The World Bank shares the blame for Jordan’s water crisis

Ruba Saqr (Photo: Jordan News)
Ruba Saqr has reported on the environmental, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency. (Photo: Jordan News)
For the past few weeks, local opinion writers have been blaming the Jordanian government for its perceived decades-long failure to explore alternative water sources to quench the Kingdom’s thirst. But most of those articles are rewriting history in a way that is unfair to Jordan. The truth is much more multifaceted than that, and the blame game involves many more players than our local institutions and officials. The World Bank is one of them.اضافة اعلان

Jordan’s water crisis is the making of a larger, more complex spectacle that involves consecutive US administrations, their conflicting agendas in the region (Republican vs Democrat), clashing regional agendas (Israel, Syria, and Turkey), and the World Bank.

To start with, water was never perceived as a “purely domestic” problem that Jordan was supposed to solve independently, with its own homegrown plans and solutions.

As a matter of fact, both the US and the World Bank have always framed water projects affecting Jordan within a larger regional context. As a result, Jordan has been viewed as one piece of the puzzle, but never the whole story. This approach is one of the main reasons we are here today, stripped of our human right to water security and teetering on the edge of an imminent drought.

The World Bank is at the heart of this scenario. This is a large institution that says its role transcends being a mere developmental lender, and instead it poses as a “visionary” with the ability to issue far-sighted forecasts for countries like Jordan.

Historically, the “Middle East and North Africa” chapter of the World Bank has been the catalyst for many things. This includes the political will of consecutive US administrations (with their split agendas), some version of an Israeli-leaning water vision for the future of our region, and actual strategies and plans to tackle the Eastern Mediterranean’s — not just Jordan’s — water issues.

To say it transparently, the World Bank has failed to act as an independent, technocratic institution with the supposed ability to transcend the conflicting “Jekyll and Hyde” agendas of different US administrations, into something more mature and sustainable for Jordan and the region.

This brings us to the World Bank’s catastrophic handling of the so-called “Red-Dead Canal” project, which never materialized despite several attempts to resuscitate it, all while hampering Jordan’s ability to stabilize its water crisis.
Also known as the “Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance” project and the “Red-Dead Conduit,” this plan was first promoted in the late 1990s by the Clinton administration (that brokered the 1994 Peace Treaty) as a joint scheme involving a desalination plant and electricity generation.

In Jordan, the Red-Dead project was spun as a “joint peace project” aiming to “save the Dead Sea” from its projected extinction in 40 years’ time. There was no mention of water security (for Jordan) and the project was coined as purely environmental. The Middle Eastern chapter of an international environmental organization pushed for this narrative (and the fact it had Israeli and Jordanian members working under the same umbrella). Their theory was later on contested by other environmentalists who said the ecological costs of the project (algae and increased salinity for underground water) outweighed its benefits.

In other words, the canal was more political in nature than devoted to offsetting the region’s water crisis. It was an attempt at achieving two things for the Clinton administration: the optics of peace, and a party win for solving a major ecological problem — especially since at the time environmental protection was a new priority for the Democratic party, so much so that it included it as a stipulation in the US-Jordan Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

In any case, things did not go as planned. Ever since the 1994 Peace Treaty, the region has been yo-yoed back and forth by the agendas of Democratic administrations and their opposing Republican-led governments. While the Democrats are pro-environment, the Republicans are pro-big business and open market with no interest in environmental agendas, climate change, or water security for that matter.

Here is a quick timeline that coincides with multiple failed negotiations between Jordan and Syria to supply Al-Wehda Dam with water from the Yarmouk River (which is a whole other story):

Bill Clinton (Democratic president from 1993 to 2001) was obviously pro-environment and greenlighted the Israeli-proposed Red-Dead Canal project.
George W. Bush’s administration (Republican, 2001 to 2009) had little interest in pushing for the Red-Dead Canal, and gave the “fight on terrorism” his undivided attention.

This led to the collapse of the Red-Dead talks between the US, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, on the sidelines of the Second Earth Summit that was held at The Hague in 2002. Consequently, the Jordanian government announced in 2009 — by the end of Bush’s tenure — that it would go ahead with a “purely national Jordan Red-Sea project,” a heroic but unsuccessful attempt at autonomy. The latter positively contradicts the current narrative about Jordan having done little-to-nothing to secure its water future. Categorically untrue; its attempts were several.

Then came Barack Obama (Democratic, 2009 to 2017) and a landmark 2013 memorandum of understanding was signed by Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority to “firmly” reestablish the three-way scheme. In 2016, the Jordanian government announced shortlisting five consortiums to implement the project, in a way suggesting it was taking the lead and attempting to push the project over the finish line.

The Donald Trump administration (Republican, 2017 to 2021) reimagined the region with the Abraham Accords, putting a pin in the Red-Dead project as a regional solution. In 2018, however, Jordan once again said it would go ahead with the project “regardless of the Israeli position,” but it seems its attempts were blocked by the Trump administration.

A few months after President Joe Biden (Democratic, 2021 until present day) was sworn in, the World Bank made the historic admission that the Red-Dead Canal was no longer among its financed projects. In May 2021, local Arabic-speaking news reports said the World Bank Group’s “Country Partnership Framework (CPF)” for Jordan for the fiscal years 2017-2022 has “deleted the Red-Dead scheme from its list of projects.” A week or so later, the Jordanian minister of water told a local television program the Red-Dead Canal “was a thing of the past,” adding Jordan was now moving forward with an Aqaba-Amman “National Water Conveyance Project,” signaling renewed autonomy for Jordan to secure its water future.

For almost three decades, the World Bank has failed to rid the topic of water security from the political agendas that are bogging it down. The bank should have looked at the problem through a humanitarian lens: human lives are at stake, so is the water supply of 10 million Jordanians (up from probably 4 million in the 1990s), and the refugees they are hosting.
In this instance, Jordan is truly not to blame.

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

Read more Opinion and Analysis