by Hannah Doherty
The Dead Sea has been a religious and cultural landmark of the Middle East for thousands of years. Saltier than the oceans, the lake is like none other in the world.
But in the past 30 years, the Dead Sea has lost about a third of its surface area. As much as 95 percent of the flow of its main tributary, the Jordan River, has been diverted for agriculture and domestic use. Excessive mineral mining for potash and magnesium chloride is removing water at a rate of 150 million cubic meters per year. As water levels drop by as much as one meter per year, the combination of diversion and evaporation is threatening both economic development and the natural oases that support the Dead Sea's unique ecosystem.
In an effort to halt the sea's rapid disappearance, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, with the help of the World Bank, are proposing a project to import water from the Red Sea in the south. While dramatic engineering may be necessary to save this timeless attraction, environmentalists warn that less-risky alternatives are being ignored.
If built, the Red-Dead conduit is expected to cost $15 billion. Projects of this scale are not unprecedented, especially as water demand grows rapidly in many regions of the world. According to the United Nations World Water Development Report, water withdrawals have increased sixfold since the 1990s, twice the rate of population growth. Costly projects to meet demand - the $60 billion Chinese South-North water transfer, for example - have come under fire by environmentalists for failing to address the underlying causes of water stress, such as a lack of conservation.
The World Bank says the proposed 180-kilometer conduit would carry 2 billion cubic meters of water to the Dead Sea. It would also provide desalinated water, generate energy, and build a symbol of peace and cooperation between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories, the Bank says.
"Given the fact that the flow of the Jordan River is largely appropriated for what are viewed as key economic and social uses, good water management within the basin may have to be combined with a water transfer from outside the Jordan Basin to restore the Dead Sea level to a reasonable level," the World Bank noted in a background document.
By introducing water of a different density and composition to the Dead Sea, however, engineers may drastically alter the very thing they are trying to save. The Dead Sea is rich in calcium, while the Red Sea is rich in sulfate; mixing the two could create a surface layer of gypsum. New algae growth might also change the buoyancy of the water and alter its blue water to appear red. These critical changes could damage the tourism industry in both Israel and Jordan.
Two weeks ago, the World Bank held three public hearings in Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority as part of its preliminary study into the feasibility of a Red-Dead transfer. The Bank came under intense fire from a coalition of six organizations: the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, Tzalul, Life and Environment, Friends of the Earth Middle East, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and Green Course.
The environmentalists said the project's feasibility study, to be completed in 2009, is not dedicating enough resources to researching the environmental implications of the water transfer and assessing alternative methods for resuscitating the Dead Sea. These critiques coincide with a recent World Bank internal review reporting the Bank's insufficient attention to long-term sustainability.
Separate from the feasibility study, the World Bank is conducting an environmental assessment of the water transfer, led by a team of three specialists nominated by each country and selected by the Bank. But some environmentalists and water experts argue that the assessment should be performed not by representatives of the three governments already in favor of the project, but by independent, international consultants. "It's like asking a cat to guard a bowl of milk," Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, told the Jewish Review.
As an alternative to the diversion project, environmentalists and local geologists propose rehabilitating the Jordan River. According to Dan Zaslavksi, a former Israeli water commissioner, regenerating the flow of the river to bring water to the Dead Sea will cost no more than $800 million, substantially less than the $15 billion estimated for the Red-Dead plan, Al Jazeera reported. Critics also suggest reforms in the chemical industries on both sides of the sea.
Alexander McPhail, task-team leader of the Red-Dead feasibility study, said the Jordan River rehabilitation plan, as well as alternatives such as a Mediterranean-Dead Sea canal or a water pipeline from Turkey, have merit. Should no solution be found, there is also the alternative of doing nothing, McPhail notes in the China Review.
The World Bank will use the results of its feasibility study to determine whether the Red-Dead plan is a viable solution to save the Dead Sea. But without objective research into the plan's environmental consequences, wrote Friends of the Earth's Bromberg in a recent op-ed, "the World Bank vision may lead to ecological disaster."