Trading Water for Sun
– Zoe H. Robbin
How the Abraham Accords opened the door for a green energy exchange between Israel and Jordan.
Water scarcity has marked the relationship between Israel and Jordan since a peace treaty was signed between the two nations in 1994. With Israel’s desalination capacity surging and Jordan’s water supply growing scarcer, the countries are aiming to establish an exchange where Israel would trade desalinated water for Jordanian solar power. The United Arab Emirates will play a leading role in the deal, which was signed in November 2021 and will rely on Emirati solar technology.
The water-energy exchange and its Emirati leadership are the result of the Abraham Accords, a series of agreements to normalize Arab-Israel relations, which were signed during the Trump administration between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. In contrast to previous peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the Israeli-Emirati relationship is growing warmer and stronger each year since their normalization in August 2020. The two Middle Eastern nations are collaborating on entrepreneurship, scholarship, athletics, and more. These partnerships are also bolstering environmental stability in a region long known for its aridity and water insecurity.
The deal will go a long way toward addressing Jordan’s environmental crisis, while also helping Israel to diversify its energy portfolio, and meet its climate targets for renewable energy use.
Nearly three years after the Abraham Accords were signed, the Emiratis are poised to help Jordan secure additional water resources from Israeli desalination plants. The water-energy deal was launched in Dubai in 2021, with Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry in attendance for the initial signing. The arrangement would see Jordan exchange 600 megawatts of solar energy for 200 thousand cubic meters of water from Israel each year. Proceeds from the solar plant would be split between the Emirates and Jordan. The following year at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, the three nations signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to continue working toward the trade, which will require significant infrastructure building projects.
Proceeding without Palestinian leadership, the water-energy deal reflects a shift in how Arab leaders are approaching Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Although Gulf leaders have offered condemnations in response to right-wing Israeli rhetoric and violence, economic ties between the UAE and Israel are growing stronger. Gulf states are increasingly finding advantage in collaborating with Israel on security, business, climate tech, and more. Similarly, Jordan is facing an existential water crisis and urgently needs to coordinate with Israel, despite its concerns over Israeli human-rights abuses and extremist rhetoric.
The environmental realities
Jordan and Israel are approaching the water-energy deal from different environmental vantage points. Since signing the peace treaty with Israel, Jordan’s water situation has deteriorated, its groundwater now dwindling, and its desalination capacity sorely lacking. Throughout the past 20 years, Jordan has accepted a million Syrian refugees, increasing the demand for water by nearly $600 million annually. At the same time, rainfall has diminished as much as 60 percent of normal levels, and nearly half of the country’s dams have dried up.
The Palestinians remain absent from this arrangement, despite facing an acute climate crisis.
Low-income communities across Jordan are subject to water rationing and often turn to expensive water sources like water tankers. The country has also been late to develop desalination capacity—the first plant opened in Aqaba in 2017. The deal with Israel would provide a significant boost, adding a nearly 20 percent increase to Jordan’s water supply.
“We don’t have enough water to cover all our needs,” said Anwar Abu Hamour, external relations and advocacy manager at EcoPeace Middle East Jordan, from her office in Amman. “The need for this [water-energy exchange] in Jordan is greater than in Israel.”
As Jordan’s water situation became dire, Israel’s water situation improved. The country opened desalination plants along its coast, which now provide nearly all tap water throughout the country. Israel has grown into a global leader in water technology, exporting $2.2 billion in water technology and expertise each year. The energy demands of desalination have led Israel to look for diversified and ecofriendly methods to power the country, underpinning its motivation to join the arrangement with Jordan.
Israel’s relationship with Jordan is tumultuous, especially on matters related to water and agriculture. In 2018, Jordan’s King Abdullah ended a lease agreement that enabled Israeli farmers to work within Jordanian territory. In response, Israel threatened to reduce water to Jordan from four days to two days per week. Relations deteriorated further when the Trump administration proposed ceding control over the Jordan Valley to Israel, an arrangement that would forgo Jordan’s rights to the Jordan River.
“Water issues often become geopolitical issues,” said Mohammad Mahmoud, PhD, director of the Climate and Water Program and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “How do you enforce deals when upstream nations can defy treaties on how water should be shared?”
The water-energy exchange aims to circumvent this instability, which is often baked into treaty agreements. Rather than simply promising to provide water and energy, the nature of an exchange prevents either party from reneging on its end of the bargain.
For Jordan, the costs of leaving the agreement would be high. The agreement stipulates that Jordan provide Israel with 600 megawatts of power, equivalent to 2 percent of Israel’s energy. Meanwhile, Israel will provide Jordan with 200 thousand cubic meters of water, equivalent to 20 percent of Jordan’s water use.
The Palestinians remain absent from this arrangement, despite facing an acute climate crisis. Across the occupied West Bank, water scarcity has impacted Palestinian communities and their economy with disastrous results. Parched crops have withered while taps run dry for weeks on end. As a result, Palestinians are increasingly forced to turn to expensive sources of water including water tankers and mineral water.
A green-blue swap
The deal will go a long way toward addressing Jordan’s environmental crisis, while also helping Israel to diversify its energy portfolio, and meet its climate targets for renewable energy use. Israel is eager to diversify its sources of power, especially as its desalination plants levy massive electricity demands.
“Israel is currently an electricity Island, so this could be huge if it serves to link the Israeli and the Jordanian grids,” said Ely Sandler, researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School and a senior consultant at the World Bank. “Israel and Jordan have quite different peak irradiation and peak demand hours.” The deal could also be a steppingstone for other renewable resource exchanges that integrate Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The Abraham Accords have allowed the UAE to occupy a unique role in the arrangement, being trusted by both Israel and Jordan. The deal demonstrates the outward impacts of the peace between Israel and the Emirates, which are both leaders in climate innovation. “There are MOUs being signed now between Emirati and Israeli companies,” Sandler said. “There’s a huge amount of cross-border work.”
Both Israel and the Emirates are prepared to support trade in green tech. Israel, the so-called “Startup Nation,” is home to technology companies that focus on water, agriculture, and energy efficiency. Approximately 10 percent of Israeli tech companies are devoted to developing climate solutions. Despite its reliance on fossil fuels, the Emirates has also invested in green infrastructure projects and will be hosting COP28 later this year, where it plans to showcase its leadership in green hydrogen.
The Abraham Accords have increased climate collaboration between these two regional leaders, benefitting lower-income countries in the region like Jordan. Other signatories of the Abraham Accords are also poised to benefit from Israel’s climate technology, including Morocco, where an Israeli company and a Moroccan company are working together to supply green hydrogen.
What’s in the way?
While the water-energy deal would serve as a boon to Jordan’s water supply, significant challenges remain. Practical and political issues imperiled previous projects including the Red Sea–Dead Sea project, which planned to provide Jordan with drinking water by constructing a canal between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. The water conveyance agreement between Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority was abandoned in 2021 after years of delays and bureaucratic hurdles.
To realize the water-energy exchange, the Israelis, Jordanians, and Emiratis will need to examine existing infrastructure, construction costs, and plant operations. On a fundamental level, the deal implies operational changes to the power and water infrastructure in the region, which likely have political implications for decades to come.
There are also domestic challenges to realizing the deal. In Jordan, demonstrators and parliamentary members protested the deal, which was negotiated by the monarchy and proceeded without approval from elected representatives. Compared to the Gulf, where 40 percent of people favor closer relations with Israel notwithstanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only 10 percent of Jordanians favor closer relations with the Jewish state.
The interlinking of Jordanian and Israeli energy, gas, and water infrastructure has often served as a source of concern among Jordan’s majority-Palestinian population. Previous resource dependencies on Israel have been met with widespread public outrage. In 2020, Israel began pumping gas from its offshore natural gas field to Jordan despite opposition from politicians and citizens. Demonstrators campaigned against the project under the slogan: “The gas of the enemy is an occupation.”
Right-wing rhetoric among Israeli politicians fuels this unease among Jordanians. In March 2023, Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich gave a speech before a map of “Greater Israel,” which included Jordan and the occupied West Bank as part of Israel. In response, Jordan accused the far-right minister of violating the two countries’ peace agreement. With tensions mounting, the Abraham Accords are fundamental to enable the Emiratis to serve as an interlocutor between these two increasingly hostile bedfellows.
Can water-for-energy bring peace?
In Israel, progressives are largely responsible for heralding the deal with Jordan in hopes that they can foster better relations with their Arab neighbors. However, Israel’s increasingly right-wing government will likely continue to inflame tensions with the Jordanians and Palestinians. As the deal moves forward, advocates hope that Palestinian representatives will play a larger role to bolster peace in the region.
“Including Palestinians [in the water-energy deal] will give them the ability to manage their resources—water and electricity both,” said Abu Hamour of EcoPeace Middle East Jordan. “The two-state solution will mean having a country that can manage its resources.”
Zoe H. Robbin is a Fulbright research fellow in Amman, Jordan. The views expressed in her writings do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the US State Department, or any of its partner organizations. She has contributed to Al Jazeera, Foreign Policy, and more. Find her on Twitter at @zoe_robbin.
Cover photo: Desalination facility, Hadera Israel. Photo by Luciano Santandreu/Shutterstock.