish the Dead Sea, as its water levels are declining nearly a metre a year.

Meanwhile, ministers signing the agreement at the World Bank in Washington were unanimous in their praise for the project.

Hazim el-Naser, Jordan's minister for water and agriculture, said: "We are joining hands with our regional partners to develop such an important project, which I think will be a model, not only for our region but to the whole world where we have conflict and hostilities."

I think their [Palestinians’] protest was honestly to something different, and not to the deal which was signed yesterday, which is a much smaller version of a larger deal.   

Sharon Udasin, journalist, Jerusalem Post

The Palestinian Water Authority Minister Dr Shaddad Attili added: "We are living and we are sharing despite the problems we do have but also we are sharing the problem that comes from the scarcity of water. Today, we showed that we can work together in terms of making more water available."

"Let us hope that that agreement will be a glimmer of hope for let us say future agreements for comprehensive peace in the region," said Silvan Shalom, Israel's minister for infrastructures, energy and water.

But not everybody is in agreement. In October, more than 20 non-governmental organisations called on the Palestinian Authority (PA) to reject this deal.

They say the project undermines Palestinian water rights and legitimises Palestinian dispossession from the Jordan River.

Instead of being able to access the fresh river water, Palestinians will be sold desalinated water at a high cost.

The groups say the plan does not address damage to the West Bank Eastern Aquifer - currently the Palestinians' only source of water.

Far from saving the Dead Sea, they say adding brine produced in the desalination plant will destroy its ecosystem.

The NGOs also believe the World Bank's studies of the project lack credibility and transparency.

Reporting from the Dead Sea in Jordan, Al Jazeera’s Simon McGregor-Wood said: "The deal signed in Washington makes for some nice headlines, some good PR for sure, but it is about the politics of water, it is about human consumption, it is not about saving the Dead Sea."

So, what is at stake, who stands to gain the most, and what is the real price of this deal?

Inside Story, with presenter Shiulie Ghosh, discusses with guests: Munqeth Mehyar, chairman of Friends of the Earth Middle East and director of its Amman Office; Sharon Udasin, journalist with Jerusalem Post, who specialises in environment, energy and water affairs; and Mark Zeitoun, reader at the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia, and director of the University's Water Security Research Centre.


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