- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

TEL AVIV

A plan to connect the Red Sea and the Dead Sea could save one of the world’s natural wonders and bring more water to parched cities and fields in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories - but at the cost of other environmental damage.

Overexploitation, a drop in inflows from the River Jordan, industrial use and evaporation have caused the Dead Sea level to drop about 75 feet since 1960; from 1998 to 2008, the shoreline receded by an average of 38 inches annually.

Water is a source of many of the Middle East’s conflicts and is crucial to maintaining good relations between Israel and its neighbors as well as to the viability of a potential Palestinian state.

“The Jordanians are particularly interested in obtaining drinking water for their parched capital, Amman, as well as for their arid-zone agriculture,” said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of the Friends of the Earth Middle East, which also has offices in Amman and Bethlehem.

He recalled that the idea to connect the Dead and Red Seas was first proposed by the Jordanians before they signed their peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

The World Bank is studying a plan to build a canal or pipeline to bring seawater from the Gulf of Aqaba 130 miles to the south.

The proposed route through the parched Arava Valley would require pumping the seawater two-thirds of a mile upward before it drops nearly a half a mile to reach the Dead Sea’s southern perimeter.

“There really is no problem insofar as the engineering aspect is concerned,” said Uri Shani, Israel’s national water commissioner.

However, the plan is controversial because of its potential environmental impact.

For example, experimental mixing of Dead Sea and Red Sea water altered the former’s chemical composition and changed the color of the Dead Sea water from blue to reddish brown.

Mr. Shani attributed this to increased calcium. “But this poses no serious difficulty because the calcium sinks to the bottom of the sea,” he said.

On the other hand, Mr. Shani conceded that the “light water” remaining on top would facilitate the spread of algae. “The algae also would affect the water’s color, but only to a minimal extent,” he said, noting that there is no indigenous vegetation or marine life in the aptly named Dead Sea.

Logistically, it would make more sense to connect the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. The Dead Sea is 1,378 feet lower than the Mediterranean and the two are only 45 miles apart. Nearly a century ago, visionaries here and abroad proposed the construction of a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea.

However, politically, this is more problematic now because that might entail traversing territory within the projected borders of a future Palestinian state.

Although the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba is nearly three times farther away, all the intervening terrain is within Israeli territory. The Dead Sea-Red Sea project also offers possibilities for ancillary development because the decline in the conduit’s initial elevation would make it possible to generate electricity for a desalination plant.

The precipitous drop in the Dead Sea results from growing populations, water diversion and industrial exploitation.

Fifty years ago, Israel began diverting water from the Sea of Galilee, stopping its flow into the lower Jordan River and on to the Dead Sea.

A report by Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society also attributed the steady decline of the Dead Sea to “diversion of the Jordan River and other springs that naturally flow into the Dead Sea for agricultural, industrial and municipal services in Israel and Jordan.”

Israel’s Dead Sea Works and Jordan’s Arab Potash Company are responsible for 40 percent of the Dead Sea’s decline.

This is because of their method of mining magnesium, potash, bromides and other valuable substances from the water by creating artificial ponds which are allowed to evaporate in the desert sun and from which the desired minerals are scooped up from the dry residue.

The Jordanian report suggested that joint management of the Dead Sea basin and distribution of surrounding water resources “equally assuring that considerable amount of fresh water flows back to the Dead Sea,” would be “much easier, more feasible and with very low impact on the environment compared with other solutions.”

As a second choice, the society advocated connecting the Mediterranean and Dead Seas, saying that would provide an influx of 528 billion gallons of water for 20 years and afterward a reduced influx of 265 billion gallons of water per year to compensate for losses because of evaporation.

However, Israel may have other commercial incentives for the Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit.

Israel has suggested creating a “peace corridor” alongside the conduit to include several artificial lakes in the Arava Valley. The main backer for the plan is Yitzhak T’shuva, a leading Israeli businessman.

The Friends of the Earth Middle East contends that the scheme would create “Las Vegas-type facilities” including 200,000 hotel rooms and 3 million new residents. The organization says the environmental and social implications of such a plan would be negative and “irreversible.”

Another concern is the impact a conduit might have on the Gulf of Aqaba’s coral reefs.

“Changing the flow could alter the gulf’s water temperature, adversely affecting the subtropical body of water’s unique ecosystem,” Mr. Bromberg said.

He noted that the reefs and marine life are “the basis of tourism to Eilat and Aqaba,” adjacent Israeli and Jordanian cities at the gulf’s northern tip.

Mr. Bromberg also said there might be significant leakage of seawater pumped northward through a pipeline from the gulf, which would be detrimental to the Arava Valley’s aquifers.

“That would be bad for the valley’s kibbutz agriculture,” he said, adding that the valley also is an earthquake zone and that the pipeline could be endangered by tremors.

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