Analyzing the Green Blue Deal and Water Energy Nexus Implications in the Palestinian West Bank
Wadi En-Nar in Palestine, home to the historic Mar Saba Monastery. Wadis contribute to the surface water resources of the west bank but flows are intermittent and unreliable.
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Wadi Qelt in Palestine, during the wet seasons, the center of the Wadi is lush and green due to the water running through it. Parts of Wadi Qelt have been officially protected by the Ein Prat Nature Reserve, but issues with pollution and overuse of surface water resources remain.
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Sustainable water management has been touted as the defining issue for countries in the South West Asian and North African (SWANA) region in the 21st century. This is perhaps most true for the Palestinian territories, which exhibit some of the lowest average per capita water availability in the world, falling far below the availability recommended by the World Health Organization. Climate change and growing populations are already putting pressure on limited resources, and the Israeli occupation – which has itself been considered an ‘environmental risk’ by the United Nations Development Programme – continues to present significant challenges to Palestinian water access. In a sector where regional cooperation and strategic planning are the main recourse, stymied political negotiations and asymmetric power relations represent tremendous hurdles to achieving Palestinian water security.
In recent years, the water-energy nexus has emerged as a possible source of opportunity, specifically in the form of a “Green Blue Deal” for the Middle East, as proposed by the organization EcoPeace, which brings together Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli environmentalists to address regional environmental issues. The water-energy nexus has become a popular point for research in recent years, as it contextualizes both essential resources and works to address systemic inefficiencies. In the case of the Jordanian River Basin, and EcoPeace’s Green Blue Plan, the water-energy nexus provides an avenue for regional cooperation in an area defined by the legacy of conflict.
This paper aims to contextualize the Green Blue Plan by providing an overview of water scarcity in the Palestinian territories and a history of water management to date, before moving to an assessment of the plan within the larger conversation of the water-energy nexus.
SCARCITY IN THE PALESTINIAN WEST BANK
Water scarcity is built into the fabric of South West Asian and North African states. This has historically and predominantly been linked to their arid or semi-arid climates, which have already become drier due to the impacts of global climate change. The Palestinian territories face many types of water scarcity all contributing to a general state of water poverty. This paper utilizes the framework articulated by Molle and Mollinga, to illustrate the state of water poverty present in the Palestinian territories, including absolute, political, economic, and managerial scarcity.
Absolute, or physical water scarcity relates to the presence and availability of natural aquatic resources. Absolute scarcity is emerging in the Jordan River Basin because of the changing climate and growing populations, which place additional stress on existing resources. According to a report published in 2015, shared bodies across the basin have been overdrawn by an average 300 million cubic meters annually just to meet domestic water needs. Palestine’s population is increasing by 2.4% annually and is expected to hit over six million in 2030, dramatically increasing demand.
Natural water sources include rainfall, as well as four groundwater basins, the Jordanian River and various wadis, or valleys. Ground water basins and sandy aquifers have been extensively relied upon across both the West Bank and Gaza, with the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) estimating that up to 94% of its supply is derived from wells. According to the PWA, groundwater resources are being depleted at a rate of 15% more than that of recharge. Additionally, the Jordan River has been the recipient of extensive untreated wastewater dumping by both Israelis settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank and is receding as a result of increased evapotranspiration and upstream diversion. The wadis, which are dry channels that flood during rainfall, average an annual flow level of approximately 165 millimeters per year but are seasonal and largely unused as a surface water source due to their intermittent and unpredictable nature. Finally, rainfall in the West Bank is approximately 450 millimeters per year and is estimated to become increasingly erratic and less reliable, with precipitating effects on surface water supply as well as aquifer replenishment. Annual rainfall is expected to decrease by anywhere from 27-35% by 2100, while temperatures are expected to increase by 4.8 degrees Celsius.
This precarious resource situation is complicated by the political situation, in which a continued state of occupation in the West Bank and blockade on Gaza have resulted in severe political water scarcity. Water has long played a central role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: just three years after the creation of the state of Israel, the National Water Carrier project was initiated to divert water from Lake Tiberias into large Israeli cities.
Today, the Palestinian Authority is limited by the allocations established by the Oslo Accords in 1994, despite population growth and changing demand. Periods of protracted conflict have resulted in direct damage to water infrastructure in both the West Bank and Gaza. A 2019 study found that the targeting of infrastructure by Israeli authority and settler populations across the West Bank was tantamount to what the authors deemed ‘slow violence.’ Meanwhile in the Gaza Strip, recurrent violent conflict has resulted in extensive destruction across municipal infrastructure types, and that reconstruction efforts were hampered by international blockage on the Gaza Strip, enforced by both Israel and Egypt. Similarly, the Joint Water Commission, also established by the Oslo Accords, severely limits permitting for the creation of water infrastructure ranging from wastewater treatment to desalination plants. As a result of various political accords, Israel not only disproportionately controls allocations from the Jordan River, but also is able to limit Palestinian access to two crucial groundwater basins.
Managerial and Institutional
While comprehensive studies stress the primacy of the political situation in creating a state of scarcity, managerial and institutional scarcity further aggravates water poverty in the Palestinian territories. Various municipalities across the West Bank are not served by the water supply network at all, and as a result must pay high tariffs for water brought in by tankers. According to the most recent PWA calculations over 112,000 residents are unserved by existing water distribution networks. An assessment of urban water security over the five Palestinian cities finds that urban centers are not necessarily more secure, with four out of five major cities utilizing 100% of available water resources in 2017, and the fifth utilizing 99.9%. All five cities’ Global Water Security Score ranked in ‘Alarming’ bracket, which was linked not only to the natural resource consumption but also water loss over municipal systems, the state of existing sewage systems, and water treatment levels. The authors of the study explain that “water governance risk [in the five cities] is ranked as ‘Extreme’ and recommend that “Palestinian authorities should reduce this risk through a clear definition and separation of water responsibilities, a decentralization of water governance to reinforce the engagement of local authorities and other water stakeholders, and finally, the construction of a comprehensive water information system.”
Limited economic independence has led to the Palestinian economy being highly dependent on financial contributions from donor countries and international organizations. As a result, Palestine is also a victim of economic water scarcity, or the reduced capacity to commit human and financial resources to water access. Due to Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and control over territories designated as “Area C,” much of Palestine’s most fertile land and water resources are under Israel’s purview.
Additionally, an Economic Protocol (EP) agreement signed following the second Oslo Accord ties the Palestinian and Israeli economies together and ensures Israeli government control over Palestinian land and resources. The PWA is thus indebted to Israel and unable to pay for the bulk water it purchases from Mekerot, Israel’s national water company.
Furthermore, the lack of economic self-sufficiency has forced the Palestinian Authority to rely heavily on international assistance for water infrastructure development across both the West Bank and Gaza. This reliance on foreign aid perpetuates Palestinian territories’ lack of economic and physical independence for water access. Policy development by foreign organizations and a lack of public engagement processes have adversely impacted Palestinian water legislation. The underutilization of local human capacity highlights a reduced capacity for the PWA to increase water access.
As a result of the scarcities listed above, politicians and other leaders have intensified discourses of heightened water securitization through speech acts that serve to frame water within cultural or historical metaphors and through a lens of conflict. Water has emerged as a highly securitized asset throughout the Jordan River Basin. Authors El-Sayed and Mansour also identify structural securitization, with Israel functioning as a “hydrohegemon,” able to justify its water policies through a series of physical securitizing acts that link water to broader national security.
The desecurization of water requires a rejection of this zero-sum understanding of water rights and allocations in favor of framing of water as vital to human security and key to mutual interdependence. Visions of interdependency must be embedded with national water strategies of all three of the basin-sharing countries. Jordanian water policy has already effectively taken on many of these framings, looking at water through the lenses of population growth, immigration and refugees, equitable water sharing and other human security-based issues.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE WATER ENERGY NEXUS IN THE WEST BANK
In recent years, the topic of the water-energy nexus has gained traction in both the water and energy fields. Though there is no official definition of the concept, it addresses the ways in which these two resources interact. Studies which incorporate the nexus concept typically examine both the water needed for energy production and the energy necessitated in the distribution production of water through non-natural sources.
With the onset of climate change and new technologies, both resources are experiencing dramatic structural changes. Water systems are transitioning from centralized natural sources like ground and surface level to decentralized production like desalination and recycled water. Similarly, energy systems are increasingly reliant on smaller scale, renewable production sources like solar and wind. Climate change, population growth, and developments in technology have emerged as three main drivers of the increased coupling of the field. Komendantova describes the increased resource scarcity and competition creating “production and consumption trade-offs.” In response, integrated planning of water and energy has emerged in municipalities and national planning strategies alike.
Water Energy Nexus in The Green Blue Deal
“A Green Blue Deal for the Middle East” (2020) takes on elements from previous EcoPeace studies to propose a holistic vision for water cooperation and energy exchange, as well as other green cooperation strategies across the Jordan River Basin. Building off the work presented in “Water Energy Nexus: A Pre-Feasibility Study for Mid-East Water-Renewable Energy Exchanges” (2017), the plan incorporates EcoPeace’s flagship project aimed at designing a “regional desalinated-water energy community between Jordan, Israel and Palestine that would result in healthy and sustainable regional interdependencies.” Desalinated water will be produced in Israel and Palestine (the Gaza Strip), and then sold to Jordan. In turn, Jordan will sell Palestine and Israel renewable energy to reduce fossil fuel dependence in the energy-intensive process of desalination and more broadly to meet National Adaptation Plans and internal renewable goals.
As listed by the pre-feasibility study, the geo-political benefits of the plans are numerous for all three countries. The plan would allow Jordan to achieve water security at a low cost ($1.1 per cubic meter), develop the country’s energy for export sector and remove Jordan from a state of unilateral dependency on Israel for both water and energy. Israel would be able to achieve its renewable energy goals with minimal dependency on its own land resources and a diverse energy portfolio, advance the country’s existing leadership in desalination and promote regional stability. Finally, from a Palestinian perspective, the plan will allow the territories to diversify their energy sources and reduce reliance on Israel, while enabling the Palestinian Authority to reach its renewable energy goals. By establishing this sort of interdependency, the plan also increases the likelihood of a future agreement regarding rights to natural water sources, and a revision of Article 40 of the Oslo Accords.
Brooks et al. evaluate this proposal and classify the water-energy nexus as “both an institutional and infrastructure solution”. Given the likelihood that Jordan and Palestine will have to follow Israel’s experience in turning to desalination to accommodate their growing populations and reduced supply, the authors explain that the environmental costs of installing solar production in Jordan and distribution infrastructure will be less than fueling desalination with traditional fossil fuels. All three countries are highly dependent on fossil fuels, a dependency which “is a serious drain on foreign currency reserves as well as a strategic threat and a source of both local air pollution and global greenhouse gasses.” The regional nature of the effort will permit the three countries to avoid implementing independent strategies to address water scarcity while addressing each country’s need to turn to renewable energy sources.
Approaches to Energy and Water Security in the Green Blue Deal
While the water-energy nexus proposal is the most elaborate, and certainly most infrastructure-intensive part of the Green Blue Deal, the plan also encompasses the inclusion of a variety of economic and development sectors in order to provide a more holistic approach to tackling both energy creation and water security. These incorporate investment strategies, green job creation and public awareness and education campaigns. Nonetheless, EcoPeace is explicit in stating that the Green Blue Deal is not meant to be a holistic approach to climate mitigation and adaptation in the Middle East. Instead, it seeks to provide an avenue to simultaneously facilitate dialogue and negotiations in a protracted state, while addressing a pressing environmental issue for the three countries.
Crucially, in addition to promoting state interdependency, the Green Blue Deal also integrates private sector actors, as well as international stakeholders. The proposal includes priority recommendations to the international community that “[p]arallel investments currently made by international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) should align with European Green Deal foreign policy objectives.” It further encourages that a ‘Friends of Water Group’ be created through a coalition of states which hold influence over either Israel or Palestine, and take international leadership on the resolution of water issues in the framework of previous agreements regarding a two-state solution. The proposal calls on the Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli governments to leverage their international engagement and investment, moving forward on the creation of a World Bank Trust Fund for sustainable projects that will make up an emergent Jordan Valley Master Plan. Given the earlier concerns raised regarding economic scarcity, it will be crucial to ensure international investors engage local stakeholders in making investment decisions to enable greater economic autonomy in water infrastructure decisions.
A focal point of the proposal is its emphasis on youth populations, both as a critical subgroup for whom the plan would provide opportunity and decrease risk and as the targets of its educational programming. EcoPeace’s Good Water Neighbors program pre-exists the plan, and includes national school programs, regional leadership programs, and a Youth Water Trustees track, in which 36 youth from all three countries are selected annually to participate in trainings and simulations to expand their knowledge on issues of climate change and regional security. The Green Blue Deal will also incorporate an existing Young Professionals track, and an emerging Green Social Entrepreneurship track, which targets students and graduates in environmental science and young water professionals. These programs aim to provide the foundations for future water negotiations and implementation of future regional solutions to water and more generally, climate-related security issues.
ANALYZING THE GREEN BLUE DEAL: RISKS AND OPPORTUNITIES
This paper proposes a shift of priorities away from desalination in the Green Blue Deal and towards the rehabilitation of the Jordan River basin. Reliance on increased desalination raises environmental risks for the transboundary region, and this paper instead focuses on alternative ways to achieve water security for the region, while strengthening Palestine’s position within the Green Blue Deal negotiations.
Environmental Risks of Increased Brine Through Desalination
The authors of the Green Blue Deal discuss in detail the benefits of utilizing desalinated water as a resource in the water-scarce transboundary region of the Jordan River Basin. Having set desalination as an end goal, they note that the cost of pumping desalinated water from the Mediterranean coast is cheaper than from the Red Sea but fail to address the environmental implications of pumping increasingly large amounts of water from the Mediterranean and Red Sea, and they do not account for the required brine disposal.
While desalination is increasingly viewed as an effective and reliable process of providing potable water from brackish water and seawater, there are rising concerns regarding the potentially adverse environmental impacts of the desalination process. Negative impacts include the brine byproduct of the desalination process, entrainment and entrapment of marine species, heavy use of chemicals, and the high energy cost of the process.
Brine is a hyper-saline solution that is a byproduct of the desalination process and may also contain additional chemicals. Typically, brine is disposed of into the marine environment, and this is the primary concern of increased desalination along the Mediterranean. While the quality and quantity of brine depend on the particular type of desalination process, most desalination plants utilize one of several brine disposal options: (1) sewer discharge, (2) evaporation ponds, (3) surface water discharge, (4) deep-well injection, or (5) land application. Each of these methods have disadvantages, and all are likely to have an adverse impact on the environment including affecting marine biodiversity and soil or groundwater contamination. Mitigation efforts are critical in light of the harmful effects of brine including: environmental impact assessments on desalination plant projects, environmental modeling plans to monitor processes, ensuring the outfalls of desalination plants are dimensioned to have minimal impact on marine environments, and exploring options to dilute brine with cooling water from power plants.
Finally, as Panagopoulos and Haralambous point out, emerging technologies increasingly utilize brine as a resource, including the idea of minimal/zero liquid discharge (MLD/ZLD) which involve mining brine for mineral recovery and can lead to higher recovery of freshwater, reduced volumes of brine byproduct, and solid salts for additional profit. Pursuing MLD/ZLD methods could further refine and reduce the environmental burden for the transboundary region of the Jordan River should desalination be deemed a necessary option and could be a solution for Palestine to explore as part of their role in the Green Blue Deal negotiations.
Focusing on Rehabilitation of the Jordan River Basin
The Green Blue Deal also focuses on the poor water quality of the Jordan River Basin. The authors state that in addition to Israeli restrictions, Palestine cannot access water directly from the Jordan river due to river pollution and water diversion. Additionally, the Mountain Aquifer, the largest groundwater resource in Israel and the West Bank, is also vulnerable to pollution and is exposed to poorly treated sewage and “unsanitary solid waste disposals often caused by the limited ability to move forward in a timely manner on projects in Area C communities.” The declining availability of clean water in the Jordan River has increased the urgency for desalination. However, prioritizing rehabilitation of the Jordan River Basin over desalination provides a more sustainable path forward for the three nations. Additionally, this could give Palestine the potential to leverage its political position in the Green Blue Deal.
The renewable energy generated from EcoPeace’s cross-border solar pilot project could be utilized towards developing a new wastewater treatment plant for the purpose of wastewater reuse in the West Bank. Subsequently, a Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) system in the Lower Jordan River Basin could be created to reduce pollution, increase flows to the river, and restore the Basin for the transboundary region.
While the use of localized greywater treatment units has been encouraged in the West Bank and Gaza, Dare et al observe a lack of interest in wastewater treatment in the West Bank. The authors point to misconceptions and political constraints as key to the lack of traction behind treated wastewater irrigation. However, treated wastewater reuse, particularly for agricultural irrigation, may reduce the current reliance on septic tanks and cesspits in the West Bank, prone to overtopping and polluting water resources. As the authors outline, the main hindrance to pursuing treated wastewater is negative public perception. Steps should be taken at both the governmental as well as local grassroots levels through organizations such as EcoPeace to familiarize residents with the benefits of treated wastewater reuse and establish trust between stakeholders to pursue treated wastewater alongside desalination. Piloting a wastewater treatment plant alongside the Israeli Jordanian solar project could be an effective first step in the implementation of the Green Blue Deal. Coupling this project with further support and oversight for local household level greywater treatment units would allow the Palestinian West Bank greater water independence and contribute to rehabilitating the Jordan River Basin.
The Basin would also benefit from a Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) program, a key opportunity to enhance water availability in the Jordan River Valley. MAR, which involves the intentional recharge of water to aquifers for subsequent recovery or environmental restoration, can include methods such as rainwater harvesting, water diversion, or artificial recharge. Ghanem identifies the following goals for MAR in the Lower Jordan River Basin: (1) maintain and increase natural groundwater as an economic resource, (2) avoid further salinization and saltwater intrusion of aquifers and water bodies, (3) decrease water loss due to evaporation, (4) create a seasonally available water storage, and (5) provide treatment and storage of reclaimed wastewater for subsequent reuse. This last goal demonstrates the opportunities that would be created should the stakeholders in the Green Blue Deal choose to pursue treated wastewater as an objective option in the plan.
Pursuing treated wastewater and modifying current practices of rainwater collection to provide direct groundwater recharge would allow the Jordan River to begin restoring its flows. Ghanem observes that MAR is not currently identified as a major goal in water planning in the region, rather the main focuses tend to be water supply and demand management and institutional reforms. This is reflected in the Green Blue Deal proposal, however further consideration of MAR as a technique and tool alongside treated wastewater in the Jordan River Basin would ultimately serve the interests of all three nations.
This paper outlines some of the promising steps forward that can be taken in the transboundary Jordan River Basin in light of the worsening state of water scarcity in the region. As the Green Blue Deal argues, focusing on water first can help to spur the progress of further cooperation between these three nations. Moreover, the potential for renewable energy production in the region serves as a twofold means of furthering security and mitigating climate risks for each nation.
In implementing the strategies outlined above, it will be crucial to consider a participatory governance approach, as well as understand that “there is no one nexus method that fits all scenarios, rather the approach must be tailored for each unique situation.” The negotiators of the Green Blue Deal have begun a pragmatic path forward, incorporating local stakeholders and creating unique policies and pathways towards the goal of transboundary water cooperation and energy exchange.
This paper offers several additional objectives to consider and seeks to identify a more central role for Palestine in the Green Blue Deal. In addition to EcoPeace’s cross-border solar project with Israel and Jordan, this paper proposes utilizing the renewable energy generated from the pilot project toward a new treatment plant for wastewater reuse in the Palestinian West Bank and Managed Aquifer Recharge system in the Lower Jordan River Basin. Finally, further scrutiny into the environmental impacts of the increased desalination efforts proposed in the Green Blue Deal, namely the disposal of brine discharge, and a larger focus on rehabilitation of the Jordan River Basin rather than on desalination will be essential to its successful and sustainable implementation.
As the Green Blue Deal states, climate change can be viewed as a “multiplier of opportunities,” including mutual gain. All three nations have a great deal to gain by implementing the strategies of the Green Blue Deal, beginning with the potential to address water scarcity and create a foundation to address challenges to come.
By Benita Lily Cheng and Ada Voss Rustow
Lily Cheng is a second year Master of City Planning student also pursuing the Urban Resilience Certificate, and interested in equitable climate adaptation planning, with a particular focus on long-term regional water management in urban coastal areas. Prior to studying at Penn, she worked in Architecture in New York, and continues to be interested in understanding resilience at the building, infrastructure, and social scales within the urban environment.
Ada Voss Rustow is in her last year of the Master of City Planning at Penn where she is specializing in Environmental Planning. Prior to beginning her MCP, she worked in international development in New York City and with an urban planning and development organization in Palestine. She is interested in issues of coastal resilience, regional water management and sustainable urban development in the Arabic-speaking world.
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The Dead Sea, near the Israel-Jordan border
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 Kittaneh, M. (2020). Agriculture sector at the edge of collapsing in the West Bank. GeoJournal 85, 205– 219.
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Irrigated terraces in Battir, Palestine. These terraces date back 4,000 years and are part of an ancient irrigation system formed by the continual layering of stones to form terraces.
The Palestinian bank of the Dead Sea. The now derelict diving platform stands testament to how much the sea has receded in recent years.
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 Panagopoulos, A.; Haralambous, K.; Loizidou, M. (2020) Desalination brine disposal methods and treatment technologies – A review. Science of the Total Environment. 693. 1133545. ISSN 00489697.
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The Mediterranean as seen from Haifa, in northern Israel. The EcoPeace proposal relies on desalination plants along the Mediterranean, both in Israeli coastal cities and in Gaza to the south.
The Israeli side of the Dead Sea. The Jordan River is the only major source of water flowing into the Dead Sea, and consequently its reduced flows over the years have caused the Dead Sea's levels to rapidly recede.