Don’t Politicize Water
Despite deteriorating relations in recent years, Israel and Jordan should return to a history of cooperation on water resources.
The recently announced peace deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain stop short of repairing the political damage inflicted on the region and keep the door open for the possibility of future Israeli annexation of portions of the West Bank and Jordan Valley. The last few months of uncertainty over annexation come on the heels of not only a deterioration in Israel’s relationship with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority but also a crisis in critical issue areas such as water cooperation. Broadly, water cooperation is vital for fostering effective water management across borders as well as for building trust and confidence among adversaries.
Recent events have only exerted greater pressure on water resource availability in the Middle East. The combination of climate change, natural aridity, an influx of refugees from conflict-torn neighboring states, an ongoing pandemic, and mismanagement of existing supplies is challenging the region’s ability to meet daily domestic water needs. The relatively small Jordan basin provides access to the only perennial river for Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories, and is also shared by Lebanon and Syria.
For most of the 20th century, conflict predominantly defined relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and global leaders warned of so-called water wars in the Middle East. Instead, water has sometimes provided a glimmer of hope for bringing peace to the region. In the 1950s, after sporadic fighting over the construction of hydrological projects, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent Eric Johnston as an envoy to the region to negotiate a settlement to the Jordan River water dispute. Although the Arab League failed to accept and ratify the Jordan Valley Unified Water Plan, known as the Johnston Plan, the two riparian states most dependent on the river, Israel and Jordan, attempted to comply with the agreement in exchange for U.S. funding.
Israel’s capture of the Golan Heights, West Bank, and Jordan Valley in the 1967 war increased its access to the Yarmouk tributary of the Jordan River, which the Jordanian monarchy depended on. To coordinate the dredging of the Yarmouk’s sediments, Israeli and Jordanian technicians and engineers began meeting in the late 1970s in what has often been referred to as the Picnic Table Talks. Members of this informal institution negotiated the 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty, which dealt with all shared water systems between the signatories. Despite periodic misunderstandings or miscommunication, a relatively warm and highly effective working relationship developed whereby commissioners regularly communicated and effectively sheltered water relations from issues of high politics.
Then in 2013, to manage a water deficit plaguing the basin, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority reached an understanding over a trilateral project: The Red Sea-Dead Sea project was designed to increase the supply of water to Jordan, save the ever-shrinking Dead Sea, and encourage peace and prosperity among the signatories. It was promoted as one of the few remaining opportunities for peace, as many in the basin began accepting the failure of the Oslo process.
However, over the past few years, multiple factors have converged to accelerate the deterioration of Israeli-Jordanian relations, negatively impacting water cooperation. The demise of the Oslo process has caused consternation among the Palestinian population in Jordan: Because around 50 percent of the Jordanian population is of Palestinian descent and the country is host to many Palestinian refugees, the monarchy is highly sensitive to Israeli-Palestinian relations. Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017 intensified pressure on the monarchy, which sees itself as the custodian of the two Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Israel initially stalled negotiations, then it pulled back from the Red-Dead project over the last few years, citing high costs and pressure from environmentalists. Instead, Israel became more interested in revisiting the Mediterranean Sea to Dead Sea conveyance system, granting it complete control over the hydrological infrastructure within its territory despite prior efforts by the U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt to breathe life into the Red-Dead Project in 2017. Bilateral tensions with Jordan only mounted. As one of the most water-scarce states in the world, Jordan is predominately landlocked, economically poor, and limited in its ability to follow Israel’s use of large desalinization projects to alleviate water shortages. The Red-Dead project’s desalinization plant in Jordan’s southern port city of Aqaba and water exchanges in the densely populated north were designed to meet growing water demands. The failure to move forward on the Red-Dead project, despite years of discussion and collaboration, has only further undercut water cooperation.
The Jordanian leadership also began to dismantle some symbols of cooperation from the 1994 Peace Treaty. In October 2018, Jordan refused to renew a treaty provision allowing Israeli farmers to lease and farm land along the border in areas known as Baqura and Ghamr in Arabic, and Naharayim and Tzofar in Hebrew—the former having been called the “Island of Peace.” This move was promptly followed by an Israeli threat to reduce water supplies to Jordan from four to two days per week. Such politicization of water resources was unprecedented in Israeli-Jordanian politics.
The chilling of relations became particularly notable in October 2019, when the 25th anniversary of the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty passed without celebration in either state. Bilateral relations were further undercut by the Middle East peace plan proposed by the Trump administration in early 2020. When unveiled, instead of any explicit recognition of Palestinian water rights that had been recognized in the interim peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, albeit never fully implemented, the proposal demanded that control of the Jordan Valley be ceded to Israel, which would, in practice, mean forgoing rights to the Jordan River. Responding to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s annexation proposal, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said this past June that annexation would “destroy all prospects for peace” and endanger Israeli-Jordanian relations, which had provided a bedrock of stability in the region. Jordan not only shares a long, stable border with Israel in a region plagued by conflict, but it is also the second state to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Often too understated in Israeli discourse is how critical this peace treaty and Jordanian stability are for Israel’s security.
Complicating matters further is the generational shift in the policymakers managing Israeli-Jordanian water relations. The generation that met in the middle of the Yarmouk, under the watchful eyes of their well-equipped state military personnel, and afterward participated in negotiating and implementing the treaty’s water section, has retired. With it, years of social capital along with informal understanding have disappeared. Without the United States actively supporting regional water cooperation efforts, this younger generation has few opportunities to meet and use water for peace. Hope for cooperation lies with an ever-shrinking number of environmentalists who work across borders and understand that cooperation is required for managing a water system and a climate crisis. Regional nongovernmental organizations, such as Ecopeace Middle East, continue to demonstrate the benefits of cooperation and interdependence for building resilience in the face of climate change.
Opportunities for expanding peace in the Middle East have been rare over the last few decades, but they should not come with a dismantling of institutions that have provided the foundation for cooperation. With the withering of Israeli-Jordanian bilateral relations, water cooperation has become politicized and vulnerable. Water-stressed Jordan still depends on Israel to secure water allocated to it by the 1994 Peace Treaty, and deteriorating ties with Israel not only put regional stability at risk but also harm Jordan’s water security. The influx of refugees, primarily from Syria, over the last decade—coupled with a pandemic—has only increased Jordan’s needs for water. Complaints have risen since the COVID-19 lockdown about water shortages, as the demand for access to water on a daily basis for hand-washing continues to increase. A 2020 rapid assessment of Jordan from the United Nations Development Program found that nearly 40 percent of the respondents were concerned about accessing clean drinking water. Climate change is likely to reduce Jordan’s freshwater availability, as temperatures are projected to rise and rainfall to diminish, resulting in prolonged droughts. In Jordan, there is unease that a shortage of water is among the factors that can contribute to the type of social unrest that brought down regimes across the Middle East during the 2011 Arab uprisings.
The challenges facing Israel and Jordan, stemming from climate change and the ongoing pandemic, should make it clear to policymakers that the countries should avoid the politicization of a natural resource essential for human rights, human security, and national security. In domestic and international negotiations, they should leverage the mutual benefits from cooperation over a shared water body. Water has always been and will continue to be the most likely resource to serve as an entry point for bringing states together even when political relations have faltered.
Erika Weinthal is a professor of environmental policy and public policy at Duke University.