The Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal – Implications for Palestine

Round table participants

Author: Svenja Oberender - Program Coordinator/ Environmental Justice

On 15th April 2014, the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Palestine & Jordan office invited to a round table debate titled “The Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal – Implications for Palestine” aiming to discuss the topic with experts and representatives of Palestinian civil society, universities, and governmental institutions.

Background for the discussion was a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in December 2013 by Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority regarding the construction of a desalination plant in Aqaba, Jordan. This plant will produce fresh water that could be sold to the Israeli city of Eilat, while in return Israel would export more water to Jordan from the northern area around Lake Tiberias. Palestinian water interests are not included in this agreement, but a side deal may involve the potential for Palestinians to purchase desalinated water from the Israeli national water carrier Mekorot. The Memorandum also contains the general suggestion for the construction of a pipeline to transport the desalination brine towards the Dead Sea; however, this is only a small scale project compared to the megalomaniac vision of a canal connecting the Red Sea with the Dead Sea (read more background information here).

The discussion about this topic was kick-started by input from HE Dr. Shaddad Attili, head of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA); Dr. Abdelrahman Tamimi, the Director General of the Palestinian Hydrology Group (PHG) and lecturer at Al-Quds University; Dr. Azmi Shuaibi, Commissioner for Combating Corruption at AMAN (Transparency Palestine) and commissioner at the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights; as well as Dr. Maher Abu-Madi, associate professor for Water and Environmental Studies at the Institute of Environmental and Water Studies (IEWS), Birzeit University.

One of the main points of criticism from Palestinian civil society with regards to the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit (RSDSC) – but just as prevalent when talking about the 2013 MoU – is the severe lack of transparency both by the World Bank and the Palestinian Authority. As a consequence, the discussion at hbs focused mainly on questions of transparency and access to information. As Dr. Tamimi highlighted, Palestinian civil society has been excluded from discussions about the Palestinian Authority’s stance on the RSDSC since the Minister of Planning signed the initial MoU for the feasibility study in 2005. The following years saw a trend of exclusion and lack of transparency that has yet to be counteracted. According to Dr. Azmi Shuaibi, AMAN has been working with the Palestinian Water Authority during the last five years, trying to enhance the transparency of the institution’s work. AMAN’s annual report has since highlighted the lack of transparency in the Palestinian water sector. While he recognized that the Palestinian president recently delegated the authority over the water council to the Prime Minister’s office, transparency and accountability are still not fully established. Shuaibi stressed that the absence of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) can no longer serve as an excuse for transferring accountability and power to the president, essentially centralizing and obscuring political decision-making, which complicates the participation of the PA in multilateral agreements.

Symbolic for the lack of access to information is the fact that the MoU, which was signed in December 2013, has yet to be released for public access, despite repeated requests by Palestinian environmentalists. The RSDSC studies sponsored by the World Bank (feasibility study, environmental impact assessment, study of alternatives etc.) add up to ca. 7000 pages of information, but only summaries have been made available for the public.

While an unofficial translation of the MoU has been leaked, the original text is still unavailable. In a public question and answer session hosted by the PWA beginning of March, the head of the Palestinian Water Authority assured the questioning participants that he would request the government to release the document. Dr. Attili reaffirmed that he will publish the MoU on the Water Authority’s website as soon as he receives the governmental permission. When the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO), following an initiative by the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), approached the Prime Minister’s council asking to release the document, they were informed that the responsibility for the document was returned to the PWA, as UAWC’s Ashraf Al Nahashibi noted. Both Dr. Azmi Shuaibi and Rasha Amarnah (Anti-Corruption Commission) related the lack of transparency to the delays in signing and implementing a new law on access to information that has long been in the pipeline. At the same time, Palestinian laws do not specify processes for signing international agreements such as the MoU which leads to the lack of clarity and accountability.

Such shortcomings need to be viewed in light of the massive institution-building measures that have been sponsored and pushed for by international donor organizations and countries since the beginning of the Oslo-process, and in particular since 2007. Dr. Tamimi recounted a conversation with a key government minister, who was not at all aware of the existence of the RSDS-canal project. What, the participants of the round table asked, does this say about the status of Palestinian institutions? The Memorandum of Understanding that in 2005 tasked the World Bank to conduct feasibility studies was signed by then Minister of Planning Ghassan Khatib. For the study of alternatives to the RSDSC project, Israel and Jordan nominated Israeli and Jordanian experts, while the PA appointed internationally renowned expert Tony Allen, a fact that was repeatedly criticized during the debate. Does the PA’s overreliance on external consultants weaken the Palestinian institutional structure and undermine Palestinian academic expertise?

But all criticism aside – why did the Palestinian Authority decide to sign the MoU for the Aqaba desalination plant last December? As Dr. Shaddad Attili argued, the MoU does not yet signify the PA’s agreement to the RSDSC project and is not to be seen as a first phase of it. He hopes, however, that the brine of the desalination plant, pumped into the Dead Sea, could serve as a pilot project in order to observe the effect of the mixing of water on the Dead Sea’s ecosystem – if the necessary pipeline is being built. At the same time he stressed that Palestinian participation in international water projects and related agreements in fact constitutes an exercise of Palestinian water rights as riparians of the Jordan River, even if just symbolically. There has been pressure by Jordan on Palestinians to sign the MoU since the Hashemite Kingdom heavily relies on new approaches to solve its water crisis, and the Palestinian approval is seen as crucial in order to receive funding for the project. But as a member of the audience noted: what does that mean for Palestinian-Jordanian relations? Doesn’t this signify a shift from inter-Arab solidarity towards an interest-based relationship? And how can a symbolic exercise of riparian rights, which are in reality constantly denied, serve to further Palestinian water rights? Another participant noted that since Oslo, the Palestinians in fact lost 20 million cubic meters of water per year – their access to water has declined with the “help” of donors like the World Bank who support projects which essentially deny (or at least ignore and substitute) Palestinian water rights.

With the lack of transparency in PA processes still unresolved, and the weak Palestinian negotiating position towards Israel (not least in terms of water rights), many participants of the round table saw the MoU as a strategic mistake with very bad timing.  Dr. Tamimi emphasized that the desalination project cannot be viewed isolated from other issues. A similar pattern of lack of transparency and accountability can be seen in other plans to privatize Palestinian natural resources, the latest example being Palestinian gas fields in front of Gaza’s shore. Palestinian civil society will need to continue their push towards better access to information and a resource discourse that is focused on Palestinian rights instead of short-term solutions.