Proposals aim to harness solar power to bring clean water to Palestinian territories, but Israeli support needed
Germany’s economy and climate minister has spoken of a plan to bring peace to the Middle East through solar panels and clean water.
After a visit to the Jordan River which separates the Palestinian region of the West Bank from Jordan, Robert Habeck posted on Instagram his support for the NGO EcoPeace and its “Green Blue Deal for the Middle East” project.
In particular, he supported the project of an Emirati company to build a solar farm in Jordan to supply a desalination plant in Israel. “The idea,” he said, “is to include the Palestinians and the Gaza Strip in this regional water-energy community.”
A related proposal is to build a solar farm in the West Bank to power a desalination plant bringing water to Gaza’s two million people.
But for the Palestinians to benefit from these projects, Israel will have to be persuaded to allow them to go ahead and limit the amount of water it consumes for its own population.
Israeli control of Palestine’s meager water supplies has been one of the drivers of the long-running conflict, and climate change has compounded this problem.
Average monthly rainfall in the West Bank is expected to decrease by 8-10mm by the end of the century and Israeli companies and illegal settlements control much of this increasingly scarce water.
While Palestinians in the West Bank struggle to grow crops and collect rainwater in black containers on their roofs, nearby Israeli settlements often benefit from swimming pools, gardens and water-intensive agriculture.
The average Israeli uses more than three times as much water as the average Palestinian, which has sparked resentment.
Kristyan Benedict, a researcher at Amnesty International, told Climate Home: “Israel’s control of water resources and water-related infrastructure in the [West Bank] resulted in stark inequalities between Palestinians and Jewish settlers.”
Based on EcoPeace proposals, a UAE-based company plans to build solar panels in neighboring Jordan and export the generated electricity to a desalination plant in Israel that will turn seawater into water drinkable. No company has yet promised to build this plant, but the idea is that drinking water will be sold to Jordan. Habeck said the project is “an example of how some Arab states are now starting to cooperate with Israel.”
Although the water is unlikely to go to Palestine, EcoPeace founder Gidon Bromberg said it would improve relations between Israel and Jordan. For Palestine, he said desalination technology means water is “no longer a zero-sum game”. Water negotiations have been strained for decades because allowing Palestinians more water means less water for Israeli farmers, he said.
But desalinating and treating wastewater so it can be used for crops has increased the total amount of water available. “Water is no longer a difficult problem to solve,” Bromberg said. “Palestinians can get their fair share of natural water, which means Israel has to reduce its groundwater pumping, but Israel can replace that source at competitive prices by primarily increasing desalination.”
Asked why Israel would hand over groundwater to the Palestinians, Bromberg said, “An agreement has to be reached for Israel to sign and accept.” He added, “It will also be expected that under the agreement, sewage mainly from the Palestinian side will be treated as a priority and not discharged untreated into shared water basins.”
The other aspect of EcoPeace’s plan concerns the Palestinian region of Gaza, an enclave ten times the size of New York’s Central Park that is home to two million people.
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Unlike the West Bank, it is not occupied by the Israeli army but is besieged by Israel and Egypt controlling who and what can enter. Gaza suffers from water shortages made worse by climate change and restrictions imposed by Egypt and Israel on the materials needed to repair its water supply infrastructure.
To solve this water crisis, EcoPeace wants a 55 m3 desalination plant in Gaza powered by renewable energy from the West Bank. They discussed this proposal with Habeck and with the president of the European Investment Bank, Bromberg said.
According to EcoPeace’s plans, the solar farm would be run by a Palestinian company and the desalinated water would be used by the people of Gaza. But the proposal is still at an early stage.
One obstacle is that the area of the West Bank on which they want to build solar panels is the part most strictly controlled by the Israeli military occupier, known as “Area C”. So they need permission from the Israeli Ministry of Defense. “We’re hopeful this will move forward,” Bromberg said.
As the West Bank and Gaza are geographically separated by Israel, the electricity that connects the solar farm and the desalination plant would have to go through the Israeli grid and could be cut off by the Israeli government. “But the bottom line is that everyone understands that it’s not in anyone’s interest to stop the flow of electricity or to stop the flow of water,” Bromberg said.
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Benjamin Pohl, head of Adelphi’s climate and security diplomacy program, said the Israeli government would be under pressure to obtain concessions from the Palestinians in return for allowing this project to go ahead.
“There is a long history, for example, of border crossings in Gaza being used as leverage to try to steer political developments in a certain direction,” he said. On the other hand, he said, “from a very cynical point of view, Israel has an interest in not increasing desperation in the Palestinian territories because that would be a huge challenge for Israeli security.”