Trailblazing models show green windfall from Israel-Jordan-PA water, energy alliance

First-of-its kind-Oxford University project indicates that making Jordan a solar energy hub could speed carbon emission cuts in all three countries, save $47 billion by 2050

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Part of a new 15 million euro solar plant during its official inauguration at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, on November 13, 2017. (AFP Photo/Khalil Mazraawi)
Part of a new 15 million euro solar plant during its official inauguration at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, on November 13, 2017. (AFP Photo/Khalil Mazraawi)

By pooling their resources and linking up infrastructure, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority could save billions on water and energy while potentially reducing their carbon footprint and warding off feared shortages, according to groundbreaking scientific modeling being carried out at Oxford University.

Simulations show that making Jordan a regional hub for solar and wind energy could bring the kingdom 2.4 times more investment in renewable energy infrastructure, compared with a business-as-usual scenario in which each jurisdiction goes it alone, Aman Majid of the Oxford Martin School told a small gathering of academics in Tel Aviv earlier this month.

At the same time, Israel is projected to have a surplus of water that can help fill the needs of Jordan’s and the PA’s increasingly thirsty residents, according to the project, which points to the possibilities afforded by cooperation as countries increasingly look for ways to stave off global warming while dealing with its already disastrous effects.

“We have plenty of peace treaties and we know how to produce water, said Tareq Abu Hamad, director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in southern Israel, which is collaborating on part of the project. “We used to chase our partners in the region. Now they’re coming to us.”

Focusing renewable energy generation in Jordan would save it, along with Israel and the PA, $18.3 billion by 2030, representing 9.4 percent of what the three are expected to spend separately on reaching emission reduction goals by 2030, Majid said.

An interconnected grid would also be better balanced and therefore more efficient, enabling the three jurisdictions to reach their 2030 goals with 24% less solar panels. The grid would also be a boon for the attempt to cut non-offset emissions to zero for 2050.

Reaching net-zero together by 2050 could save the trio around $47 billion, or 22%, compared to a scenario in which each entity operates by itself, Majid said.

Majid is one of a team of academics at the Oxford Martin School working on cross-border co-operation on natural resources as a means of coping with water and energy shortages. Those woes are expected to be especially acute in the Middle East in the coming decades.

A barefoot Palestinian child pulls a plastic jerrycan full of water to his family house during rainy and cold weather, in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, January 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The arid Middle East is a global climate hotspot where temperatures are increasing much faster than the global average and where declining rainfall will exacerbate existing water shortages. Populations in the region are increasing and demand for air conditioning and desalinated water is expected to rise. Shortages of water and energy will have knock-on effects on food production and public health.

Jordan, with its vast swaths of empty desert and high levels of solar radiation, is thought to be one of the best places in the world for solar energy. The same deserts also make wind energy possible.

The kingdom already produces 20% of its energy from renewable sources and is aiming at 50% by 2030, according to Majid.

Israel, by contrast, is aiming at 20% by 2025 and 30% by the decade’s end, but has only reached 8.5% to date, partly due to the difficulty of getting land permits for solar fields, he said.

The Palestinian Authority currently generates 5% of its energy from renewable sources and is aiming at 20% by 2030. The vast majority of its power supply comes from Israel.

This May 21, 2019 photo shows solar panels at the newly inaugurated Nour Jericho solar plant, in the West Bank city of Jericho. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

The Oxford Martin School project is currently completing its first stage of work — the collection and sorting of data from Israel, Jordan and the PA that enable it to quantify how much water and energy there is and how it is being and is set to be used in future.

The data underpins the design of possible scenarios for collaboration and will be followed by projects on the ground. The effort is unprecedented, according to Deborah Sandler, who taught for many years at Oxford University and now lives in Israel.

“What you saw tonight is very in-depth, sophisticated modeling for the first time ever in our region,” she told the gathering.

The program has brought together environmental and political scientists, engineers, industry experts, senior government officials, diplomats, and community leaders.

Oxford academics steer the program along with Oxford research fellows who are from the region, Sandler noted.

“All that has happened is bottom-up, as well as top-down, and based on science,” she said.

Dr. Clive Lipchin, Director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in southern Israel, stands in front of a pilot off-grid sewage treatment unit in the Bedouin village of Umm Batin, near Beersheba in the Negev. (Courtesy, Arava Institute)

Part of the research focuses on the Jordan River Basin and is being carried out in collaboration with the Arava Institute. The institute already has an established Track II program for transboundary cooperation, co-chaired by Sandler, and is also seeking to collaborate with Harvard University. Track II, or “backchannel diplomacy,” sees unofficial, informal discussions on state issues taking place between private citizens and non-governmental organizations to build trust and try to reach solutions to problems.

As part of its Track II environmental diplomacy, Arava Institute scientists work with Jordanians and Palestinians to promote sustainable solutions on a small scale, for food production, wastewater treatment, drinking water, and renewable energy in rural communities in the Negev, West Bank, Gaza, and southern Jordan.

They are hoping that the link with the Oxford Martin School will lead to projects that can be developed and scaled up on a much larger and more impactful scale.

In recent days, the Oxford team has been presenting its findings to senior energy and water officials in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Among others, it has met with Israel’s Start-Up Nation Central, the official  Palestinian negotiating team, Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society, and several diplomats, among them the Jordanian Ambasssador to Israel.

On Monday, it wound up this series of meetings at the Israel President’s Climate Forum.

The academics said their presentations were met with enthusiasm. The Israeli Energy Ministry even called the team in for a second time to meet with the Electricity Authority.

“Each jurisdiction is focusing on their (own) resources in national planning,” said Oxford University post-doctoral researcher Suleiman Halasah, who also runs a Jordanian consulting firm on energy, water, and environment. “For me, this is the first time I see Israelis and Palestinians agreeing.”

The Sorek A desalination plant, located south of Tel Aviv, on November 22, 2018. (Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Both Majid and Michael Gilmont, an Oxford research fellow who is focusing on water, stressed that the figures presented at the meeting will likely change given what has been learned during this visit.

Dr. Aman Majid (left) and Dr. Michael Gilmont of the Oxford Martin School program on transboundary resource management, in Tel Aviv on July 3, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Gilmont, who coordinates Oxford Martin’s whole transboundary resource management program, said comparing the data sets from the three distinct authorities to make it match up for analysis was a challenge. The plethora of different definitions and figures was a source of confusion and misunderstandings, he told The Times of Israel.

But helped by local experts, he and his colleagues managed to produce a “nearly consistent dataset with similar accounting definitions.”

Other challenges await, such as deeply entrenched geopolitical issues that may hamper the sides’ willingness to cooperate. But Gilmont noted that science, which is politically neutral, is an ideal vehicle for cross-border cooperation.

“A regional approach offers a bigger solution space,” he said, adding that the team would be looking at scenarios for increasing desalination and treated wastewater to meet regional needs. The latter uses a third of the energy needed by the former.

Water pours into an agricultural irrigation pool in Ghor al-Haditha, around 80 kilometers south of the Jordanian capital Amman, April 20, 2021. (Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP)

The data, which is still being updated in Ramallah and Amman, indicated that, taken together, the region would be unable to meet its citizens’ water needs by 2030.

Jordan is expected to fall 116 million cubic meters short annually by then, Gilmont said, although the figure would likely come down as Amman treated more wastewater, got a desalination plant in Aqaba off the ground, and received additional water from Israel.

The Palestinian Authority is expected to fall 431 million cubic meters short by the end of this decade, the data showed.

However, Israel is looking at a potential surplus of 300 million cubic meters of water by 2030. This is thanks to desalination and the use of treated sewage water for irrigation.

Gilmont said steps to come would include building out the scenarios or alternatives via consultations with regional stakeholders

“We want to… look at how these big picture numbers can be implemented on the ground via scalable options, and create a forum for regional knowledge sharing,” he said. “Conversations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ramallah have emphasized the need for this.”

In this April 14, 2016 photo, a Palestinian man fills tankers with water to sell at a drinking water station in Gaza City. Poor sewage treatment is a feature of life in Gaza, a result of the rapidly expanding population, an infrastructure damaged during wars with Israel, and a chronic shortage of electricity to run the wastewater plants that still function. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

In an indication of rising environmental awareness in the West Bank, two men from the stone-cutting industry in Jenin turned up at the meeting seeking advice on countering stream pollution with marble slurry — a byproduct of stone-cutting.

Shaddad Attili, a former Palestinian water minister and former head of the Palestinian Water Authority, who is now a fellow with the Oxford team, said that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had signed the same international environmental accords.

“If we all agree, why don’t we sign a regional environmental protocol,” he proposed.

Sandler said that work with the region’s professionals would lead eventually to the political echelon.

She later told The Times of Israel that the initiative is not intended to supplant government agreements, such as those to supply Israeli water to Jordan or electricity to the Palestinian Authority. Rather, it sought to provide an agreed-upon scientific basis for all relevant actors in the region to be able to plan for the common threat of climate change.

“The idea is that everyone decides together,” she said.

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