A unique NGO that has been pursuing Mideast peace for many years has proposed a promising new regional approach that blends water and energy, addressing at least one of the five outstanding issues in the long-running Oslo peace process. Learning to work together on water may help the region work together on the other issues, it says.
In December 2020, EcoPeace Middle East, an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian environmental NGO, published the “Green-Blue Deal for the Middle East,” a detailed plan that advocates for cross-border climate security and proposes creating ‘healthy interdependencies’ between the countries in the region.
An example is the huge regional deal under which water-scarce Jordan would provide solar energy to Israel in exchange for desalinated water from Israel. Jordan has vast deserts with room for massive photovoltaic arrays; Israel does not. In turn, Israel has learned how to use desalination to make itself much more water-secure than when it had to rely only on ‘natural’ water; Jordan is experiencing water scarcity. The solar farm will be built by Masdar, a United Arab Emirates alternative energy company, and is expected to be operational by 2026.
It is an example of what has been made possible by Israel’s technological prowess in creating and managing water in a dry climate, and the Abraham Accords. Israel has five desalination plants along its Mediterranean Coast, with two more plants in the planning stage. So building a desalination plant on the Mediterranean coast to provide water to Jordan and selling water to its neighbour wouldn’t deprive Israeli farmers of water, as it might have done earlier, and would bring revenue to Israel. At the same time, Jordan could become a regional hub for renewable energy, selling renewable energy to the entire region. (EcoPeace calls this the Water-Energy Nexus.)
“It’s a win-win situation and a model for out-of-the-box thinking on climate security,” Gidon Bromberg, co-founder and Israeli Director of EcoPeace Middle East, told Deutsche Welle.
That matters because the entire Middle East region is warming faster than the rest of the world (except, perhaps, for the Arctic.) Summers are getting hotter and longer, and rainfall is getting scarcer. The region’s average temperature could rise 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, while rainfall could decrease 20%.
But while the region is naturally water scarce, water management and population increases have made things more challenging. And that is an issue about which EcoPeace has been working and trying to educate the region for many years.
‘Water security is national security’
Bromberg’s 2017 TED X talk in Tel Aviv, “Water Security is National Security,” is a powerful example. It opens with him telling the story of a family that went to the beach at Gaza to swim, without realizing it was polluted by sewage, and ended up at the hospital where their young son died due to a virus in the sewage.
“Just one hour’s drive south from here in Tel Aviv,” he said, “there’s a water and sanitation crisis in Gaza. Two million people have run out of water. The groundwater has been overdrawn. And as the groundwater has dropped, seawater is rushing in. In addition, there’s very little treatment of sewage in Gaza. The sewage is percolating into the groundwater that people are drinking. At the moment, 97% of the groundwater of Gaza is no longer drinkable, and by the end of this year, all of the groundwater of Gaza will be polluted.”
And it was not just lack of fresh water that was a problem, he said. The 120 million liters of sewage that flows out from Gaza each day moves north towards Israel, because there are no fences or borders in the sea. In 2016, just down the coast, the Ashkelon desalination plant – which produces 15% of Israel’s drinking water, was closed twice because of the sewage. And beaches in both Gaza and Israel have had to be closed at times because of the sewage, he said.
The fabled and holy River Jordan, which once had rapids and flowed strongly, had become a shadow of itself, filled with sewage from Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian communities, because almost all of its water had been diverted, half by Israel and half by Syria and Jordan. That left Palestinians without access to river water, caused underdevelopment and poverty, and threatened the biodiversity of the valley’s wetland ecosystem, one of the world’s most important crossroads for migratory birds.
This dire, apocalyptic picture was not just a water security problem, Bromberg told the somber-looking audience. It was a national security problem. And the implications for the region were spelled out in detail in its 2020 Green Blue Deal report:
“The growing evidence that climate change-induced drought, flooding, and other extreme weather events threaten Israeli, Palestinian and Jordan national security interests individually and regionally is at the heart of why EcoPeace is proposing a Green Blue Deal for the region. The threats range from water, food, and energy insecurity, to civil unrest, migration, and full-scale civil uprisings, all contributing to the possibility of more failed states in our region.”
But there are opportunities for regional solutions that can bring people together in positive and constructive ways:
“Our “Green Blue Deal” proposes harnessing the sun and the sea to create region-wide desalinated water and energy security for all; highlights the need and opportunity to solve Israeli/Palestinian natural water allocations today to achieve water equity; proposes climate-smart investments and green job development around the Jordan Valley; and recommends public awareness and education programs that can engage the stakeholder publics, especially the younger generations, to understand the importance of diplomacy in the water and climate fields as an effective tool for conflict resolution and peace building.”
Changes since 2017
A number of things have changed since 2017, when the TEDX talk was filmed.
This summer, people in Gaza were able to swim at a clean sand beach and in clean waters, because internationally-funded sewage treatment facilities – many solar-powered – have cut pollution to its lowest rates in years. “Today the area is clean and the sea is clean,” Sahar Abu Bashir, 52 and a mother of four, told Reuters. “We felt as if we were in another country.”
An Israeli company called Watergen is using three water generators to produce 5,000 to 6,000 litres of drinking water per day at hospitals and public spaces in Gaza, for people in need. It took Watergen, which specializes in helping developing nations that lack water infrastructure and developed areas suffering drought, a year to get permission to install the machines.
And, as Bromberg explains in the TED X talk, more water has been flowing into the River Jordan. Israel has released 9 million cubic meters (mcm) of fresh water from the Sea of Galilee into the Lower Jordan River annually since 2013, and that is expected to increase to 30 mcm, the Green Blue Deal report explains.
Wastewater treatment plants in the Jordan Valley are starting to remove pollutants from the river, and bringing desalinated Mediterranean seawater to the Sea of Galilee creates opportunities to increase flow levels into the lower Jordan.
The first integrated Regional Jordan Valley Master Plan, created between 2010 and 2015 when EcoPeace, the Stockholm International Water Institute and the German Global Nature Fund worked with stakeholders from all sides, envisions the river meeting the water needs of all three populations along its banks. With important economic activities taking place all along the river, the plan suggests the Valley’s GDP could grow from its current US$4 billion to US $73 billion annually if the investment strategy it proposes is carried out.
The Green Blue Deal says that promoting Jordan Valley cooperation “can restore the river to a clean, fast-flowing body of water, revitalize the valley’s biodiversity, and attract tourism and pilgrimage that can help diversify incomes and raise people out of poverty, not only for the benefit of the region but for half of humanity that sees the Jordan River as a holy river.”
Update: Watch this inspiring interview with Gidon Bromberg of Eco Peace.
A Green Blue Deal for the Middle East. Eco Peace Middle East, 2020.
Water and the Peace Process. Eco Peace Middle East.
Water Security is National Security. TED X Talk, 2017.
Scoop: Israel, Jordan and UAE to sign deal for huge solar farm. Axios, Nov. 17, 2021.
Israeli, Palestinian Officials Agree to Cooperate on Climate Change. Haaretz, Feb. 23, 2022.
Tech firm extracts thousands of litres of drinking water from the air in Gaza. EuroNews, Jun. 1, 2021.
People of Gaza swim in ‘crystal blue’ sea again, as sewage pollution finally clears. Euronews.green, Jun. 9, 2022
Three large wastewater treatment plants put into operation in Gaza. Middle East Monitor, Dec. 11, 2021
Long breath required – wastewater treatment plant in Gaza put into operation. ReliefWeb, Mar. 23, 2021
Former foes Israel and Jordan work together to combat energy and water scarcity. Deutsche Welle, Jan. 19, 2022
‘The sea is more blue’: Gazans head to the beach after sewage cleanup. The Guardian, Jul. 8, 2022
The Game-Changing Potential of Water in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. US Institute of Peace, Oct. 18, 2022
Israel and Jordan agree to team up to save Jordan River. Associated Press, Nov. 17, 2022