New-old ‘energy-for-water’ deal detrimental to Jordan

Ruba Saqr (Photo: Jordan News)
Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency. (Photo: Jordan News)
Monday’s announcement, from a simple power-balance angle, of the “energy-for-water” project that the US is brokering between Jordan, Israel, and the UAE, is heavily slanted toward Israel strengthening its monopoly over natural resources and jeopardizing Jordan’s water security. No wonder Jordanians, from moderates to Islamists, are furious.اضافة اعلان

The deal, still in its “declaration of intent” phase, simply brings the region back to square one. The US has not updated its foreign policy playbook for the Middle East from two decades ago; all it did was to repackage it. The Biden administration is using the very same template the Clinton team used about 20 years ago to create yet another “regional water scheme” that once again compromises prospects for a true, and lasting, water autonomy.

When the Clinton administration decided, towards the end of its tenure, around 2000, that it was prime time to publicly advocate for the Red-Dead Canal, it used the Middle Eastern chapter of an international organization called Friends of the Earth as its mouthpiece. The move came after several rounds of negotiations between Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority on the heels of the 1994 Peace Treaty (with the US and the World Bank managing the talks).

The aim was to spin the project as a regional environmental cooperation effort that would help save the Dead Sea from extinction in about 40 years. A water desalination plant and energy generation were part of the plan, but they were never the focus of the press releases that were made at the time.

Friends of the Earth Middle East, which “brought together Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli environmentalists,” aimed to create the impression of peace that is rooted in non-political grassroots advocacy to “save the lowest point on earth.” The NGO held workshops for media people, public sector employees, and members of other civil society bodies to encourage what many refer to as “normalization” of ties between Jordan and Israel.

As I mentioned in an earlier opinion piece (“The World Bank shares the blame for Jordan’s water crisis”), the whole effort was focused on the optics of peace and on a quick environmental win for the Clinton administration. As a result, no thorough Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out, giving way to a technically lacking, peace-pushing communications strategy. This surely must throw into question the credibility of the environmentalists behind the scheme.

The hypothesis that the project would “save the Dead Sea” fell apart at a later stage when real feasibility studies were carried out, prompting other environmental organizations with no political agendas and a real focus on environmental protection to coin the Read-Dead Canal as an “irresponsible” project with a massive ecological price tag.

This week, that template was used once more, with very minor changes. According to American website Axios, “the vision behind the (energy-for-water) project originally came from EcoPeace Middle East, a regional environmental NGO.”

EcoPeace is none other but another name for Friends of the Earth Middle East. It is the same organization of 20 years ago, and here it is, once again pushing for a “peace” project under the guise of environmental advocacy, but this time serving the objectives of the Abraham Accords (which many hoped the Democrats would overturn).

The glaring difference between now and two decades ago is that this time there are no Palestinians present at the energy-for-water talks, a painful point for many Jordanians.

Furthermore, the first-ever US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, also resurrected parts of an old Clinton administration proposal that was rejected by the Jordanian side at the time in favor of the Red-Dead Canal. The said proposal is the unpopular Mediterranean-Dead Canal.

One can only conclude that rather than advocating for a Jordanian-owned water-desalination plant in Aqaba, the US has now come up with yet another scheme to distract Jordan (and prospective project donors) and make it forgo its right to water autonomy. Only this time, it has repackaged a scheme that has been rejected by Jordan since the 1994 Peace Treaty, a scheme that proposes desalinating water of the Mediterranean on the Israeli side, rather than implementing the same project on Jordanian lands in Aqaba.

As a sign of goodwill, the US could simply see through the Aqaba desalination plant before advocating for any new schemes. However, the troubled history of the Red-Dead Canal suggests otherwise. This has been a long fight spanning almost three decades of on-again-off-again negotiations with Jordanians attempting, on multiple occasions, to push the project over the finish line, to no avail.

In May, the World Bank Group said it “deleted the Red-Dead scheme from its list of projects” for Jordan. This offered the Jordanian government a renewed chance to finally go ahead with an independent scheme, namely the Aqaba-Amman “National Water Conveyance Project,” also known as the “Aqaba–Amman Water Desalination and Conveyance Project.”

But six months later, i.e., this week, the trilateral energy-water deal surfaced, another attempt at thwarting Jordan’s attempts to achieve water security. There is no other way to look at it; just when Jordanian officials said the Aqaba desalination plant was finally making progress, the US rushed in with a new scheme to compete against the only viable project that is in Jordan’s interest.

Jordan is an ally of the US and a partner in its fight against terrorism, so it is quite disappointing that the Biden administration, which has so far shown a far greater sense of justice than any previous US governments, decided not to put its full weight behind a solution that would ensure Jordan’s water security in a fair manner.

Some may consider Jordanians’ tweets and social media posts as an overreaction, but Israelis themselves see it the way we do as well. An opinion piece published last year by an Israeli writer threatening Jordan to fall in line with Israeli interests is peppered with the provocative reminder that Jordan should think twice before doing anything that would anger Israel, lest the latter cut off Jordan’s water supply from Lake Tiberias at a moment’s notice.

Israel is already at a strategic advantage with its “ownership” of Lake Tiberias waters. One should bear in mind that experts at the World Water Forum have argued for over 20 years that to defuse future “water wars,” the world has to start rethinking ownership of natural resources to achieve a more equitable balance for all nations, regardless of political agendas.

To this end, it is only sensible for a nation to want to control its water resources without having to negotiate for them. Such an attitude should not constitute an existential threat to anyone willing to embrace real peace based on equity.

Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

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