Water-for-electricity: the Lebanese-Jordanian solution

Conflict over water is a known incident in the Middle East, as the fast depleting water resources add pressures, could collaboration be the key to mitigate water related issues?

jordan river nasa space
Jordan River, from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea. Upstream, the river separates Jordan, the West Bank (Palestinian Authority) and Israel. It source is officially located in Anti-Lebanon Mountain Range at Mount Hermon, Golan Heights. © Nasa

What an idea! Water for electricity, as it sounds into the oil-for-food program for Saddam’s Iraq. Actually, the water-for-electricity deal between Lebanon and the Jordanian Kingdom could be part of the solution. But beware: do not forget the fact that within the last two decades alone, the Middle East has witnessed “six conflicts” resulting in over “ten thousand casualties”, while the analysts had been warning that war over this natural resource could be unavoidable.

Jordan and Lebanon share similar concerns

As per reports of Naharnet Newsdesk, last week, Speaker Nabih Berri and King Abdullah of Jordan met in Amman on the “sidelines of the 29th Conference of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union”, wherein they discussed about various issues which involved “Jordan’s willingness to exchange water for electricity with Lebanon”.

In fact, both of them shared their joint concerns of housing Syrian refugees in their soil which adds pressures on their countries. They thought that solutions need to be found to tackle the refugee crisis but within “humanitarian dimension” which meant that the return of the displaced people to their country has to be addresses “as soon as possible”.

Furthermore, both of them shared similar views about the “need for coordination between Lebanon and Syria and between Jordan and Syria on the return of refugees”. In particular, the discussion dwelt on various issues with the scope of “mutual relations and cooperation between Lebanon and Jordan”, while the broader spectrum rested on “Arab-Arab relations in general”.

Exchanging water for electricity

As Berri underscored the long time “electricity crisis” in Lebanon, the king of Jordan showed readiness to provide electricity to Lebanon while exchanging water in return.

The king stated about the excess electricity of Jordan, while Berri pointed out the “surplus water capacity” of Lebanon. The following question came from Berri inquiring about the electricity cost “if Lebanon wished to benefit from it”, while the reply from the king was: “We welcome this, so you have surplus water and we can exchange electricity for water with you.”

Looming conflicts, an old concern

Last year, the Under Secretary General of the UN, Hans van Ginkel, was quoted saying: “Conflicts over water, both international and civil wars, threaten to become a key part of the twenty-first century landscape.”

And the “looming potential for conflict” in the Middle East was an issue that needed to be abated. In fact, as per reports of October 2018, water-scarcities were creating tension in the areas “like the Nile region, Iraq and Yemen”, while Sudan and Somalia had its share of droughts and famine which gave rise to “banditry and sub-state conflict”. However, the report flagged the “Jordan River Basin” as the most possible conflict-prone region over this natural resources.

The Jordan River Basin shares a conflict driven history which involves countries like “Syria, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan”, while statistics show that the region also happens to be the “most water-deprived places per capita”. Water resources were abundant in the Jordan River Basin until the middle of last century, as its availability wasn’t sustained due to irrigation and canal channels through the population growth as well as “bilateral agreements”.

However, the present instable regional scenario and the depleting hydro supply were predicted to be agents of possible disruptions affecting the harmony in the region leading to violence over the natural resource which had been witnessed by history. The big conflicts over water make headlines while ever since the 1960s, there have been “a number of lesser-known conflicts and disputes” over the same. From a global database related to the history of conflicts over “water-related incidents”, over ninety two of them took place in the Middle East alone mostly due to “developmental disputes, terrorism” or the natural resource being used as a “military tool or target”.

Will the next war be fought over water?

Although, conflicts over water has not surpassed the number of clashes that took place over “other natural resources”, in 1985, a prediction was made by the “UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali” that “the next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics”. Currently, the climate change is considered to be the most important contributor of “resource-deficiencies” in the world which, in fact, dilutes the present power balance scenario in the Jordan River Basin.

The forecast claims that water-deficiency will hit “catastrophic levels” in the Levant. However, another article by Mousa Mohsen, which came out in the year of 2007, sounds more alarm as it informed that there is a possibility that the per capita “water supply” in Jordan will reduce by fifty percent. Similarly, war stricken and politically instable countries would experience worse shortage of water.

Survey revealed that most of the Middle East residents are aware of the rapid depletion of this natural resource. The heavy usage of water from the rivers which replenish the seas in the area is reflected in the dropping sea levels at the Dead Sea. However, some scholars disprove of the idea of war over water as they see “imports and alternative solutions” taking charge of the situation. Some consider replacing “water-consumptive” goods with local substitute, leaving landlocked countries “at the mercy of suppliers”, while others think “desalination technology” holds the key to replenish fresh resources.

However, turning to desalination might not be the ultimate solution, as it might bring with it unseen environmental issues, while the Jordan River Basin continues to experience water depletion “at precipitous rates”.

If another conflict were to arise in the Jordan River Basin, it would not only impact the Middle Eastern countries but also the U.S. as it has its troops deployed in the region.

Water scenario in Jordan

Jordan has been ranked as the “fifth poorest country in the world” when it comes to its water resources. With the continuous depletion in supply, the country has seen a forty percent rise in its water consumption.

Moreover, there has been a large amount of evaporating from River Jordan which reduced its volume “by half since 1950”, while the Dead Sea is drying up rapidly. In fact, last year, on November 19, 2018, King Abdallah of Jordan “sent a Jordanian delegation to Israel” for presenting “the proposals of Kingdom”. Here are the various stages of the project dating back to 2013, as mentioned by Voltaire Network:

  1. “pumping water from the Red Sea to Jordan;
  2. “in Jordan, extracting the salt from it;
  3. “distributing the de-ionized water in the region;
  4. “discarding the residual saline solutions via a pipeline into the Dead Sea”.
Temporary solution?

The above mentioned project could have been a “temporary solution” to the water problem faced by Jordan and other countries, although it sounds “ambitious”. However, the plan seemed less ambitious in front of the proposal of digging a canal to join two seas.

In fact, in 2015, “Israel, the Palestine Authority and the World Bank” could have possibly signed an agreement, while the estimated cost for the same was around “900 million dollars”. The U.S. together with Japan were said to be contributing “120 million dollars”, while “France, Italy, Spain, the European Union and the European Investment Bank” were ready to give a loan of “140 million dollars” with interest. However nothing has been done.

There has also been proposal of better distribution of the “existing resources” by Jordan, whereby Israel would have the authority to “extract water from the common phreatic planes in the South in exchange for water in the North of the country”.

Middle Eastern ‘hydro-diplomacy’

Even though, cooperating on the natural resource seems unlike “diplomatic breakthroughs”, it can still establish critical “long-term cooperation”, thinks Ram Aviram, the ex-Israeli ambassador to Greece as well as the “chief of staff for former President Shimon Peres”.

During the 6th “World Water Events”, under the “UVA’s Global Water Initiative”, Aviram gave a detailed picture about efforts towards negotiating “water rights in the politically tumultuous Jordan River Basin”.

As discussed earlier, the arid climate and “unprecedented drought” adds to the resource vitality which is tied to “political agreements and disputes” among the neighbouring countries. Aviram stressed that: “Without water, you can do nothing”.

Currently, Aviram is a “lead consultant” at the BIT Consultancy which also bills itself as “the house of hydro-diplomacy”. Aviram came up with four distinct periods when looking at the “hydro-political actions” in the Middle Eastern region. Following are the divisions:

  • “1948–67 — When self-interest reigned and “everyone was busy figuring out how to use as much water as possible,” and ending with The Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel asserted control over the Jordan River.
  • “1967–94 — A period of ad hoc, gradual cooperation.
  • “1994–05 — A period of formal coordination, with multilateral and bilateral agreements. The period included a unified Middle East pavilion at the 2000 World Water Forum, a message Aviram described as: “Yes, we have a problem, and we are sharing it between us.”
  • “2005–present — A period marked by violent conflict between Israel, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories, and the significant changes brought by desalination plants”.
Innovations in water-space

According to Aviram innovations in water-space could be a strategic move in diplomacy. He gave an example of Israel’s desalination technology which provides 70% of the country’s domestic needs. As a result, it has seen a dramatic increment in its availability which could allow the country to partner with Jordan on the “Red Sea-Dead Sea” project which is a complex and ambitious one that aims to “stem the dramatic shrinkage of the Dead Sea by replenishing salt-water while pumping potable quality to areas in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories”. Talking about desalination, Aviram added: “It’s changed everything in many, many ways”.

Water is a necessity for life yet it is surrounded by “low politics”, sighed Aviram, as often things that are considered “of greater diplomatic and strategic importance” push issues related to this vital natural resource to the back seat. However, Aviram said that “environmental peace building principles and smart hydro-diplomacy” could alleviate “water scarcity in deficient regions”.

Let’s see what happens next.