In the Middle East, water has been a source of conflict since ancient times. In the Book of Chronicles, King Hezekiah of Judah stops the flow of a spring and a brook outside Jerusalem to prevent invading Assyrian forces from using them.
Discord over water in the region has not ceased in modern times. In 1948, Arab militias cut off water to Jewish areas during the siege of Jerusalem. Threats to water were also a prologue to the Six-Day War in 1967. And continued tensions over this essential resource remain a powerful barrier to peace.
But what if water could be removed as a regional source of conflict by harnessing resources that exist in abundance in the Middle East—seawater and sunshine? This vision animates Gidon Bromberg, an Israeli environmentalist who co-founded EcoPeace Middle East—a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian group—in 1994.
Among its activities, EcoPeace advocates for a new plan it calls the “Water Energy Nexus.” Israel and the Palestinians would provide desalinated water to Jordan, and receive renewable energy from Jordan in return.
The proposal draws on resources found in abundance in each of the three territories. Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip have access to seawater from the Mediterranean, but little room for solar fields. Gaza is densely populated; Israel’s Negev desert is restricted by military use. Jordan, which is almost entirely landlocked, could accommodate large-scale solar technology in its vast deserts.
The Water Energy Nexus also provides each partner with potential outcomes they desire. Among other benefits, Israel would increase its renewable energy use, helping it to meet climate goals; the Palestinians would take a step toward integration with the Arab world; and Jordan would access inexpensive water.
Bromberg likens the EcoPeace plan to a similar agreement that helped cement peace in Europe six years after the end of World War II. In 1951, six European countries agreed to jointly regulate coal and steel production, forming a compact that would become a precursor to the European Union.
French foreign minister Robert Schuman saw the European Coal and Steel Community as a prophylactic against renewed conflict, especially between historic enemies France and Germany. Schuman observed that the accord would make war “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.”
Israel would increase its renewable energy use, helping it to meet climate goals; the Palestinians would take a step toward integration with the Arab world; and Jordan would access inexpensive water.
Bromberg says the Water Energy Nexus won’t create an EU of the Middle East. But he believes such an agreement will shift the dynamics of the region, dampening the appetite for conflict in this contested corner of the Levant.
EcoPeace published a pre-feasibility study of the nexus in 2017; now it is planning a pilot solar facility in Jordan supported by a half million dollar grant from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The pilot project—which EcoPeace hopes will be up and running in three years—hinges on whether EcoPeace can secure permits from the governments involved.
Jordan already receives a limited amount of water from Israel per the terms of the two countries’ 1994 peace agreement. With population growth and the influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq, the country needs more. But buying additional water from Israel makes some Jordanians wary.
According to Yana Abu Taleb, the Jordanian director of EcoPeace, the Water Energy Nexus has the potential to assuage Jordanian concerns of being overly dependent on Israel. If the nexus goes forward, Jordan would have a product to sell to Israel in the form of solar energy.
“Water is a national security issue for Jordan,” says Abu Taleb. “We want to give Jordan an upper hand, not only to take, but also to give.”
Bromberg adds that “if we can create the circumstances where every side has both something to produce and to sell, but also to buy, from the other, then we can create self-interest and interdependencies that, like Europe, could make the interest of going to war again, unimaginable, or at a tremendous cost.”
Water as an Engine of Peacebuilding
Creating a tangible and healthy interdependence between Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians undergirds the work of EcoPeace. As its name suggests, the organization posits that environmental collaboration between governments and peoples can result in peace—more specifically a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.
Headquartered in Tel Aviv, Amman, and Ramallah, EcoPeace operates on two levels. It is an advocacy group, developing plans such as the Water Energy Nexus, and pressuring local and national leaders to take action on environmental concerns that affect all three populations. Yet the group also works at the grassroots level—engaging people, and especially youth, to become activists for their natural surroundings.
Regional collaboration and effective peacebuilding remain controversial propositions. Negotiations for a two-state solution have long sputtered out. Israel appears to be moving toward annexation of West Bank settlements. The definition of “peace” itself is vigorously debated.
Attitudes on the ground reflect the broader lack of a positive political horizon for Israelis and Palestinians. In both Jordan and the Palestinian Territories, this bleak outlook also means that “normalization”—or initiatives that bring Israelis and Arabs together without resisting Israel’s military occupation—is considered anathema by many residents.
“Normalization with Israel is not acceptable in any way,” says Abu Taleb. “Everything we do becomes very tough. You need a lot of effort, a lot of research, a lot of highlighting the win-win situation.”
And yet to hear Bromberg tell it, EcoPeace has cause for optimism. One critical piece of the seemingly-unsolvable Israeli-Palestinian conflict—water—may be the foundation for a new way forward.
Israel’s status as a world leader in desalination technology means that water is no longer a finite resource to be resolved in tough negotiations, and may even nudge regional cooperation along.
Resolving water issues, says Bromberg, “shows there is a partner for peace, it shows there is a willingness to compromise, so we can reach a stage where both sides say yes to something tangible.”
On a recent Thursday, Bromberg drove a rental car—a Tel Avivian, he only owns a bike—to the southern edge of the Sea of Galilee, to explain how desalination technology has transformed Israel’s water supply.
The Sea of Galilee, a 13-mile long freshwater lake, was once a main source of drinking water for the country. Today, it is endangered. A few yards from the shore, bushy grasses poked through the still surface. Not too long ago, the lake was so low that it was possible to walk out to those grasses, says Bromberg.
Though the water has risen thanks to an especially rainy winter this past year, it is still precipitously close to the so-called “black line,”—the point at which it is so saline that it is no longer a freshwater body. The main culprit, says Bromberg, is climate change, resulting in two decades of severe droughts. Israeli pumping over decades also degraded the lake.
Regional collaboration and effective peacebuilding remain controversial propositions.
Today, Israel has pulled back on pumping to save the lake—and it has more than made up the difference with desalination technology. Israel has five desalination plants and plans to build two more. “Today with these five desal plants we are producing close to 600 million cubic meters of water, more than we ever pumped out of the Sea of Galilee,” says Bromberg.
And desalination may soon replenish the lake in a more direct way. Israel plans to pump desalinated water from the Mediterranean into the Sea of Galilee.
But Bromberg insists that Israel’s leadership on desalination hasn’t actually made the country safer. “In Israel, technology has brought us water security, but water security doesn’t translate to national security automatically,” he says. “If your neighbor is suffering water insecurity, that threatens your national security.”
A Confluence of Drought and Conflict
That the Middle East is located at the heart of the global water crisis gives EcoPeace’s efforts even more urgency. It is already one of the driest regions of the world, and growing even drier because of the impacts of climate change and human activity.
“When I think about global water crisis, there is quantity, there is quality, there is governance, there is infrastructure, and there are political components,” says Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist and the executive director of the Global Institute for Water Security at the University of Saskatchewan. “Unfortunately, all of those are in place in the Middle East.”
While conflict over water is an ancient—and ongoing—story in the region, access to the resource has played a role in the contemporary Israeli-Arab impasse.
The history leading up to Israel’s founding is littered with tense episodes over water. In the 1920s, the Jewish-owned Palestine Electric Corporation damned the confluence of the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers, and refused to let Arab farmers use the waters above the junction. In the 1948 war, Arab militias attempted to force Jewish Jerusalem to its knees by cutting off its water supplies. Residents had to ration their daily use.
After Israel became a state in 1948, water remained contentious, as the Jordan River Basin spanned Israel and enemy states. “In hindsight, it appears that the 1948 borders could have been drawn by an evil water-god, intent on provoking conflict among riparians,” wrote Stephen C. Lonergan and David B. Brooks in their 1994 book, Watershed: The Role of Fresh Water in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
Israel had the upper hand with technology and resources, and set about developing its water infrastructure. In the 1950s, it began to build its National Water Carrier in a demilitarized zone north of the Sea of Galilee. When Syrian artillery fired upon the construction site, Israel moved it to a safer, but less convenient, area.
In 1955, U.S. Ambassador Eric Johnston tried to negotiate a water-sharing agreement between Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, but it was never fully ratified. Conflict broke out again when the Arab League announced a plan to divert water from the National Water Carrier. These tensions contributed to the leadup to the 1967 War.
EcoPeace contends that Israeli technology is a game changer that will increase the overall availability of water to a point where it can be removed as a final status issue in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Israel seized control of more water resources in 1967, when it captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and Gaza from Egypt. In the West Bank, Israel’s military occupation limited Palestinian access to water. Meanwhile, Israel began erecting Jewish-only settlements around the West Bank and hooking them up to water.
For roughly the past 25 years, the water relationship between Israel and the Palestinians has been governed by the Oslo Accords, a set of interim agreements that were supposed to set the groundwork for a final resolution between the two sides—one that has yet to occur.
In the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords, Israel recognized Palestinian water rights, and agreed to supply Palestinian population centers with specific quantities of water, while allowing Palestinians to draw a certain amount from regional aquifers. But larger decisions about water distribution—such as infrastructure and ownership—were deferred along with other “final status” issues, such as borders, refugees, settlements, and the status of Jerusalem.
Palestinians say the Oslo Accords—which were meant to expire after five years—have not adjusted for their present needs today.
Nada Majdalani, EcoPeace’s Palestinian director, observes that the Palestinian water infrastructure is outdated, and its leakage rates sometimes hit 45 percent in the West Bank. Any Palestinian attempts to develop new resources in the territory, such as wells, must be approved by the Joint Water Committee, an Israeli-Palestinian body created by Oslo which is reported to routinely deny Palestinian requests.
Israel receives water 24 hours a day. But Majdalani says that families in some areas of the Palestinian West Bank receive water through the network as infrequently as once every three months. To close the gap, some of them buy water on the black market from private suppliers who pay little heed to quality.
Access to clean water also presents a dire situation in Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas and under Israeli siege. The main water source is a coastal aquifer, which is overtaxed and badly polluted. Fully 97 percent of the water from this aquifer is not suitable for human consumption, which is one reason that has led the United Nations to predict that Gaza will be “unlivable” by 2020.
“The main problem of access to water in Gaza is quality,” says Majdalani. “The main issue in the West Bank is water quantity and quality.”
Bromberg says that at the time of the Oslo Accords, water scarcity in the region made it “difficult to resolve” the issue of a seemingly finite resource in any final way. But because of desalination, he says, the old restrictions of Oslo no longer apply.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Israeli government approved the first desalination plant. Today, the five plants supply 70 percent of the country’s drinking water. EcoPeace contends that Israeli technology is a game changer that will increase the overall availability of water to a point where it can be removed as a final status issue in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Advances in desalination should be the basis for a new water-sharing agreement—a cause that is at the heart of the group’s advocacy. Bromberg says he has presented the idea to negotiators on both sides, but a lack of political will has left them preferring to keep the water issue tied to an overall resolution of outstanding claims.
Bromberg says this delay indicates that water still remains a “hostage” in the conflict. “The changes in technology have led to very little change on the ground,” he says, “because the way negotiations have been led by both sides is all-or-nothing.”
Dr. Peter H. Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, a non-profit research institute focused on water and other issues, called Israeli desalination a “useful technology for expanding water supplies and reducing tensions over shared water resources.”
But without the political will to use this technology to lessen water insecurity, Gleick adds, there is a limit to what desalination can do to advance a peace process.
“Israel's political problems with water extend beyond just supply and demand imbalances to concerns about equity, sharing of water with others including Jordan and the Palestinians, and management of wastewater,” he writes in an email. “Unless the improvement in Israel's water supply leads to improvements in regional water security, the risks of conflicts over water remain.”
Taking Risks for Peace
While EcoPeace has not yet succeeded in removing water as a final status issue, it has made headway on other projects that bring Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians closer together, especially on the grassroots level.
In 2016, for instance, EcoPeace announced that it discovered that Israel’s desalination plant in Ashkelon was periodically shuttered because of sewage from Gaza. The group pinned the blame on the dire lack of electricity in the coastal strip, which prevented Gaza’s sewage treatment plant from operating. Israeli mayors petitioned the government to provide electricity to the strip to avoid a health crisis in southern Israel. Today, the treatment plant is up and running, although electricity shortages continue to plague the strip and access to clean water remains a fundamental issue there.
Without the political will to use this technology to lessen water insecurity, there is a limit to what desalination can do to advance a peace process.
The work has been made more difficult in recent months, however. This year, EcoPeace lost a million dollars in grants from the U.S. government, and was forced to cut its field staff from 28 employees to about seven.
EcoPeace was one of many organizations serving Palestinians to lose funding from the United States Agency for International Development. The USAID cuts are linked to new U.S. anti-terrorism legislation that would have exposed the Palestinian government to lawsuits in U.S. courts. In order to avoid such exposure, the Palestinian Authority requested the U.S. government to halt financial assistance.
The cuts have not depleted the optimism at EcoPeace—nor obscured the group’s tangible successes. After visiting the Sea of Galilee, Bromberg drove to a shaded spot nearby on the Jordan River. The Jordan, a river with symbolic importance in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, has been depleted over the years as Israel, Jordan, and Syria have diverted its water away. It has also become a dumping ground for sewage.
Parking near a grove of trees, Bromberg walked out of the car to a pair of red and black pipes that gush treated wastewater into the river below. Their construction in 2013 marked a change in policy of the Israeli government which allowed the flow of fresh water to downstream of the Sea of Galilee.
“These pipes represent a commitment of Israel to provide fresh water to the lower Jordan,” says Bromberg. It is one small part of a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian effort to rehabilitate the Jordan River Valley, brought about through EcoPeace’s advocacy and grassroots activism.
Near the river is a metal sign with a photograph that is a point of pride for Bromberg. It depicts a day in 2005 when Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian mayors—and Bromberg himself—jumped into the Jordan River at a spot not far from where the pipes now stand.
The leap was a symbolic celebration of each community’s commitment to the river. The jump was made in front of the local and international press, knowing full well that their constituents would frown upon an act that looked suspiciously like normalization.
“They knew that the next day they would be condemned,” said Bromberg. The mayors, he added, didn’t jump into the water because they were friends; they did so because they understood that “the rehabilitated river will bring prosperity to their communities.”
“Water and environment know no boundaries,” said Majdalani. “Whenever there are collaborative efforts for all parties, the more we ensure we are doing the right things for future generations.”
Cover photo: The Jordan River flowing into the Sea of Galilee. AP Photo/Oded Balilty