After years of consultations and controversy, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel have been told by the World Bank that their Peace Conduit project, intended to replenish the sinking Dead Sea with water from the Red Sea, is technically feasible.

The verdict has already produced fresh consultations and controversy in many Middle East centres. It may now lead to an internationally financed construction programme worth perhaps $15bn, yielding plenty of fresh water supplies and affordable clean energy for a thirsty, barren land. It may also promote the hope of peace for the area.
“Despite the fame of its unique environment attracting tourists from all over the world, the Dead Sea in the Great Rift Valley really is dying,” laments Munqeth Mehyar, the Jordanian chair of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). “Its water levels are down by a metre a year. Its surface area has shrunk by about a third in the last three decades…”

Excessive use by the environmentally destructive magnesium chloride and potash mining industries along the retreating shorelines of the Dead Sea consume an estimated 150m cubic metres of water a year. Evaporation and the diversion of well over 90% of the flow of the River Jordan – its major tributary – for agricultural and domestic use threaten the future of its very existence.

But the last of a series of specialist papers compiled in a $14m programme analysing an ambitious and audaciously controversial scheme for the rehabilitation of the entire area has just been issued. And it has pronounced the “Red-Dead Link,” a proposal for a new 175km water conveyance system using a tunnel and/or buried pipe- lines and combining hydropower generation, desalination and environment regeneration just doable.

Arab as well as Israeli scientists from many disciplines and civil society activists concerned with the vulnerable, dry environment of the Middle East fear that the scheme might cause a social and ecological disaster. A key counter-proposal advanced by them calls for an alternative, $800m project for the rehabilitation of the withering Jordan River, which would also serve the entire area.

Either project would offer great investment and employment opportunities and, even more importantly, plenty of safe fresh water to improve living conditions and agricultural productivity. The local environment protection advocates also want to see reforms backed by legislation to tame the production practices of industry on both sides of the Dead Sea.

They also worry about the effect of such a massive water transfer scheme on the fragile, endangered Red Sea coral reefs. They fear that the introduction of seawater into the enclosed Dead Sea would change the buoyancy and colour of its waters and produce massive repellent algae blooms, which would devastate the local tourist industry. And, they warn, accidental leaks of the seawater across the land might contaminate the groundwater system and the aquifers.

The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. The Peace Conduit scheme as envisaged by the bank would take advantage of the gravity flow of the water, an effect of the more than 417-metre elevation difference between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. This would ensure a reliable, powerful current along the way, driving turbines for hydropower generation for desalination. Recent declines in the unit price of desalination would make the combination of water transfer and desalination economically as well as technologically attractive.

Back in 2005, the three Dead Sea neighbours asked the World Bank to investigate the physical, economic and business opportunities of the proposal and to manage an international investment programme to make it happen. They said their idea for the conveyance of water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea was intended both to forestall an environmental calamity and to promote peace among themselves.

The bank responded by compiling a series of interrelated authoritative analyses. These comprise the feasibility study published now, plus an earlier environmental and social assessment, an investigation of alternatives and environmental modelling projections for the Red and the Dead Seas.

For long stretches across the Arava Valley, the Peace Conduit as envisaged by the bank would be a pipeline rather than an open canal, with an initial carrying capacity of 1,800m cubic metres of seawater a year. Half that water would be desalinated and shared by the three Middle East partners, and the other half used for replenishing the Dead Sea.

The bank estimates the investment cost of the conveyance project, including the price of the supply pipes connecting to the principal population centres of the region but excluding that of the desalination plant, at over $10bn.

The studies acknowledge that mixing sea water and/or desalination brine with the highly saline, mineral rich Dead Sea water would entail risks, especially when their quantities exceed 300m cubic metres a year. The conveyance project itself would also pose a risk of significant social and environmental impact, particularly during the construction process.

These projections and calculations have provoked heated public debate in Amman, Aqaba, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jericho, Eilat and Tel Aviv. When the present, final consultations are concluded, the three Middle East partners will conduct further environmental and business evaluations and decide among themselves whether to pursue the proposals.

They are widely expected to accept them in the hope of obtaining international development aid finance. For this reason, Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of FoEME, told a public hearing that the crucial final evaluations should be carried out by reliably independent international experts. Entrusting the final decision to governments already favouring the proposals, he argued, is like “trusting the cat to guard the milk.”

The scheme to save the ailing Dead Sea and to promote peace and economic stability in a politically volatile and dangerous region of the world has attracted enormous international interest.

The influential Global Nature Fund, a partner organisation of the FoEME is leading an advocacy campaign to register the Dead Sea as a World Heritage Site. It is also calling on the local governments to release enough water down the Jordan River to prevent the continued demise of the Dead Sea.

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