Water-for-energy deal could help prevent climate conflict in the Middle East
16 Feb 2022|

The climate crisis is both a multiplier of current security crises and a driver of new threats. This relationship between a worsening climate and conflict means that both need to be addressed together, according to Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, the world’s only NGO that combines environmentalism and peace-building.

At the end of 2021, Israel, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates signed a declaration of intent that was a world first—an agreement to move forward on the ‘green–blue deal’ that would see the UAE building solar farms in Jordan to produce energy that would supply energy-poor Israel, in exchange for water produced by expanding Israel’s state-of-the-art desalination facilities on the Mediterranean.

That this agreement was reached among three countries that have had extremely difficult relations historically is a testament to the strategic imperatives of climate change, says Bromberg.

EcoPeace has been championing the ‘green blue’ approach for many years and has been instrumental in providing research and advocacy support for the Israel–Jordan–UAE deal. And in late January, the organisation briefed the UN Security Council on the imperative of expanding the green–blue approach to the entire Middle East region.

‘It is truly a breakthrough agreement,’ says Bromberg. ‘For the first time, countries are saying that they are willing at least partially to be dependent on their neighbour in a neighbourhood where countries have seen each other as an enemy.’

The inspiration behind the green–blue concept came from the lessons of post–World War II Europe, particularly the coal and steel agreement that aimed to stop the historical antagonists from going to war again by combining their national resource advantages to the benefit of both counties. ‘The Middle East equivalent is in harnessing the respective advantages of the sun and the sea,’ explains Bromberg.

But, he says, this breakthrough could occur because for the first time there’s a real alignment of security, political, and economic interests across the three countries.

Apart from the growing alarm about climate change in a region that will suffer some of the most devastating effects, a new government in Israel allowed a reset of relations with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose consort Queen Rania has been a long-time advocate of building a green and sustainable economy in the Middle East.

Another critical factor is that the economics now make sense. ‘The deal does not require donor assistance. And that helped move the deal forward very quickly,’ Bromberg says. And while the governments are still working out the fine details ‘there is a strong economic and geopolitical engine moving this forward’.

Countries in the Middle East are realising that in a heating world, they will no longer be able to guarantee sufficient water supplies for agriculture and human consumption without creating what Bromberg calls ‘healthy interdependencies’.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who has written extensively about the work of EcoPeace, argued recently that the existential climate realities in the Middle East will completely reshape the geopolitical fundamentals of the region.

If, in the past, countries have organised their security around resistance to an external enemy, the climate crisis means that legitimacy on national security will depend on governments being able to achieve climate-change resilience.

And since no one country can get to sustainable climate resilience on their own, traditional enmities may need to fall away if nations are to survive.

This understanding may be animating reported Saudi attempts to unravel the incipient deal by offering to replace Israel as a source of desalinated water. Bromberg is inclined to take an optimistic view that this represents healthy competition for climate leadership in the Middle East.

The Saudis have worked hard to push back against phasing out fossil fuels. But now there are signals, like the new ‘Saudi green initiative’, that the kingdom’s rulers realise that it must at least appear to be participating in inevitable global transition to cleaner, cheaper energy.

Unfortunately, the plan seems to involve greening Saudi Arabia’s own energy consumption while continuing to develop and export oil and gas for decades to come. In a world moving away from fossil fuels, Saudi Arabia is betting that Russian and US supplies will collapse in the next 20 years, allowing Saudi Aramco to fill the gap.

But any delays in phasing out fossil fuels will mean endangering the imperative of limiting global heating to 1.5°C. And mitigation failure will hit countries in the Arabian peninsula hard, and may make many cities there uninhabitable. Warming on the peninsula is much higher than the global average.

Saudi Arabia has no permanent water sources, and groundwater is dwindling to dangerously low levels, threatening agricultural production. At the same time, demographic trends will drive increasing water demand in the next two decades. Experiments have been underway to replace groundwater with desalinated water in agriculture, but they haven’t yet proven cost-effective.

This is one of the reasons Bromberg argued for a regional green–blue deal that encompasses the Euphrates, Tigris and Nile regions at the UN Security Council in January.

But Bromberg also pressed the Security Council to take a firmer leadership role in the climate crisis.

‘There is a very urgent need for the Security Council to recognise that the climate crisis is a threat to peace,’ he says.

‘That cannot be more clearly highlighted than in the case of the Middle East, where water insecurity is an underlying issue for so many of the conflicts in our region, including Israel and Palestine, Syria and Ethiopia but also Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Ethiopia.’

He wants the Security Council to declare the climate crisis as a threat to global security under Article 39, making climate part of the security mandate of the body.

In addition, he says the Security Council should be repurposing some UN instruments such as the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to facilitate the regional clean energy and climate resilience deals that he believes will underpin the region’s future security.

‘The forum was built on the concept of moving natural gas found in the eastern Mediterranean to markets in Europe, but the climate crisis means we need to turn the forum into one for renewable energy and climate security.

‘It includes interesting countries like Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Israel, Cyprus and Greece and has special status to the EU, US and UAE. So it can be the institution that can help advance these issues.’

But can green–blue water-for-energy approaches be used beyond the Middle East? Bromberg says yes, though it remains unexplored territory.

‘There is a little bit of work which I am familiar with in Africa and in the Caucasus. But there need to be more resources invested in understanding the relationship between climate and peace so that we can draw the lessons that we’ve been able to develop from the Middle East to other parts of the world.’