Today’s front page Washington Post article by William Booth and Howard Schneider on yesterday’s Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian Red-Dead water deal signing here in Washington sent me reeling. It sent me reeling back in time because this is a piece of an issue about which I wrote not one but three books back in the day. And it sent me reeling because I had no idea this deal was in the works. Just goes to show how out of circulation I’ve been lately when it comes to the nitty-gritty of esoteric-technical but also highly politically relevant secret negotiations.First, some basic details in case you have not seen the article. Evidently, the two governments (Israel’s and Jordan’s), along with one highly ambiguous semi-government (the Palestinian Authority’s), agreed in principle to build a massive hydrology project relevant to the Dead Sea. The Red-Dead project will bring water from the Red Sea via a pipeline to the Dead Sea, and in the process generate electricity from the falling liquid to be used to desalinate some of the water for agricultural and drinking purposes.The agreement exists only in principle thus far. (This seems to be a growing habit lately, judging by the much more fraught Iran and Syria portfolios.) The route of the pipeline is not yet set, and setting it could be sensitive between Israel and Jordan (but it would not involve any of the West Bank and hence the Palestinians—just look at a map and you’ll see why). Nor have technical details been worked out in order to prepare requests for proposals from the companies that would bid on the work. Israeli companies, including government-owned ones like Mekorot, would surely play a big role, and so would scientists and their various boutique engineering business associated with the Weizmann Institute and the Technion, because those are the places that have the most advanced desalinization technologies. Neither Jordan nor certainly the Palestinians have scientific-technical capabilities on that scale, but they will need to be and should be involved in various phases of the construction and subsequent maintenance. The heavy lifting during construction will no doubt be the purview of U.S., European and other big companies, maybe from China or India or Turkey. Billions of dollars worth of contracts are soon to be at stake (let’s hope, anyway).This is basically a good thing both for hydrological reasons and for political ones. Some background is in order here if you really want to understand what’s going on, since nearly all of it is missing from the WP article. Let me make just three points, and I will try to keep them short.First, about forty years ago or so a small cottage industry of journalists and area specialists sprung up to discuss the relationship between functional problems like water scarcity in the region with political issues. This was not a new subject even at the time; it went all the way back to the Johnston Plan during the Eisenhower Administration, and how it intersected with the then top secret U.S.-UK Alpha initiative (but never mind that for now). But in the 1970s and dripping into the 1980s, this topic basically broke down into two camps: those who predicted water wars, and made the silly claim that the 1967 War and other Arab-Israeli wars had had water issues at their root; and those who predicted that water needs would conduce to cooperation and even peace. It was the usual stuff—glass half empty pessimists versus glass half full optimists.My contribution to this debate and to this literature, in a 1992 book entitled Israel and Jordan in the Shadow of War: Functional Ties and Futile Diplomacy in a Small Place, was to douse both camps in cold water. The political impact of water issues, I argued, resembled the shape water takes in any holding basin. So if the political relations at hand are basically friendly, or are trying to be, working on common functional challenges like water stress will support that positive relationship. On the other hand, if the political relationships are conflictual, water disputes would most like make them worse. This, I suggested, was true in the Middle East, and it was true elsewhere as well when it came to the intersection of hydrology and high politics.The moral of the story: Functional issues could not drive high politics where they otherwise were not wont to go, but they could speed high politics one way or the other to their destinations, whether peace and cooperation or war and mutual nihilism. Thus the fact that Israel and Jordan had cooperated quietly for years on water issues, aided discreetly by the United States, both with regard to dividing the waters of the northern Jordan and Yarmuk, and with regard to mining potash and other minerals at the Dead Sea, meant that the political relationship had potential to improve. It showed that the relationship was mixed: positive because of the cooperation, and not as positive as it might be as signaled by the need for secrecy. And in the October 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, which was enabled politically by the September 1993 Oslo Accords, that turned out to be the case. Q.E.D.The fact that Israel and the Palestinians still maintain a basically conflictual relationship suggests that this water deal will not fundamentally change that—which does not mean that the PA’s association with the arrangement has no political significance. It has plenty. It signals that the PA can negotiate successfully with Israel (and Jordan) when it really wants to. It signals to Palestinians that the PA can do things that can improve their lives, the implicit suggestion being that Hamas cannot—or just won’t. It promises a huge public works project that will generate lots of jobs. It also seems to suggest that U.S. mediation these days is not entirely futile. All that is to the good. And it means that if the Palestinians decide to summon their courage to make an the historic decision to make peace with Israel, functional cooperation will support that determination just as it did in the Israeli-Jordanian case.Second, the WP article says that the deal has been a long time in the making. Now there’s an understatement for you. Already in the mid-1980s discussions had ensued about how to save the Dead Sea, which was shrinking significantly by then thanks mainly to the operation of the Israeli National Water Carrier, which opened for business in 1964, and the Jordanian East Ghor (Abdallah) Canal. Two plans were proposed and kicked about at the time: Med-Dead and Red-Dead.Bringing water across Israel from the Med to the Dead Sea seemed the better idea for technical reasons. It was a shorter distance to build a pipeline than from Aqaba-Eilat all the way up the Arava to the southern tip of the Dead Sea. The dropoff was steeper, too, meaning more electricity could be produced, the better to desalinate more water. Because of these factors, the economics seemed more propitious—smaller upfront investment, bigger results.But alas, the Med-Dead idea could be accomplished entirely on Israeli soil, and thus would have less of a political impact, and therefore would also probably be harder to finance. The Red-Dead idea, while technically harder and economically less attractive in a narrow sense, could far more easily attract World Bank and other international support, on the basis of the functionalist theory that cooperation would conduce to peace. That was the thinking. After the Madrid Summit in 1991, one of the multinational support groups was about water. After the Oslo Accords in September 1993, one of the Israeli-Palestinian working groups was about water. And during the negotiations that led to the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Treaty of October 1994, a lot of discussion hinged on water-related issues.So, in light of all this, a lot of people privy to these discussion some twenty years ago were optimistic that, with the Israeli-Palestinian relationship changed and an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty therefore within sight, an agreement would soon be forthcoming and the danged Red-Dead thing would get planned, financed and built. I remember a long conversation I had at the time, in 1992 or 1993 it was, in Jerusalem with Elyakim Rubinstein, who was then Israel’s chief water negotiator and had been Israel’s secret liaison to Jordan for many years concerning water issues. We both thought things would soon pick up speed.The U.S. Government was involved as well: Rich Armitage had become a special secret State Department envoy back in 1989-90 to defuse tension over a Syrian stratagem to build the so-called Unity Dam with Jordan on the Yarmuk (this is way, way too complicated to detail here), and he stayed current with these issues for some years thereafter. In the 1993-94 period the relevant bureaucracies were teed up and ready to roll, too—State, Commerce, OPIC, the TVA and some of the national labs, and others not-to-be-named here besides. So the planets were lined up……and then nothing happened.Why? Long sad story about standard-issue political shortsightedness and plain stupidity, not for telling now.Third and last, as the WP article points out, this project will only slow the shrinkage of the Dead Sea, not stop it. (I’ll not bore you with numbers you can easily look up yourself.) To stabilize the Dead Sea at reasonable levels, two things have to happen.There needs to be another “century flood” soon. Pray for rain, folks, lots of it.And Israel and Jordan must find technological fixes to deal with the water problem they share, and stop off-taking so much water from the Jordan and the Yarmuk. That causes other problems anyway, like the increasing salinity and shrinkage, as well, of the Sea of Galilee.Desalination is the main way to do this, and the technology has made great strides over the past twenty years. But the problem has always been and still is one of cost. Israel and Jordan both subsidize water to farmers at prices wildly below marginal replacement costs. Agriculture lobbies are preternaturally powerful the world over, and the Middle East is no exception. So that makes the delta between river and aquifer water on the one hand and desalinated water on the other much larger than it otherwise would be. In addition, better conservation (more and better drip-irrigation, more gray water systems, and so forth) and even new technology (like high-tech bubble barges) for purposes of importing drinking water from Turkey, would help a lot. Of course, these elements of a solution would be enhanced to the extent that the real marginal cost of water is allowed to rise.Finally, I can’t resist mentioning that, at the very end of WP article, there is mention of the fact that some local environmentalists are opposed to the idea. They worry that briny water brought from the Red Sea might have “detrimental affects” on the Dead Sea.Detrimental affects on the Dead Sea?!The Dead Sea, boys and girls, (called Yam Ha-Melakh, or Salt Sea in Hebrew, and Bahr Lut, or Sea of Lot in Arabic), is, well, dead. Nothing lives in it, not even any species of stickleback. It is very, very salty (and that’s not all—just taste a tablespoon of it and you’ll soon see what I mean). What living things, what species of anything, could possibly be harmed by bringing Red Sea water into the Dead Sea? I suppose that the mineral balance of the lake might be affected if enough less-salty water were mixed in, and that eventually might have some impact on the mining industries of Israel and Jordan in, oh, about five hundred years.So does that mean that some environmentalists now put the pristine character of the Dead Sea’s incapacity to support any life forms whatsoever above increasingly desperate human needs for fresh water? If it does, well, there I go reeling again.
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A recently-negotiated project will bring water from the Red Sea via a pipeline to the Dead Sea, and in the process generate electricity from the falling liquid to be used to desalinate some of the water for agricultural and drinking purposes. The agreement exists only in principle thus far. But it could be promising.