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Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians signed a historic water-sharing initiative at the World Bank in Washington on Monday. The deal capped 11 years of water negotiations, and came as the United States continues to push a new effort to forge a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
The project envisions a new desalination plant at Aqaba, where Jordan meets the Red Sea, as the lynchpin of a sharing deal involving Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian government in the West Bank.
Advocates say the project could protect water resources in the region amid rising demand, a continuing political impasse between Israelis and Palestinians, and concerns that climate change could threaten supplies.
The World Bank will assist the three governments launch the water-sharing deal, but it was not immediately clear who would fund the project.
Despite unresolved issues, the deal was viewed optimistically in the grim reality of broader Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The Palestinians say Israel is now set to provide them additional quantities of water beyond what they already receive as part of previous agreements, including the Oslo Accords.
"We showed that we can work together despite the political problems," said Palestinian Water Authority Minister Shaddad Attili, according to Agence-France Press.
The deal was lauded by Israel's Water and Regional Cooperation Minister Silvan Shalom as "historic."
One of the key initiatives to be pursued in the coming months includes the development of a desalination plant in Aqaba, with water to be shared by Israel and Jordan.
The desalination plant will have a capacity of desalinating 200 million cubic meters of water each year from the Red Sea. Some of that water will flow into the Dead Sea, where scientists will monitor how the less salty Red Sea water affects the extremely salty Dead Sea water.
The pact will see Jordan providing 50 million cubic liters of desalinated water each year to Israel's Red Sea resort of Eilat.
In exchange, Israel will provide northern Jordan with the same amount of water from the Sea of Galilee, a large freshwater lake.
It will also see Israel raising its annual sales of water to the Palestinian Authority by 20 to 30 million cubic meters per year, up from the current level of 52 million cubic meters.
The World Bank said the project is "limited in scale and designed to accomplish two objectives: to provide new water to a critically water short region; and the opportunity, under scientific supervision, to better understand the consequences of mixing Red Sea and Dead Sea waters."
The Dead Sea, which is quickly disappearing, is a tourist draw for both Israel and Jordan. It is a source of minerals and exports for both countries as well. The sea itself borders West Bank territory that is directly controlled by Israel.
It’s unclear what effect the project could have on Palestinians living in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, which is separated from the West Bank by Israeli territory. A World Bank press release only mentions the West Bank, which is illegally occupied by Israeli military forces and civilian settlers.
Gazans have seen their groundwater contaminated by salty Mediterranean seawater, making them reliant on water supplies from neighboring Israel. Wastewater treatment also remains a festering political problem there.
An environmental group made up of Israelis and Palestinians, Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), said the project as outlined by the World Bank has significant problems, including the handling of the brine from the desalination plant. The plan envisions experimenting with mixing the brine with water in the Dead Sea.
Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of the group, noted that World Bank studies had found that introducing Red Sea brine could have "detrimental impacts" on the Dead Sea's fragile ecosystem.
"It will also increase the cost of desalinating water in Aqaba by 30 percent, and it will maintain the protest of the environmental groups," he said.
Eli Raz, a geologist and biologist at Israel's Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, praised the project as a symbol of regional cooperation, but said it would do little to alleviate the Dead Sea's woes.
The Dead Sea is losing roughly 1 billion cubic meters of water each year, he said, while the project would only return about 10 percent of that amount.
"As a symbol, it's very good. In respect for the Dead Sea, the deficit, the water balance, this is nothing," he said.
A larger project envisioned in the past, linking either the Red Sea or the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea via a large, dug out canal, remains unlikely.
Raz said such ideas have suffered from high costs and environmental concerns.
Al Jazeera and wire services
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