JERUSALEM (Mar. 22)
Israeli-Jordanian relations have hit one of their lowest points since the signing of their peace accord over an issue that perpetually looms as a threat to regional peace: water.
The crisis erupted last week, when Israel’s water commissioner, Meir Ben-Meir, met in Jerusalem with his Jordanian counterpart, Dureid Mahasneh, and informed him that Israel is planning to reduce its supply of water to the Hashemite Kingdom by 40 percent.
The reduction, he explained, was necessary because of Israel’s own low water reserves. The Sea of Galilee, Israel’s main water reservoir, currently contains only 5.6 billion cubic feet of water, compared to the annual average of 14 billion cubic feet.
The meeting lasted only five minutes, at which point Mahasneh left in a rage.
Alarm bells immediately sounded in Jordan, where many people have long complained about the lack of any real economic benefits to their country in the years since the 1994 signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. The treaty had promised a succession of joint projects with Israel to boost the Jordanian economy.
Supplies of Israeli water to Jordan had provided one of the treaty’s few tangible benefits.
The Jordanian economy, which is suffering from its own serious water shortages, cannot afford a cutback in Israeli supplies. It mattered little to Jordanian officials that Ben-Meir had also announced reductions in water usage by Israeli farmers.
Just weeks after King Abdullah had assumed the throne following his father’s death, Israeli-Jordanian relations appeared headed for a nose dive.
Ben-Meir’s announcement prompted the Jordanian Cabinet to convene a special session, after which the nation’s newly appointed prime minister, Abdul-Waouf Rawabdeh, said his country would “insist on the full implementation” of the peace accord, particularly those provisions dealing with water supplies.
The issue also reached the Jordanian Parliament, which rejected a motion to cancel the peace treaty with Israel to protest the water reductions.
At the same time, however, the legislators protested the planned cut, saying it “violated a fundamental element of the treaty.”
Ben-Meir subsequently traveled to Jordan in an effort to defuse the situation.
The effort succeeded after the two sides, apparently not wanting to let the matter escalate, agreed to put the issue on hold while attempts are made to work out a compromise.
The crisis in bilateral relations was averted — at least temporarily — by this resolve to continue discussions.
Hoping for a quick resolution, Jordan called on the United States to help resolve the dispute. An expert on water issues from the U.S. State Department arrived in Israel on Monday and is expected to participate in talks between the two sides.
The discussions underscore the need to remove the ambiguity from some imprecise clauses in the 1994 peace treaty.
According to that agreement, Israel committed itself to pass on to Jordan an annual quota of some 1.75 billion cubic feet of water, an amount that was to increase gradually.
But some of the agreement’s provisions were poorly phrased. For example, Article 3 states that the two countries would “cooperate in finding additional sources” of water to be supplied to Jordan.
But this placed much of the burden on Israel for finding such sources since Jordan, with some 80 percent of its territory made up of unpopulated desert, has no additional water to “find.”
The agreement also failed to address the question of who would pay the costs for transferring the water from Israel.
Nor did it make provisions for the possibility of a severe water shortage, as happened this year.
Another issue left unaddressed in the treaty was who would pay the costs for desalination projects. The Jordanians assumed Israel would pay; Israel assumed that the costs would be shared.
This issue prompted a dispute two years ago, when Jordan insisted that Israel undertake all the costs of building desalination projects, while Israel called on Jordan to pay half.
That dispute ended when Israel agreed to provide Jordan with some 1.9 billion cubic feet of desalinated water annually at a price of 2.3 cents for each 35 cubic feet of water. This was a substantial bargain for Jordan because the price generally ranges between 33 and 55 cents.
Just the same, it was a mixed victory for Jordan, since remaining differences about how to approach desalination projects have kept such projects on hold ever since.
Given the large portion of Jordanian land that is covered by desert, the nation’s limited water supplies are likely to have a major impact on its economic development.
By next year, most of the nation’s water resources will have been fully exploited by conventional measures, such as constructing dams and drilling wells.
The development of non-conventional water supplies — particularly desalination projects — will therefore become key to improving the Jordanian economy.
The water crisis was on top of the agenda of the weekend Cabinet session in Amman.
It was the first Cabinet meeting to be chaired by Abdullah, who urged his ministers to take urgent steps to reduce the country’s water shortages, which he described as Jordan’s “most pressing concern.”
“I want you to be clear to voice any problems — rather than hide them and let them grow,” he said.
The king was referring to events last year, when water mismanagement and an alleged cover-up of water contamination problems led to the dismissal of Jordan’s water minister.
Water shortages are endemic to most nations in the Middle East.
The only regional nations that have sufficient water sources are Turkey and Lebanon.
The region is plagued by droughts on an average of every four years. This winter was the driest in years.
The issue is a ticking time bomb, with experts predicting that within the next few years, the region will need four times as much water as it can get from natural sources.
Clearly, international cooperation will be required to tackle the problem – - but this has been in as short supply as water itself.