Jordan plans own Red-Dead canal without Israel

May 21st, 2009

According to the Boston Herald and The Jordan Times, Jordan will pursue the long-talked about canal project between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea without Israel.  According to news reports, Jordan declared its intention this past Sunday at the 2009 World Economic Forum in the Middle East, held at the Dead Sea in Jordan.  The original plan had called for Jordan to cooperate with Israel on the canal and the World Bank was in the midst of assessing the feasibility of the joint project.  Now that Jordan has decided to go it alone, it has dubbed its project “Jordan National Red Sea Water Development Project” in order to differentiate it from the original “Red-Dead Canal” proposal.


The purpose behind the project is two-fold.  The first is to provide desalinated water to one of the most parched regions of the world.  Red Sea water will be channeled through pipelines to a desalination facility that, using the elevation difference between the Red Sea (at sea level) and the Dead Sea (approximately 400 meters below sea level), is expected to provide 120 mcm of fresh water annually by 2014, and eventually at full capacity, as much as 700 mcm.  The second rationale for the project is to revive the “dying” Dead Sea, which over the past 20 or 30 years, has lost about one-third of its area and dropped more than 30 meters.  The Sea has been desiccated for the same reasons that the Aral Sea has been drying out (see my prior post on the Aral Sea) – because of Israeli and Jordanian upstream diversions from the Jordan River (the Dead Sea’s principle source of water) that have reduced the river’s inflow to as little as five percent of natural historical natural flows (check out the website and Photo Album of Friends of the Earth Middle East on the Dead Sea). The idea is to take the salts removed in the desalination process and pump them back into the remaining waters used to fill the heavily saline Dead Sea (10 times the salinity of sea water).


That Jordan is going it alone may not be much of a surprise.  Jordan has been frustrated with environmentalists in Israel who have long challenged the plan as an environmentally destructive plan. They cite the different chemistries of Red Sea and Dead Sea water and the potential alteration of the chemical makeup that makes the Dead Sea so distinctive as well as the possible impact on currents in the Red Sea that could threaten the Red Sea’s unique coral life (see, for example, the campaign of Friends of the Earth Middle East).  Without the obstacles of the Israeli environmentalists, Jordan, which only has a nascent environmental movement, can move forward at its own whim.


Of course, a critical question will be whether Jordan can secure the necessary funds for the project, which is expected to cost around $5-$10 billion and to take 30 years to complete.  Without Israel and in the context of a peace initiative (some have dubbed the original Red-Dead Canal project as the “Peace Canal”), that may be difficult.  But that may be part of Jordan’s strategy to overcome the environmental opposition and pressure Israel to commit to the plan.  And Jordan’s tactic may be working.  Not long after Jordan’s announced its intentions to move forward with its own plan, Israel’s Water Authority expressed its hope that a cooperative arrangement could yet be achieved.  And Israel certainly has good reasons to want to take part in this project – while the majority of the benefits from a Red-Dead canal will accrue to Jordan, Israel would still benefit considerably from fresh water in its Arava Valley, as well as a revived Dead Sea.  According to the news reports, Jordan does not intend its new canal to replace the Red-Dead Canal Project.  Would that allow for the possibility of two canals?  Highly unlikely.

Tunisia ratifies 1997 Watercourse Convention

May 17th, 2009

On 22 April 2009, Tunisia became the 17th nation to ratify the UN Convention on the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses. The Convention represents the UN’s effort to codify customary international law for transboundary fresh water resources. It was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1997 by a vote of 103 in favor, 27 abstentions, and 3 against, with 33 Members absent (see my analysis of the vote here). Tunisia’s ratification is likely due, in part, to the efforts of the World Wildlife Fund, which in recent years, has embarked on an effort to convince countries to sign on to the Watercourse Convention.


While Tunisia’s ratification is certainly a laudatory and welcomed development, the tally of Convention 17 ratifications is still shy of the 35 ratifications needed to bring the instrument into force (you can find the status of the Convention here). However, the real value of the Convention is not in its possible ratification at some future date. Rather, it is in the development of local and regional agreements that follow the general principles articulated in the Convention.


The Watercourse Convention was designed to serve as a framework for more specific bilateral and regional agreements relating to the use, management and preservation of transboundary water resources. Additionally, it was intended to help prevent and resolve conflicts over international water resources, and to promote sustainable development and the protection of global water supplies. Even before its adoption by the General Assembly, its draft (formulated by the UN International Law Commission) had already influenced the drafting of local and regional arrangements including the 1992 UN/ECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, the 1995 SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourse Systems (revised in 2000), the 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin, and the 1991 Protocol on Common Water Resources concluded between Argentina and Chile. It also seems to have had considerable weight in the development of 1999 Draft Protocol to the above-noted 1992 UN/ECE Watercourses/Lakes Convention and was referred to by the International Court of Justice in the Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros case where the Court affirming the centrality of the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization.


While I certainly applaud Tunisia’s ratification and the efforts of WWF, I would much prefer to see greater efforts made at developing agreements among basin riparians. Currently, of the 263 international river and lake basins found on Earth, 153 (nearly 60%) still lack an agreement. Moreover, of the 106 basins that have more than 2 riparians and that have an agreement, only 20% of those agreements involve more than 2 of the riparians. Clearly, this is woefully short of what is needed. As for transboundary ground waters, the situation is more dire. Presently, there is only one agreement over a transboundary aquifer (between France and Switzerland over the Genevese Aquifer) and two data sharing arrangements in northern Africa (on the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer and on the Western Sahara Aquifer). In contrast, a recent study prepared under UNESCO’s and IAH’s ISARM (Internationally Shared Aquifer Resources Management) Initiative, indicates that there are at least 273 transboundary aquifers worldwide.


Given current water stress and scarcity in many parts of the world, as well as the growing peril from climate change, which threatens to worsen water availability worldwide, the need for cooperation and coordination over shared water resources is greater than it has ever been. While a framework global instrument can provide the guidelines by which to manage transboundary waters, it will be the local and regional agreements that achieve real success in the challenge to secure all peoples and all nations adequate fresh water.

In memory of Fadia Daibes Murad

May 17th, 2009

In memory of Fadia Daibes Murad

A few days ago, friends and colleagues commemorated the life of Fadia Daibes Murad, a Palestinian water law and policy expert who died in a car crash on her way back to Ramallah from the World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey. Fadia had long been an advocate for Palestinian water rights in the difficult contest between Palestinians and Israelis. She had also been a stalwart voice on women’s issues and was widely known as an intelligent and articulate champion of human rights.


While I had heard about Fadia previously, I got to know her during our participation in Track II negotiations over water issues between Palestinians and Israelis under the framework of the Geneva Initiative. During that process, I found Fadia to be wonderfully energetic and approachable, someone with whom you could argue intelligently and not get caught up in idealism. While Fadia certainly held strong opinions about the Palestinian rights, water allocations, and related issues, she could also recognize and acknowledge opposing positions. Most important, she had a wonderful personality that welcomed conversation and that made everyone feel at ease.


I do not know what influence Fadia had on the Palestinian side. But from my discussions with some Israelis, I know that she found respect on that side. And that is the essence of the ongoing dispute – a loss of respect and trust that will keep peace at bay so long as both parties ignore each other’s human dignity and fail to recognize each other’s rights. I can only hope that for the sake of peace, the Palestinians and the Israelis have someone to fill her shoes.


I was not able to attend Fadia’s memorial, but her memory remains with me. Fadia’s untimely death is a tremendous loss to her family and friends. It is also a loss to those devoted to the cause of peace in the Middle East. Her absence will be sorely missed.


Here are a few links to some of Fadia’s recent work:

·         Interview at the World Water Forum in Istanbul where Fadia represented the Gender and Water Alliance on the topic of water and conflict from a gender perspective.

·         Statement of Dr. Fadia Daibes Murad at 5th World Water Forum.

Forthcoming lecture on “Scarcity, Conflict, & Security: The Future of Water for Israel & Her Neighbors”

May 7th, 2009

For those of you who will be in the Portland, Oregon, area on June 1, I have been asked to give a lecture to the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland on Scarcity, Conflict, & Security: The Future of Water for Israel & Her Neighbors. The lecture will take place at the Benson Hotel, located at 309 SW Broadway in Portland, OR, 12noon to 1:30 pm. There is a $20 admission fee (unfortunately, I have no control over this). You can find a flyer about the program here and register for the program here.

Yes, this lecture was originally scheduled for May 19. However, I was just invited to serve on a UNESCO IHP delegation to a UNEP Conference on “Strengthening Transboundary Freshwater Governance – The Environmental Sustainability Challenge” to be held in Bangkok, Thailand. The Jewish Federation was very gracious about rescheduling my talk.

Israel Responds to World Bank Report on Palestinian Water Sector Development

May 5th, 2009

Israel recently responded to the World Bank’s Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development (PDF) (see the press release here), in which the Bank found that “the joint governance rules and water allocations established under the 1995 Oslo interim agreement … fall short of the needs of the Palestinian people” and that “the imbalance in power, capacity and information between parties, interim governance rules and practices have resulted in systematic and severe constraints on Palestinian development of water resources, water uses, and wastewater management.”


In its defense, Israel asserted that it “has fulfilled all its obligations under the water agreement regarding the supply of additional quantities of water to the Palestinians, and has even extensively surpassed the obligatory quantity.” Moreover, Israel alleged that the Palestinians “have significantly violated their commitments under the water agreement” by drilling “over 250 wells without the authorization of the joint water commission.” Israel also claims that the Palestinians have failed to construct sewage treatment plants as required under Article 40 of Annex III to the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement of 28 September 1995 and are allowing “the sewage to flow unheeded into streams, polluting both the environment and groundwater.”


In a prior post, I noted that Friends of the Earth Middle East had called for the replacement of the Joint Water Commission with a new joint water management structure, describing the current Commission as a “failed mechanism.”


In support of its position, Israel’s Water Authority also published The Issue of Water between Israel and the Palestinians (pdf), “a policy paper, prepared at the request of the Water Authority by a group of independent experts.”


In the interests of full disclosure, while I have lived in the United States for more than 30 years, I was born and initially raised in Israel.

Bond Fights Evil Corporate Water Company

May 5th, 2009

The other day, I watched the latest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. While the action/thriller had more in common with the recent Borne series than the Bond films of my youth, one of the subplots particularly intrigued me. After losing a dogfight over the Bolivian desert, Bond and his companion parachute into a sinkhole where they discover that Quantum (the evil criminal organization) has blockaded Bolivia’s fresh water supply which, apparently, in the movie, flows through the desert in subterranean rivers). Piecing together information from some of the prior scenes, you also learn that Quantum’s agent (Dominic Green) is in the process of buying that desert from a Bolivia general planning to overthrow his government.

Although private ownership of fresh water resources is not new, this film seems to take the concept to the “logical” extreme opposed by the likes of Maude Barlow and others. Certainly, there is much left unanswered in this subplot, but the film suggests that once evil Quantum obtains the desert from the would-be Bolivian ruler, it would have full possessory rights in and to the underlying water – a “rule of capture” approach to water rights. Why would a company (evil or not) want to have such rights? That becomes apparent in a later scene where the general is coerced into signing a contract granting Quantum’s agent an exclusive and overpriced water provision contract for the country. In other words, Barlow’s worst nightmare comes true.

I cannot say that such possibilities do not concern me or that all corporations working in the water sector have evil intent. Yet, unregulated private ownership of one of the most important components of life is quite troubling. Moreover, as I stated before, there is “a fundamental human notion that water is so elemental to life that it deserves a unique status in our societal system.” Nonetheless, I do think that there is a viable middle ground and having blogged about it previously, I will not rehash the issue.

Nonetheless, I wonder whether this film is a harbinger of what’s to come? Are there already any lakes, rivers, or aquifers that are wholly owned by a private company? Note that by “owned,” I do not mean a mere right to use or access the water for a defined period of time. Rather, I mean full-blown, unrestricted ownership – where the company has complete legal title to each and every molecule of water in the water body. None come immediately to mind, but I suspect that some of you may be able to point out examples.

Climate Change and the Spread of Disease

April 29th, 2009

As swine flu continues to wreck havoc in the life of Mexico City residents and threatens to escalate to a global pandemic, the question of whether climate change might have a role in spread of disease seems appropriate. The short answer is “YES,” climate is likely to have a significant effect on the proliferation and geographic distribution of diseases.

Many of the world’s most notorious and persistent diseases, for example, are directly related to the lack of clean water and proper sanitation. The UN, in its 3rd World Water Assessment Report, attributes nearly three million deaths annually to such maladies. As temperatures rise, vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever are expected to expand their range into regions that previously had been inhospitable to them. Likewise, where climate change causes precipitation to increase, water-borne pathogens including bacteria, parasites and algal blooms will flourish. The result will be a significant geographical shift in the range and proliferation of various diseases.

In the case of swine flu and other diseases originating in animals, changing climates could disrupt normal geographic movements and distributions of animals harboring such diseases. These disruptions could bring the pathogens into closer contact with other animals and pathogens, as well as humans, and could result in alternate transmission routes and, possibly, alternate mutations.

Last October (2008), the Wildlife Conservation Society (a US organization based at the Bronx Zoo that operates in 60 nations to save wildlife and habitats worldwide), issued its “deadly dozen” list of diseases that could spread into new regions and become more virulent as a result of climate change. Among others, the list included avian flu, one of the three genetic components of the Mexico swine influenza. The complete “deadly dozen” list includes [in alphabetical order]:

  1. Avian influenza
  2. Babesia
  3. Cholera
  4. Ebola
  5. Intestinal and External Parasites
  6. Lyme Disease
  7. Plague
  8. Red Tides
  9. Rift Valley Fever
  10. Sleeping Sickness (trypanosomiasis)
  11. Tuberculosis
  12. Yellow Fever

A Reuters article discussing the Society’s report can be found here. The Society has brochure that describes the “deadly dozen” diseases and their interaction with climate change here.

Peter Gleick Joins the Blogging World

April 28th, 2009

Peter Gleick, renown water policy wonk and President/co-founder of the Pacific Institute, has joined the blogging world on the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper’s City Brights blogPeter’s opening post:


Welcome to the first post to my City Brights blog. I look forward to sharing with you some of my thoughts about the water challenges facing California, the West, and our world. I hope this blog will be somewhat different than others. What I hope to do is to explore the threats and challenges to our freshwater resources and to discuss available, viable solutions to those threats, drawing from not only my experiences and viewpoint, but also by way of numbers. I will include in each post an important, unusual, or newsworthy “water number” that I hope will highlight some piece of the water issue. And now to begin the discussion…


In his first commentary, Peter briefly discusses the number “one billion” – that is roughly the number of people around the world who are without access to improved, safe, or affordable drinking water.


Having followed Peter’s work, I look forward to many more interesting posts and commentaries.

Friends of the Earth Middle East and World Bank’s report on restrictions on Palestinian water sector

April 25th, 2009

Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) – a regional environmental NGO composed of Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians cooperating to promote sustainable development and sustainable peace in the region – recently issued the statement Water Being Held Hostage to the Conflict.  The statement is a response to the recently released World Bank report Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development (PDF) (see the press release here), which “reveals the extent to which water resources and sustainable development are being held hostage to the conflict.”


In its statement, FoEME “calls on the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to replace the failed Joint Water Committee (JWC) with a new joint water management structure.”  It also calls on “the Quartet led by the new Administration of US President Barak Obama to focus on the dire Palestinian water economy as a matter of urgency and help the parties replace the JWC with a new institution that empowers both sides as equal partners.”


Referring to its past reports, FoEME asserted that the Joint Water Committee had “failed the interests of both peoples, not providing the water quantities needed to Palestinians and not protecting shared Israeli/Palestinian water resources from large scale pollution.”  Nader Khateeb, Palestinian Director of FoEME, said in the statement that: “It is time to replace the failed mechanism of the Joint Water Committee, established under Oslo, with an institution where Palestinians and Israelis are true partners in both water supply and management responsibilities.”


Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director of FoEME (and a friend of mine), stated: “The irony is that due to the water crises, following 5 consecutive years of draught, pollution largely from Palestinian sources poses an ever increasing threat to the declining shared water reserves … A key problem with the JWC is that it has disempowered the Palestinians from being able to take responsibility for water management. The Palestinians receive so little of the shared water, that Israelis must ask themselves, what incentive do Palestinians have to protect shared water from pollution?”


The statement notes that “In 2008, FoEME released a Model Water Agreement that called for the replacement of the Joint Water Committee with a new body where equivalent powers and responsibilities would lie with both sides covering all shared water resources.”

Global River Flows Decline

April 23rd, 2009

The Christian Science Monitor Discoveries Blog has an interesting article on the global decline of river flows.  Too many ’straws’ sucking water out of the Colorado River” describes how by 2050, the Colorado River be unable to live up to its current allocation scheme 60-90 percent of the time; even absent climatic changes, scheduled deliveries would be unmet 40 percent of the time.  This news is based on a recent study by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and published in the April 20 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to a forthcoming study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the College of William and Mary, the Colorado is not alone in suffering such shortfalls.  The study reveals that over the past 60 years, some 300 of the world’s largest rivers have experienced significant changes in flow rates.  While some rivers have gained volume, the rivers with reduced flow rates outnumbered the ones with higher flow rates by 2.5 to 1.  As for the culprit, the study suggests that large dams and diversion projects have certainly caused their share of water problems. However, they place greater burden on global climate change, which is altering precipitation patterns and increasing the rate of evaporation.

This study, which represents the most comprehensive data base yet assembled to track river flows (assessing the flows of 925 of the planet’s largest rivers), is scheduled for publication in the May 15 issue of the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate.  You can download the research paper here, or view a simplified description of the study’s findings here.