Israel-Jordan Water Deal Is No Way to Save the Dead Sea | Editor's Choice | Ammon News


Israel-Jordan Water Deal Is No Way to Save the Dead Sea


[3/14/2015 2:21:02 PM]

AMMONNEWS - In late February, after several years of negotiations, Israel and Jordan signed arguably their biggest bilateral agreement since their historic 1994 peace accord: a deal for shared management of fresh water. The landmark agreement calls for construction of a new desalination plant near Jordan’s Red Sea coast, which will distribute purified seawater to parched southern communities in both countries. Meanwhile, several hundred miles to the north, Israel will begin shipping water into Jordan, one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, via a new cross-border pipeline from the Sea of Galilee, a fresh-water lake.

Hailed as a triumph of water diplomacy in a region where neighbors rarely agree on anything, the deal is not without controversy. It includes an ambitious—and some say reckless—multistage plan to pipe water 112 miles from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea, which forms part of Israel and Jordan’s shared border and has been receding by more than 3 feet every year. Supporters say this effort will revitalize the historic body of water by improving its environmental health, boosting tourism and industry on its shores and preserving the sea for generations to come. Critics say they are dead wrong.

The pilot phase of the three-stage Red-to-Dead project will see a $300 million to $400 million pipeline transfer 100 million cubic meters of brine—or salt water—from Jordan’s new Aqaba desalination plant to an artificially enclosed section of the southern Dead Sea, where the Red and Dead sea waters will be combined and analyzed. If project planners deem the results acceptable both environmentally and economically, the pipeline project will be ramped up significantly over the next several years, eventually pumping roughly 1 billion cubic meters of Red Sea brine into the full Dead Sea basin to raise water levels and in theory secure the sea’s future.

There is no question the Dead Sea is in serious trouble, having lost one-third of its original surface area. Huge swaths of dry seabed now sit exposed to the intense desert sun and heat. Natural evaporation has contributed to the problem, but the main culprits are humans, and the pipeline ignores that.

Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians living in the Jordan River Valley north of the Dead Sea withdraw such large volumes of river water for agriculture, industry and household use that the Jordan—historically the Dead Sea’s primary source—sometimes barely reaches the sea, let alone replenishes it.

Exacerbating the problem are the mineral extractive industries that line the Dead Sea’s southern shore in both Jordan and Israel. These companies withdraw Dead Sea water, free of charge, to facilitate the mineral extraction process.

Despite its positive press coverage, the pipeline addresses neither Jordan River withdrawals nor the water-hungry—and lucrative—mineral extraction industry. A project that many hail as saving the Dead Sea, in fact, avoids both of the primary causes of its decline.

“What’s frustrating is it is being sold as an environmental project to save the Dead Sea, when it’s a high-risk environmental program that ultimately could lead to irreversible harm,” says Gidon Bromberg, director of EcoPeace, a leading regional environmental NGO formerly known as Friends of the Earth Middle East.

Studies by the World Bank and EcoPeace suggest the Dead Sea, with its unique chemical composition, could suffer from a huge influx of foreign seawater if the pipeline project goes forward to its third and final stage. Transferring Red Sea water into the Dead Sea could lead to stratification over time, with the lighter, less salty Red Sea water essentially floating on top of the heavier, saltier Dead Sea like oil on water. That could one day even threaten tourism, a lynchpin of both Israel and Jordan’s economies; visitors seeking to bathe in the Dead Sea’s unique minerals would find themselves instead floating around on a surface layer of Red Sea water. The stratification process could also accelerate environmental degradation by possibly triggering destructive algae blooms in the Dead Sea’s less salty upper layers.

The Red Sea could also suffer from the pipeline. Removing 2 billion cubic meters from the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba, half for desalination and half for the Dead Sea, could interfere with currents and negatively impact the region’s coral reefs that anchor coastal ecosystems and bring in key tourism revenue for Egypt, Israel and Jordan.

Hurdles still exist before even the pilot phase of the Red-Dead project can move forward. To date, no one has stepped up to foot the pipeline’s bill, deemed too expensive for public financing and perhaps too risky for potential third-party funders wary of building a major pipeline across a seismically active fault zone prone to earthquakes. Reading between the lines, there is a slim chance Jordan may eventually pull the plug on the Red-Dead pipeline. While Israeli media and government have widely championed the project and the broader water-sharing deal, Jordanian media and government have been relatively quiet in the aftermath of the signing.

Saving the Dead Sea is a noble, necessary effort. But rather than subject the dying sea to a risky and unproven water transfer scheme, the far wiser move is to scrap this part of an otherwise impressive and important water-sharing deal for less harmful and more effective alternatives.

Cheaper plans exist for revitalizing and replenishing the Dead Sea in an environmentally sustainable and economically productive way. The water-intensive mineral extraction industries could be regulated and charged for Dead Sea water withdrawals, incentivizing investment in more water-efficient technologies. Farther north, investing in the rehabilitation of the Jordan River and its tributaries, extending the reach of wastewater treatment infrastructure and promoting greater conservation among agricultural and industrial water users would allow the Jordan River to deposit more of its waters directly into the Dead Sea.

There is little doubt these approaches would work; the real question is whether enough political will exists in either Jordan or Israel to enact them. “We’re not saying [such measures] will bring the Dead Sea back to its previous height levels —that is no longer realistic,” Bromberg warns. “But we can stabilize or dramatically reduce the decline of the Dead Sea for the benefit of future generations.”

Sacrifices would have to be made by water users on both sides of the border. But then again, no one said raising the Dead would be easy.

*World Politics review

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