Amman, Jordan – Hundreds of people gathered in the Jordanian capital to protest a water-for-energy agreement between Jordan and Israel.
The agreement, if implemented, would be one of the largest cooperation projects since the countries signed a peace deal 27 years ago.
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Under the deal, Jordan would receive 200 million cubic metres (7.06 billion cubic feet) of desalinated water from Israel, in return for 600 megawatts of electricity generated from a UAE-funded solar energy plant in Jordan.
Jordanians at the protest on Friday rejected the agreement, saying it moved towards normalising ties with Israel while it continues to occupy the Palestinian territories. Opponents also warned that the deal would force Jordan to be dependent on its neighbour.
“We have the right to live; Palestinians have the right to live,” Nasreen, a protester, told Al Jazeera. “We, Jordanians, support Palestine, and we care about Jordan, that is why we are here today.”
Nasreen held a poster made by her three children. “It’s about being HUMAN,” the poster read.
The project’s “declaration of intent” was signed on Monday in Dubai by Jordan’s water minister, Israel’s energy minister, and the United Arab Emirate’s climate change minister, in the presence of US Climate Envoy John Kerry.
“We don’t trust the occupation,” Jordanian Member of Parliament Saleh al-Armouti told Al Jazeera, referring to Israel. “If the Israeli occupation signs an agreement, usually they don’t do what is stated.”
Jordanian police on Tuesday arrested 16 university students who were peacefully protesting the agreement, according to Fadi and Fuad Yousef, whose brother Yanal Yousef was detained.
“My brother went with his friends to protest the decision and he got arrested. Now he is in prison,” Fadi told Al Jazeera.
They were detained on a “violation of pubic order”, according to Fadi.
The agreement intends to address Jordan’s dire need for water and Israel’s goal to expand its renewable energy mix.
Israel has drastically increased its capacity for water desalination and Jordan has vast desert areas suitable for solar energy farms.
Water Ministry spokesperson Omar Salameh said in a statement the project’s idea stems from Jordan’s growing demand for permanent water resources, exacerbated by the kingdom’s population growth during the last several years.
Jordan is currently the second-most water-scare country in the world, according to UNICEF. Its per-capita water supply is expected to be halved by the end of the century, according to a recent Laboratory News report.
The vision for the project originated in 2015 from EcoPeace Middle East, a regional environmental NGO.
“We really need to now focus on combating climate change together,” Jordan’s EcoPeace Director Yana Abu Taleb told Al Jazeera.
“We need to rebuild healthy interdependencies. We need to look at projects of cooperation like this, for the benefit of our people, to meet the terrible water situation that we are in as a country right now,” she said.
Environmental benefits or political gains?
“The agreement isn’t about water, it’s about a political decision,” al-Armouti said.
The head of Jordan’s Environmental Union Omar Sushan said the deal was “a political project”.
“You cannot justify this project from climate change; this is a normalisation project,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We need to strengthen our national water network, build public awareness about water management, and use new methods of irrigation in Jordan. This is our strategic option. We cannot rely on Israel,” Sushan said.
Rund Awwad, an engineer specialising in renewable energies and energy policy in Jordan, said, “I don’t see this agreement ticking any boxes to achieve energy and water security… This is more of a political deal, it’s not about the feasibility or the strategy.”
Awwad pointed to the many “hidden and indirect risks” involved with the construction of a massive solar energy field.
The project will use a “huge amount” of Jordanian land, she stated. “I’d rather use [the land] for strategic projects that would benefit Jordan.”
She also noted the 200 million cubic metres to be provided to Jordan under the deal is a “very modest number compared to the capacity of water resources in Jordan”.
Awwad said there are many other, more sustainable and effective methods to address Jordan’s water scarcity.
For instance, climate funding could be used to upgrade the kingdom’s water storage capacity or to build Jordan’s Red Sea desalination project, known as the National Water Carrier Project, she added.
Jordan’s Water Ministry announced plans to implement the National Water Carrier Project in 2021, which would provide about 300 million cubic metres (10.6 billion cubic feet) of desalinated water from the shores of the Red Sea in Aqaba. However, the project has an estimated cost of about two billion dinars ($2.8bn) and has faced recent funding pitfalls.
Jawad al-Anani, Jordan’s former deputy prime minister for economic affairs, said the feasibility of the National Water Carrier Project is “extremely low” and it will be “extremely costly”.
Al-Anani referenced the potential benefits from an Israel-Jordan water-for-energy deal. “From a resource standpoint, it seems like a very good idea,” he told Al Jazeera.
He pointed to the deal’s potential to support a greater “economic balance” between Israel and Jordan: “The exchange gives assurances that if Israel, for any political reason in the future, decides to stop providing Jordan with gas or with water, then Jordan has the leverage to reciprocate.”
However, others question if 600 megawatts of electricity, from a UAE-funded plant, would actually provide Jordan with this leverage.
The UAE and Israel signed the Abraham Accords in September 2020, which solidified their economic cooperation and has since facilitated multiple billion-dollar deals between the two countries.
“It [the solar plant] is funded by the Emirates to support the Israeli occupation. They want to make Israel an economic reference point in the Middle East,” al-Armouti said.
Also commenting on the UAE’s decision to fund the solar plant, Duried Mahasneh, chair of EDAMA, an environmental NGO in Jordan, said: “I understand the goodwill of the Emirates by [helping] supply water to Jordan, but I wish this was through the enhancement of desalination in Aqaba, not on the Israeli shores.”
He added while the Aqaba desalination project is costly, it would employ Jordanians.
“It’s also political and environmental sustainability that counts,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mahasneh, who was also the co-chair of the Joint Water Committee of Jordan and Israel, noted Jordan’s rocky history of water deals with Israel.
He referenced a dispute in 1999, when Israel refused to provide Jordan with 25 million cubic metres (882.9 million cubic feet) of water, and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to supply Jordan with eight million cubic metres (282.5 million cubic feet) of water two years ago.
“It is more secure for Jordan to get desalinated water for drinking purposes … from Jordan, rather than Israel,” he said.
Al-Armouti emphasised the agreement should have been presented to parliament. “They should have presented it before, but until now nothing has been presented.”
He pointed to Article 33 of Jordan’s constitution, which states any agreement that involves financial commitments to the Treasury is not valid unless approved by the National Assembly.
There were lingering fears the recent agreement will be handled similarly to the 2016 gas deal, in which Jordan’s National Electric Power Company (NEPCO) entered a 15-year agreement with Noble Energy to buy billions of dollars of natural gas from Israel.
In 2019, Jordan’s Constitutional Court ruled the gas deal did not need Parliament’s approval, given the company was fully owned by the government and thus not an official public institution nor subject to public discretion.
Several lawmakers on Wednesday called for an “urgent” public debate to discuss the declaration of intent document.
“If people contest it [the recent agreement] and there isn’t popular support,” said Jawad al-Anani, “then the question is, what is the use of political reform if you aren’t going to abide by the will of the people?”
Jordan’s Water Ministry spokesperson was clear to note in a statement the declaration is “not a technical or legal agreement”.
Jordan’s Water Minister Mohammad al-Najjar said at a news conference that feasibility studies for the water-for-energy project will begin in 2022.
Al-Najjar added if the project is determined feasible they “will enter into negotiations to sign agreements and will not sign any agreement in any way, until we announce it to Parliament, notables, citizens and all the press and media”.