Can Water Cooperation Be a Model for Middle East Peacemaking?

02/01/2011 06:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Over a fine glass of wine, overlooking the Arabian Sea from the Omani capital of Muscat, Ronald Mollinger revealed a remarkable and compelling story: According to the seconded Dutch career diplomat, the parties of the Middle East peace process quietly make significant strides towards solving their scarce water resources, despite the recent collapse of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Under the auspices of the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), Mollinger fascinatingly described how the Muscat-based research center arranged for participants from Gaza, Jordan and the West Bank to attend courses on desalination and waste water management in Tel Aviv as part of a wider effort to strengthen regional water security.

As the only surviving organization of the "Oslo Accords," MEDRC was established as a research and capacity building institution in 1996 to share expertise on desalination technologies and clean fresh water supply with the people from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the most arid region in the world. While emphasizing how the converging of interests brought the opposing parties together in Tel Aviv, the MEDRC director noted that "cooperation beyond water is just a matter of political will." Echoing those sentiments, the Obama administration has hailed MEDRC as "a role model for peace and regional integration."

MEDRC's quiet, but significant diplomatic contribution

Following years of extensive construction and heavy digging along the Israeli coastline, seawater from the Mediterranean basin has eroded underground wells and thereby significantly reduced accessible fresh water for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Describing the convergence of interests, Mollinger said that since the opposing entities all rely on the same four aquifers and the Jordan River Basin, if one party starts to pollute the water or attempt to exploit the resources in an unsustainable manner, future generations on both sides will suffer the negative consequences. Hence, as part of a wider effort to reverse a trend where seawater reduces freshwater, MEDRC is building a state-of-the-art brackish water desalination pilot plant in the West Bank running on solar energy. If the pilot plant proves to be successful, smaller plants are expected to be built in tens of remote West Bank villages without electricity or water grids. Every plant will produce enough clean drinking water for at least 200 families.

Similarly, despite Hamas' adverse relations with Israel and strained ties with the PA, Gaza depends entirely on the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) to supply its population with water. As of today, the PWA has called on MEDRC to play a pivotal role in facilitating cooperation between the opposing parties. For instance, although the Muscat based organization has no ties with Hamas, the center nonetheless successfully arranged for participants from Gaza, Jordan and the West Bank to attend two courses on desalination and waste water management in Tel Aviv.

Describing the behind the scenes efforts to bring participants from Gaza to Tel Aviv, MEDRC Director Mollinger said that the course attendees were collected by Israeli buses from the northern Gaza Erez checkpoint and brought to a downtown institute where they attended classes on desalination and how to maximize the utilization of waste water. Later this year, MEDRC in concert with the Israeli Water Association and PWA plan on building on the 2010 experience by instructing an additional four courses on water purification technology and desalination. Moreover, highlighting how the convergence of interests brought the conflicting entities together, as part of an effort to determine how to best reuse polluted municipal water, Mollinger noted that the completion of the two courses was not only a technical success but rather a political success story as it demonstrated how the parties can work together. "Further cooperation, beyond water, is only dependent on political will," the Mideast diplomat said.

While the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are widely considered to be the most water scarce region in the world, the densely populated 365 square kilometer Gaza strip with its 1.6 million inhabitants is particularly dependent on its neighbors for access to clean water. As the Hamas ruled enclave already has strained relations with Israel, Egypt and the PA, MEDRC is looking for ways to strengthen water security while advancing the peace process. Hence, when it comes to the future of Gaza's water supply, the PWA with support of the international donor community led by the United States, the European Union and the World Bank is considering building a major desalination plant to provide clean water for the enclave's population. One of the projects envisioned is a Sinai solar plant, but several times bigger than the one currently developed by MEDRC in the West Bank. However, observers say, it is unclear how viable such a project would be as Hamas is likely to reject a strategic dependence on Egypt for its long term water supply.

Given the region's political complexities coupled with Palestinian infighting, MEDRC's principal challenge remains the parties' resolving the issues regarding the supply of scarce water resources by desalination and reuse of waste water. As a case in point, although President Abbas is actively seeking to establish a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, it is doubtful whether the PA would ever be fully independent from its neighbors when it comes to its water supply.

On the future of MEDRC

Aside from MEDRC's role within the Middle East peace process, the organization is also seeking to establish itself as an academic center for excellence and a possible degree granting institution. With generous support from the Omani government, the Muscat based research institute is currently negotiating with several leading European and Middle Eastern universities to deepen academic cooperation. But at the same time, the Center also faces significant budgetary challenges as its annual budget is limited 3.5 million USD. "While private corporations specializing in desalination technologies have tens of millions allocated for research and development, MEDRC is not aiming to compete but instead focuses on regional cooperation, capacity building and applied research to benefit the people of the MENA region," Mollinger said.

MEDRC, scientific cooperation and regional diplomacy

Beyond MEDRC's scientific research and capacity building work, Mollinger emphasized that his institute also serves as a forum to advance multilateral track diplomacy between Israel and Arab states.

Although Israel does not have official diplomatic relations with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the PA has invited all GCC member states to participate in expanding research cooperation into desalination technology and overall capability building. Israel, according to Ambassador Mollinger "takes MEDRC and its regional role very seriously as the center also gives them an opportunity to interact with states that they do not have yet formal diplomatic relations with." Hence, as part of this effort, Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Yossi Gal traveled according to the Hebrew-language daily Yehidioth Aharonoth to Muscat where he held talks with Omani officials on the sidelines of MEDRC's Executive Council meeting in December 2009. Oman on the other hand, with roughly 82 percent of its land made up of sand and gravel dessert benefits from the research while being able to play a leadership role within regional diplomacy by hosting an international organization in its capital.

In a 2009 address to the American Jewish Committee, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton hailed MEDRC as a role model for Middle East peacemaking. In fact, since the center's inauguration, MEDRC has been fully supported by Sultan Qaboos, as he envisioned Oman as neutral territory for establishing a cutting edge scientific research institute. While MEDRC's operations are overseen by Secretary General of the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sayyid Badr Hamad Albu Saidi, the organization's executive council is comprised of a senior official from all membership countries. As of today, Israel, the PA, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, the United States, Spain, the Netherlands, Japan and South Korea are all MEDRC members.

Acknowledging Oman's positive leadership role on the Middle East peace process, the Obama administration, according to the influential Israeli Haaretz newspaper, approached Muscat to begin steps toward normalization with Israel as an incentive to restart talks between Tel Aviv and Ramallah. However, while normalization efforts between the two countries collapsed over the Jewish state's failure to extend the settlement freeze, MEDRC's framework as a multilateral forum for Arab-Israeli diplomacy remains intact and unchanged.

Echoing the need for a forum to resolve regional tensions, Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid ibn Ahmad al Khalifa said that all nations [Israel and Iran] are in the region to stay and that no conflict in the Middle East can be solved by others than the parties themselves. "If all nations can be part of the UN, why cannot issues related to water cooperation, security and weapons of mass destruction be discussed in a regional forum?" the senior diplomat pondered.

Although Spain is the latest state to join MEDRC, Ambassador Mollinger revealed that his organization is currently holding talks with several European, North African and Middle Eastern states to join the Muscat research center.

Upon leaving the Muscat ocean villa, into the warm Arabian night, I pondered: Perhaps, after all, was Mollinger right: "Cooperation beyond water is just a matter of political will."