New Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian Water Agreement Will Not Solve Shortages

Mideast observers were happily surprised to hear about a water-sharing agreement signed at the World Bank headquarters last week between the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian governments. "This is an agreement with a humanitarian aspect, designed to aid those who need water. There is an ecological aspect as well since we are trying to save the Dead Sea," explained Jordanian Minister of Water Minister and Irrigation Hazem Nasser. Israeli Minister Shalom was even more bombastic calling the accord "historic.... a realization of Herzl's dream." Amidst the media fanfare and euphoric propaganda, it is important to distill what this new accord delivers and what it doesn't.

The centerpiece of the agreement is a new desalination plant, to be established on the Red Sea in Aqaba, Jordan that will provide water for the city and the vicinity, including the neighboring Israeli city Eilat and the nearby rural settlements. In addition, an estimated 100 million cubic meters of the high salt brine produced by the desalination plant is to be pumped annually via a conduit in Jordan and discharged into the Dead Sea, which has been steadily shrinking for decades. Further north, Israel agreed to sell some 80 million cubic meters of water (80 billion liters) each year from the Kinerret lake to the Jordanians and Palestinians. The projected price tag for the entire initiative: $400 million is a fraction of a much more ambitious, multi-billion program to refill the Dead Sea, recently endorsed by the World Bank.

As the first new agreement in many years that coordinates natural resource use between Israel and its neighbors, its very existence constitutes good news -- as is the introduction of additional desalinated water into an increasingly parched region. Yet, the 100 million cubic meters of brine that is to reach the Dead Sea - is only a tenth of the 1000 million cubic meters which used to reach it naturally, flowing via the River Jordan. (During the past fifty years most of the stream's waters were diverted by Syria, Israel and Jordan.) This agreement in no way saves the Dead Sea from dying. The unique saline lake, located at the lowest place on earth will continue its alarming retreat each year with or without the new pipeline. Environmentalists also raised a series of environmental concerns which are now circumvented, by having the pipes laid on the Jordanian side of the border, where civil society's ability to challenge the plan is not as formidable.

The essence of the agreement, therefore, involves providing additional water to Jordanian and Palestinian communities to ameliorate their chronic shortages. Households throughout local cities typically only enjoy water delivery a few times a week. Any relief will be welcome to residents who have watched their per capita allocations steadily erode. If desalination can provide additional water, then cooperating to deliver it more efficiently and equitably across the region makes perfect sense. But it is important that any enthusiasm be tempered by hydrological realism. Like the other water supply strategies recently proposed in the Middle East -- it will not provide meaningful improvement. The relentless increase in population undermines any meaningful progress.

Jordan offers an excellent example of these dynamics. In 2009 Jordan reported that its citizens had access to only 145 cubic meters (145,000 liters) per year making the country one of the most water scarce in the world. Even without hundreds of thousands of refugees from Iraq, its natural population growth rate was historically extremely high, averaging six children per family for much of the country's history. Between 1980 and 2010, Jordan's population grew from 2.2 million to 6.5 million people. (Since then, more than half a million additional Syrian refugees have come to seek shelter in the Hashemite kingdom.)

The high birth rates of the past mean that some 55 percent of Jordanians are under age 25, creating powerful population momentum for the foreseeable future. Jordan's impressive life expectancy is amongst the highest in the Middle East, so that the U.N. estimates that for the next several years, annual population increase in Jordan will be roughly 3.5 percent.

This constitutes the salient context in which to evaluate the present agreement and the implicit supply-side strategy it represents. By the time the new agreement becomes operational, there will be one million additional people in Jordan. This assumes that the Syrian situation does not grow worse and that the refugees are able (or wish to) return home.

The additional 80 million cubic meters of additional water for Jordan that the new arrangement provides is not insignificant. Arguably it will add some 10 percent to overall present production. If the water is entirely directed to the country's domestic sector, the proportional increase will be even more substantial for ordinary citizens. But the improvement will be completely neutralized by the growth in population which will be far more than 10 percent. In other words, Jordan has to run to stay in place.

The situation is hardly different in the other countries, partner to the agreement: the UN estimates that Palestinian and Israeli annual population growth is 2.4 percent and 1.8 percent respectively. Even expanded desalination does not change the burden created by geometric population growth on infrastructure, food security and ecosystems.

This supply-side approach to water management is not unique to Israel and its neighbors. A report released this month by the United Nations Development Program: Water Governance in the Arab Region: Managing Scarcity and Securing the Future points out that the average person in the Arab region accesses one-eighth of the renewable water that the average global citizen enjoys. Given climate-driven precipitation changes, the report anticipates that by the year 2025 water supply in the Arab region will be only 15 percent of what it was in 1960. The report spends over a hundred pages expounding its response: a vision for good governance, involving equity, transparency, accountability and cost-effectiveness.

Nowhere does the proposed strategy address the real issue. In presenting the program in a recent Huffington Post op-ed, the UNDP's regional director for the Arab States team notes that the population of the Arab world tripled from 128 million people in 1970 to over 360 million today. But this is only mentioned in passing as a factor that "exacerbates" shortages -- not as the primary engine of the prevailing scarcity. Nowhere does anyone show the perspicacity or political courage to say the obvious truth. If population levels do not stabilize and even come down, the present shortages will grow worse.

Water managers by their nature are problem solvers and they are used to addressing the symptoms caused by deeper problems. But surely it is time for someone to talk about the real cause of the Mideast water crisis. Government leaders and the agencies that subsidize them need to start by admitting that manufacturing more water has limits and brings with it enormous environmental consequences -- from prodigious greenhouse gas emissions to overpumping and salinization of fresh water sources.

If Middle Eastern leaders are serious about a sustainable water strategy -- they should start by setting sustainable demographic objectives to ensure that demand begins to taper off as soon as possible. The phenomenal success of family planning programs in Iran proves that there is nothing inherent about Islamic society that stands in the way of responsible population policies. Encouraging replacement level fertility, empowering women and delivering free contraception to all citizens is a far more cost-effective, long-term strategy for solving the Middle East's water shortages than building hugely expensive infrastructure that upsets natural hydrological flows and balances.