An environmental proposal with political overtones
Jan 16th 2016 | JERUSALEM

WIDE-OPEN deserts and sunshine for more than 300 days a year ought to have made countries in the Middle East centres for solar power. Yet with the world’s largest oil- and gasfields nearby there has been little reason to develop renewable energy in the region. Still, much as fossil fuels are plentiful there is another liquid in short supply: fresh water.

Might the shortage of water now be alleviated through the abundance of sunlight? EcoPeace, a joint Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian NGO thinks it just might. In December it presented an ambitious, if far from fully developed, $30 billion plan to build a number of desalination plants on the Mediterranean shore of Israel and the Gaza Strip. At the same time, large areas in Jordan’s eastern desert would host a 200 square km (75 square mile) solar-energy plant, which would provide power for desalination (and for Jordan) in exchange for water from the coast. “A new peaceful economy can be built in our region around water and energy” says Gidon Bromberg, EcoPeace’s Israeli director. Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are already entitled to 120 million cubic meters of water a year from the Jordan river and West Bank aquifers but this is not enough to meet demand, particularly in Jordan, which regularly suffers from shortages.
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The main drawback to making fresh water from the sea is that it takes lots of energy. Around 25% of Jordan’s electricity and 10% of Israel’s goes on treating and transporting water. Using power from the sun could fill a sizeable gap, and make Palestinians less dependent on Israeli power. Renewables supply just 2% of Israel’s electricity needs, but the government is committed to increasing that share to 17% by 2030. Jordan, which has long relied on oil supplies from Arab benefactors, is striving for 10% by 2020.

The plan to make water from sunlight is still at an early stage and similar grand designs in the past have foundered on the rocks of reality. Desertec, a German programme to generate solar energy in northern Africa for use in Europe, has stalled over concerns about the cost of transmitting the electricity over great distances, not to mention the problem of local political instability. Over the past 40 years there has been a series of plans to build a Red Sea-Dead Sea canal that would have irrigated the Jordan Valley and generated power, none of which have been built.

Beyond many logistical and financial obstacles, the plan’s boosters also have to navigate a political minefield. Although Israel already supplies most of the Palestinian Authority’s electricity, and pipes water from the Sea of Galilee to Jordan, many Arab countries have signed up to boycotts that prohibit them from connecting Israel to their power-grids. Diplomatic tensions could therefore easily stymie any comprehensive energy treaty. “The political problems are the main obstacle” says Yana Abu Taleb, the deputy director of EcoPeace in Jordan.

The relevant Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian steering committees each have government representation; but the three committees have yet to hold a single joint meeting. Although regional instability may indeed deter foreigners and investors from backing the project, its authors hope that working together might lessen tensions. Addressing their shared environmental issues could bring the sides closer on other matters too.