- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

JERUSALEM — The Israeli government is authorizing a series of ecological surveys in light of fears that a plan to prevent the Dead Sea from shrinking by pumping water into it from the Red Sea will disrupt underground aquifers in the parched region.

Officials here and in neighboring Jordan are concerned about the steady drop in the Dead Sea’s level, an estimated 3 feet a year, and the consequent retreat of its shoreline that has left the hotels and neighborhoods ever farther from the ancient body of water.

The Dead Sea is situated at the lowest sector on Earth. Its salt-saturated water, most of which comes from the River Jordan, has no outlet other than evaporation.

An ambitious rescue project developed by Israeli and Jordanian engineers was presented to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by his deputy, Shimon Peres, whose primary role is to foster regional cooperation.

One of the project’s main components is the digging of a canal from Eilat at the northern tip of the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba to Sodom at the Dead Sea’s southern end.

A desalination plant would be installed at that point, and an artificial waterfall with a drop of 1,500 feet would be created there to generate electricity.

“The Jordanians are vitally interested in the project as a whole and especially in its byproduct, fresh water,” said Galit Cohen, an Environment Ministry official in charge of the initiative. Amman, the capital of Jordan, is critically short of potable water, and the desalination plant would solve this problem.”

Jordanian Minister of Water Zaafer al-Aalem also is enthusiastic about the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal.

“This project is a unique chance to deepen the meaning of peace in the region and work for the benefit of our peoples,” he said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ economic adviser, Mohammed Mustafa, said, “We pray that this type of cooperation will be a positive experience to deepen the notion of dialogue to reach solutions on all other tracks.”

The Israeli government’s decision coincided with a recent summit meeting here between Mr. Olmert and Mr. Abbas.

Palestinians are hoping that an independent Palestinian state eventually will be established alongside Israel with part of its eastern border fronting on the Dead Sea.

The proposed “Peace Conduit” from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, 150 miles apart, would go through the comparatively flat Arava Valley.

“The Jordanians have been mobilizing international funding, mainly from the World Bank,” Mrs. Cohen said. There also have been expressions of financial interest from France, the Netherlands and Japan.

“The environmental problems are very serious, however,” she said. “Due consideration must be given to the effect the water transfer might have on the unique coral reefs of the Gulf of Aqaba, the impact it would have on the Gulf’s fish and how it would affect the water table on which our desert settlements in the Arava Valley depend.”

She was optimistic, however, regarding the Dead Sea’s survival as the world’s most saline-saturated body of water even if its dimensions are reduced.

The Dead Sea’s problems were caused by the large-scale tapping of the River Jordan’s water for irrigation by Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian farmers. This has resulted in a sharp reduction of its southward flow and curtailed its natural influx into the Dead Sea.

Farther to the north, the Syrians have been siphoning off water for their agriculture from the Yarmuk River, which is one of the Jordan’s main tributaries.

“The ultimate solution to the Dead Sea’s decline lies in a four-sided agreement to regulate the use of the Yarmuk and Jordan for irrigation,” Mrs. Cohen said. However, the current political climate in the Middle East is likely to bar this kind of multinational initiative for the foreseeable future.

“Even if they stopped drawing off water from these rivers or terminated Israel’s tapping of the Sea of Galilee for its agriculture and urban population, the Dead Sea’s problem would not be solved,” she said. “It would only slow down the rate and amount of its shrinkage.”

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