Days before the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas erupted in November, international diplomats gathered at the French Consulate General in Jerusalem to discuss an ambitious diplomatic initiative that would convene Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, the Gulf states, and the European Union to jointly support the construction of a Gaza desalination plant that would ultimately help secure clean water access for the coastal enclave.
Although the Gaza water initiative is spearheaded by the Union for the Mediterranean, the proposed construction project received its diplomatic backing—and ultimate go-ahead—from the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC), a Muscat, Oman-based organization seeking to advance quiet diplomacy between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the Arab states.
At a recent MEDRC Executive Council meeting held in early January, the organization unanimously supported construction of the Gaza desalination plant by passing the following resolution, “The members of the MEDRC Executive Council unanimously support the development and the establishment of the Gaza desalination program and they offer MEDRC’s full assistance.”
Shortly after the resolution passed, MEDRC Chairman and Secretary General of Oman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sayyid Badr Al-Busaidi said in an interview that it was “heartwarming to see the executive council adopt the desalination plant resolution for Gaza.”
The senior diplomat also noted that the current water situation in Gaza “is of great concern and if this is not addressed there will be a problem in hand.” Nonetheless, he encouraged “the stakeholders and international community to step forward” by supporting the construction project.
“Despite being a small organization,” Mr. Al-Busaidi also expressed “optimism” that MEDRC can participate in the Union for the Mediterranean project by continuing “to play a constructive role by convening the core parties [of the Middle East peace process] by supporting MEDRC’s mission to address the scarcity of water for the region as a whole.”
Since its 1996 inception, MEDRC has served as a research and capacity building institution tasked to share expertise on desalination technologies and clean fresh water supply with the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa.
Meanwhile, commenting on the urgency for improving Gaza’s water security, the Chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) Shaddad Attila said in a recent email interview that presently “more than 90 percent of the groundwater produced in Gaza does not comply with international standards set by the World Health Organization and the European Union.” Mr. Attila also revealed that the approximately 1.7 million Palestinians living in Gaza are “exposed to very high levels of risk” as “the aquifer is showing clear signs of imminent failure or collapse, with rapidly advancing saline intrusion.”
Responding to whether the Gaza water initiative can be linked to the peace process, Mr. Attila said, “Without an alternative source of fresh water to Gaza, there can be no development, no economy and no life. Thus, securing sufficient water supply is essential to the establishment of a viable and prosperous Palestinian state.”
Although MEDRC has no ties with Hamas, the organization has nonetheless successfully arranged for participants from Gaza, Jordan, and the West Bank to attend courses on desalination and waste water management in Tel Aviv.
Last month, Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian officials convened at a MEDCR water strategy session at a Jordanian resort. At the meeting, the parties reviewed “best practices for the application of desalination technologies and water resource management,” MEDRC Director Ronald Mollinger revealed. Additionally, the parties also discussed measures on how to improve issues ranging from waste water reuse, water loss recovery and water savings, billing and how to effectively regulate the water sector, he said.
“When we started two and a half years ago with the courses they took one week. Now we are talking about four times as long,” Mollinger added.
PWA Chairman Attila also encouraged regional cooperation to solve Gaza’s emerging water crisis as he stressed that “the deterioration of the Transboundary Aquifer has certain impacts on the neighbors Egypt and Israel who should share an interest in protecting this shared source of fresh water.”
Acknowledging Oman’s positive leadership role on the Middle East peace process, the Obama administration approached Muscat to begin steps towards normalization with Israel as an incentive to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians, reported the Israeli Haaretznewspaper. While normalization efforts between the two countries collapsed after the Jewish state decided not to extend a settlement freeze, MEDRC’s framework as a multilateral forum for Arab-Israeli diplomacy remains intact.
MEDRC’s executive council is composed of senior officials from all the member countries, which include Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, the United States, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Japan and South Korea.
As a supporter of the Middle East peace process, Oman was the only Arab League member not to boycott Egypt after its 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Oman also enjoys friendly relations with Iran and has repeatedly served as a mediator between Tehran and Washington.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Union for the Mediterranean nonetheless convened diplomats and representatives from a cluster of international organizations, including from the Islamic Development Bank to attend a donor conference for the Gaza water initiative in Barcelona, Spain.
Aside from potential funding from international development banks, it is also anticipated that Qatar may play a lead role in funding the construction of the Gaza desalination plant, which is expected to cost 450 million USD.
Qatar’s ruler, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, became the first head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007. Since his landmark visit in October, Al Thani also announced that he will pay Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a visit later this spring.
Commenting on Al Thani’s upcoming visit, PWA Chairman Attila said, “Qatar has been a great supporter of Palestinian needs. We are quite sure that Qatar will support this project once the Emir is updated on the urgency of the water supply issues in Gaza.”
Attila added that Qatar is “used to respond quickly and generously to the priority needs raised, especially in Gaza which suffers a clear deteriorated economical situation due to the Israeli siege.“
An unnamed official who attended the Barcelona meeting revealed that “a strong case was made to the donor community” on the “strategic importance” of the Gaza desalination project.
The diplomat added that although it was unclear what Hamas’ official position on the matter is, he nonetheless acknowledge that so far “informal water cooperation has been constructive.”
“The PWA and Hamas agreed on the land where the plant should be standing, which is in the central part of the coastal enclave, south of Gaza City,” he said.
On whether Israel’s Gaza blockade could prevent the desalination project from taking place, the diplomat revealed that over the last couple of years “large donors have found ways to coordinate with Israel to bring in supplies. Israel has never objected against this project, including the army,” he said. The diplomat also expressed confidence that “coordination with the Israeli side will be successful.”
An Israeli official declining to publicly comment on the Gaza water initiative, due to the sensitivities of the project, nonetheless acknowledged that Israeli government policy fully concurs with the recently passed MECRC resolution.