Two quiet but revealing developments related to Middle East water were announced in the spring and summer of 2015. On February 26, Israeli and Jordanian officials signed an agreement to begin implementation of the long-awaited and controversial Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project. And, on June 9, a civil society-based coalition led by EcoPeace, a regional environmental NGO, released the first ever Regional Master Plan for Sustainable Development in the Jordan Valley. The two schemes represent very different approaches to solving water problems in the region—the first is an old-school engineering fix requiring massive new infrastructure, while the second is a river restoration project rooted in sustainable development principles. While proponents praise both projects as innovative and cooperative solutions, a closer look indicates that the water crisis is still far from alleviation.

Project Origins

Both projects were born out of rising concerns about water shortages amidst the Arab-Israeli peace processes of the 1990s. Negotiations and documents associated with the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan prepared the way for cooperation in transferring water northward from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea via a channel or canal built through Jordan. Both the Israeli-Jordanian agreement and the Israeli-Palestinian accords of 1993 and 1994 included provisions for coordinated regional economic development and environmental protection along the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea basin. EcoPeace, formed in 1994, brought together Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians and Jordanians to encourage states to undertake the anticipated regional development, especially around the Dead Sea basin, in an integrated and environmentally sustainable manner.

Jordanian and Israeli government officials made the first formal public announcement of the water conveyance project in 2002 at the UN Earth Summit in South Africa. In 2005, with the Palestinian Authority on board, the World Bank agreed to coordinate donor financing and manage the feasibility and impact studies. The $10 billion plan involved transferring 2 billion cubic meters of Red Sea water along a 110-mile conveyance structure to the Dead Sea where a combination of hydroelectric and desalination plants would generate hundreds of millions of cubic meters of freshwater to be shared among the three parties. The leftover brine was to be discharged into the Dead Sea to help offset the rapidly declining water level that had resulted from decades of diversion of the Jordan River to its north and mineral extraction at the southern end by Jordanian and Israeli mining companies.

Advocates of the Red-Dead, as it came to be known, pushed for the project on several grounds. They argued publicly that the Red-Dead was first and foremost an environmental project, the best way to halt the shrinking of the Dead Sea and stave off the ecological disaster that would result if it disappeared. Behind the scenes, however, the Jordanians were especially interested in the freshwater to be generated through desalination, while the Israelis looked forward to the development potential and the opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to work with Arab neighbors. Proponents of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including some American politicians, touted the project as a “peace conduit.”

Given this scale and ambition, it is not surprising that critics quickly lined up against the project. Some questioned the cost and feasibility, while others, including environmentalists, scientists and representatives of the tourism and mining industries along the Dead Sea shores, worried about the impact of pumping on the Red Sea and of introducing its brine into the unique chemistry of the Dead Sea, as well as damage to ecologically sensitive areas from building a pipeline through Wadi ‘Araba. EcoPeace, which had become Friends of the Earth Middle East after joining the international network (it has now left), led the campaign against the Red-Dead by offering what they described as a more sustainable and less costly alternative plan to address the crisis of the Dead Sea—restoration of the depleted and polluted Jordan River, a key source of freshwater for the riparian countries and the natural feeder of the Dead Sea. In March 2005, they launched the Jordan River Rehabilitation Project, marking the start of a regional campaign of education and advocacy to stop the demise of the lower Jordan River.

Competition between the two projects intensified in the latter 2000s as canal advocates deflected criticism with regular reminders that the acute water crisis could only be alleviated with large-scale solutions, and environmentalists and their allies continued to highlight the major risks of the Red-Dead and the benefits of their alternative. One result of this contest, which played out in the regional and international press, was to bring much attention to the problem of the Dead Sea. It also served to turn the Red-Dead into an international controversy and the EcoPeace leadership into minor celebrities. [1]

Death of the Red-Dead?

In recent years, the two projects have traveled on separate tracks toward very different outcomes. The Red-Dead scheme has undergone various feasibility and impact studies and has been the subject of contentious public meetings held in Amman, ‘Aqaba, Ramallah, Jericho, Jerusalem and Eilat. At points, the project has stalled and even appeared to die, only to be revived. Realizing the difficulties of carrying out such a large and costly project, members of its steering committee prepared to break up the implementation into phases. Finally, in June 2013, the study phase was completed. Six months later, a memorandum of understanding was signed at World Bank headquarters in Washington, laying the groundwork for the 2015 announcement. [2] When unveiled in February, the implementation plan was lauded as a milestone in regional politics and the realization of long-held visions. Israeli regional cooperation minister Silvan Shalom claimed it was “the most important agreement since the peace agreement with Jordan.” An official from the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation insisted, “We will have solved Jordan’s problems at least for the next 30 years.” [3]

For those who paid attention to the December 2013 memorandum, it is no surprise that the 2015 document looks very different from its antecedent ten years ago. According to the current specifications, one tenth of the water originally predicted will be pumped from the Red Sea to a desalination plant near the coastal city of ‘Aqaba, rather than next to the Dead Sea, after which the much reduced amount of desalinated freshwater will be distributed to Israel and to southern Jordan, not to the country’s northern cities. Instead, Jordan will have the option to buy an additional 50 million cubic meters of freshwater that Israel will release from Lake Tiberias in the north. This scaled-down version also means that a smaller amount of brine will be discharged into the Dead Sea, and it will still have to travel 110 miles to get there. In this version, the hydroelectric plant powering the desalination process has disappeared. Finally, though the agreement still offers the Palestinian Authority the option to buy some of the freshwater, PA officials were notably absent from the February ceremony.

Considering the disparity between the original and current version, it is hard to see the Red-Dead as a solution to any of the problems it purports to address. According to Maysoun Zu‘bi, former secretary-general of the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation and member of the Red-Dead Steering Committee, and a strong advocate of the earlier version, the latest iteration has numerous shortcomings. First, she notes, it will not generate nearly enough freshwater to meet Jordanian needs. “Our shortage is in the hundreds of millions. The 50 million cubic meters is nothing.” [4] Nor does the project direct the freshwater where it is needed most—in the north of the country. “There is plenty of water in the south of Jordan,” she contends. “It is not needed there.” Nor will the current Red-Dead generate enough brine to offset the recession of the Dead Sea, which was the main purpose of the original project, according to the World Bank. Without the hydropower component, the project will not produce the energy that was supposed to fuel the desalination. And without the Palestinians on board, it is hard to call the project a “peace conduit” any longer. Zu‘bi also worries about the arrangement with Israel for water in the north, in part because Israel could refuse to distribute that portion but also because Jordan would have to build a treatment plant it cannot afford in order to make the water from Lake Tiberias drinkable. The current Red-Dead, she concludes, is “risky for Jordan.”

Jordanian officials try to get around these disparities by dubbing the plan Phase I, with more to come later, but others reject that characterization. Zu‘bi, who worked on the plan to break the project into phases during her time at the Water Ministry and on the project’s steering committee, exclaimed, “This is not the Phase I we proposed! This is not the Red-Dead at all. It is a water trade bilateral agreement.” EcoPeace leaders agree, referring to the project now as a simple “water swap.” In a press release, Israeli director Gidon Bromberg described the plan as “a conventional desalination project with a regional ‘water exchange’…not the ‘Red-Dead canal’ project.” In fact, EcoPeace staff, who were the leading critics of the Red-Dead not long ago, now raise little objection to the project.

At best, the rationale for the project now seems confused and misguided. As Batir Wardam, a Jordanian writer and expert on environmental issues, wondered worriedly, “Why desalinate and then sell the water to Israel while we can potentially link the resulting desalinated water to the already existing Disi project pipeline?” [5] Most likely, keeping the project alive is serving other purposes, mainly saving face for the signatory parties. From the perspective of the Jordanian government, it may be better to have a small project to show for the many years of work, resources and political capital invested than no project at all. From an Israeli government perspective, and that of its US allies, signing on to the Red-Dead in any form keeps the parties at the table and helps demonstrate Israel’s willingness to cooperate with Arab neighbors, something they have been unable to do in the last 20 years and something they are under increasing pressure to show, as the peace process dies and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign gains traction around the world.

Transformation of the Jordan Valley

If the trajectory of the Red-Dead disappoints, that of the Master Plan impresses. In recent years, EcoPeace has focused more pointedly on the Jordan River and crafting a comprehensive plan for its restoration. Staffers have traveled the region and the world looking for partnerships, and lessons learned from successful trans-boundary water restoration initiatives. In 2012, two major international organizations, the Stockholm International Water Institute and Global Nature Fund, helped them launch the process of producing a master plan for the Jordan valley. Other European partners—Dutch company Royal Haskoning and the European Union—joined the effort. They have received support from some local communities in the Jordan Valley and regional faith leaders. In April, EcoPeace won the endorsement of the mayors of 114 American and Great Lakes cities who signed on to help with efforts to rehabilitate the Jordan River.

The June 2015 unveiling of the Master Plan, at a conference center on the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea, brought together an array of attendees. Hosted by EcoPeace, the meeting was organized under the patronage of the Jordanian water minister, Hazim al-Nasir, a principal advocate of the Red-Dead for many years. Other officials from various Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli ministries, some of whom were once pitted against EcoPeace over the issue of the canal, were also there. Zu‘bi, the canal advocate turned critic, participated as a consultant for the Master Plan project after agreeing to help EcoPeace prioritize the myriad tasks involved in implementing it. The inauguration of both projects in 2015 thus reveals an interesting realignment of forces.

As for the Master Plan document, it is an understatement to call it ambitious. The overarching goal of the project is to “promote peace, prosperity and security in the Jordan Valley and the region as a whole” through the restoration of the river environment, an idea that aligns with the “blue peace” paradigm of using shared water management as a tool for peace and cooperation. The strategic objectives of the Master Plan cover everything from pollution control, agricultural redevelopment and sustainable water management to protection of cultural heritage. As an example of the scope of the project, it seeks to “eliminate all sources of environmental pollution in the Jordan Valley by 2025.” The Plan identifies 127 interventions to be undertaken in pursuit of these objectives, some of which it argues can move forward now. Otherwise, the timeframe for achieving the objectives extends to 2025 and 2050. The overall cost of the project is estimated at $4.5 billion. Proponents call it a new Marshall Plan, a project that can achieve everything from overcoming boundaries to fighting poverty and terrorism. According to EcoPeace Israeli director Bromberg, it is a “game changer” for the region. [6] Munqidh Mihyar, Jordanian director of EcoPeace, insists that all that is left is to “put a shovel in the ground.” [7]

But, frankly, that is the hard part. EcoPeace has major hurdles to clear in rehabilitating the Jordan River valley. First and foremost is the unforgiving political environment in which they work. The Master Plan assumes a future independent state of Palestine and a final peace accord to initiate even some of the interventions. It counts on recognition of Palestine’s full participation as one of the three riparian states, as well as free access to the valley for all peoples. But two thirds of the lower Jordan River runs along the border between Jordan and the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has little control, Palestinian communities are increasingly constrained and Israeli settlements reap most of the benefits. As the occupation persists and the prospects of a sovereign Palestinian state dim, so too does the potential for authentic Palestinian involvement in the redevelopment of the valley that makes them an equal partner in the costs and benefits that come with the project. It is thus difficult to initiate any kind of coordinated action in much of the river valley. Politics also poses challenges for winning promises of funding and investment for large-scale interventions such as building sewage treatment plants. The plan seems likely to remain a conceptual document as long as the occupation persists.

Relatedly, EcoPeace will have a hard time gaining buy-in for the Master Plan from Palestinians and Jordanians of Palestinian descent, many of whom want nothing to do with projects that channel resources and benefits to the Israeli government and the settlement regime it supports in the West Bank.  Many Palestinian and Jordanian environmental groups consider EcoPeace “normalizers” and refrain from working with them. In fact, EcoPeace has had to adjust to these pressures. After many years of operating as Friends of the Earth Middle East, they left the Friends of the Earth International network in 2014 and reverted to using their original name, EcoPeace. The break occurred after the network published a “statement on water apartheid in Palestine” in December 2013, in which it expressed solidarity with PENGON/Friends of the Earth-Palestine, a coalition of Palestinian environmental organizations that joined the international network in 2008, and in support for “the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.” According to Israeli EcoPeace director Bromberg, Friends of the Earth International is voicing extremist positions. [8] Jordanian director Mihyar adds that being part of the network imposed constraints on the organization, and that leaving it gives EcoPeace more flexibility. Nevertheless, Mihyar admits, the anti-normalization movement is one of the organization’s biggest obstacles to achieving its goals.

In a way, the ceremonious launch of the Master Plan points to a shift in EcoPeace’s focus away from its origins in the peace process. The group set out to sow peace through environmental cooperation. It drew a map of trans-boundary cooperation that incorporated the entire ecosystem of the Jordan River valley and Dead Sea basin. Just as that ecosystem linked together the riparian states around it, the bodies of water within the system were linked together as well. These linkages, grounded in the political complexities of the region, were the centerpiece of their work for many years. As they move more narrowly along the track of Jordan River restoration, and toward implementation of the Master Plan, they seem to eschew politics and to try to make environmental cooperation work in spite of them. The Dead Sea has also moved to the background of the organization’s work. There is little mention of it in the Master Plan or EcoPeace press releases. And the organization links its work on the Jordan River more and more with rivers and trans-boundary water systems in other parts of the world, such as the Great Lakes and in India and Pakistan, than to regional waters. As Mihyar affirms, they are moving in a more international direction.

As is the case with the Red-Dead, one is left wondering about the EcoPeace rationale for expending so much energy on the Master Plan. Maysoun Zu‘bi insists on the need to work cooperatively with the Israelis to protect Jordanian interests. “We have to be there to get our rights,” she says. She points to the importance of having water management frameworks ready to go when a peace deal does materialize. And, she contends, projects that decrease the development gap between Israelis, on the one hand, and Palestinians and Jordanians, on the other, make them more equal partners and more likely to see the benefits in forging a peace agreement. Excitement around the Master Plan may also be a function of dwindling confidence in state-led efforts to manage the water crisis, especially in water-poor Jordan where the national water strategy has hinged on the success of mega-projects such as the Red-Dead, where ministries do not cooperate and where the government is popularly viewed as corrupt. From the Israeli side, the Master Plan is another opportunity to demonstrate a capacity to work with Arab neighbors on fundamental issues such as water.

While it is tempting to view the two water-related developments of 2015 as advances, and even as signs of victory for a more sustainable, comprehensive and cooperative approach to addressing the region’s water problems, it is more likely they highlight other realities, including the failings of national water strategies, the growing capacity of the BDS campaign to exert pressure on Israel and the limits of the “blue peace” paradigm. Finally, if neither project does much to arrest the decline of the Dead Sea, who or what is left to save it?


[1] Time, September 24, 2008.
[2] New York Times, December 9, 2013.
[3] Guardian, March 20, 2014.
[4] Interview, Amman, June 11, 2015.
[5] Batir Wardam, “The Demise of the Red-Dead Canal?” Sustainable Jordan, July 21, 2013.
[6] Robert Swift, “Don’t Dip in the Jordan,” The Media Line, July 12, 2015.
[7] Interview, Amman, May 25, 2015.
[8] Christian Science Monitor, June 12, 2015.

How to cite this article:

Lizabeth Zack "Water Blues," Middle East Report 276 (Fall 2015).

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