The Kingdom of Jordan intends to sell Israel water produced by a future Jordanian desalination plant, in return for the ability to purchase an increased amount of fresh water from Israel's Kinneret reservoir, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour declared on Monday.

Ensour made the announcement at a press conference regarding the launch of the first phase of the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit project, which would consist of a desalination plant that is at least 100 million cu.m. in capacity. As part of an agreement with Israel, Jordan would sell its neighbor the desalinated water at 1 Dinar (NIS 5) per cubic meter and would purchase the Kinneret water at 0.3 Dinar (NIS 1.5) per cubic meter, Ensour explained.

Such a move would be ideal for Jordan because transferring the brunt of the water from the desalination plant near Aqaba to the country's water starved north would be much more expensive than embarking upon this plan, the prime minister stressed.

The $980 million desalination plant, slated to be situated in Jordan's south near Al-Risha, will draw water from the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba, Ensour explained. Once desalinated, the fresh water will once again return further south toward the city of Aqaba. A portion of the desalinated water ­ as well as an additional 20 million cu.m. from the Al-Wehda Dam on the Jordanian-Syrian border ­ has thus far been allocated for the country's densely populated northern governorates, Ensour said. The prime minister, however, is advocating the water swap with Israel in order to curb the costs associated with transferring the desalinated water to his nation's north. It is unclear whether he intends for the swap to occur in addition to or entirely instead of desalination transports to the north.

Overall, the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit project has been highly controversial among Israelis and Jordanians ­ in Israel mainly due to environmental concerns and in Jordan mainly due to the extremely expensive cost of the project.

As the Dead Sea's water level has been declining at a rate of more than a meter per year, the project aims to save the sea from environmental degradation while desalinating water and generating hydroelectricity at affordable prices, a World Bank feasibility study said.

According to project plans, an eastern intake site for sea water would be submerged off the coast of Aqaba, from which a combination of 180 km. worth of tunneling and pipelines would extend to the Dead Sea, with a desalination plant and two hydropower plants along the way ­ all on Jordanian land. Plans had originally called for the desalination plant to have a capacity of 320 million cu.m., rising to 850 million cu.m. by 2060 .

Although the World Bank feasibility study ­ released in January ­ does overall deem the project to be possible as well as environmentally sound with some preventative measures, other World Bank assessments offered more severe warnings. One concern among experts includes the risk that the influx of seawater and brine into the Dead Sea will change both the appearance and quality of the water, and could negatively impact the region's ecology and hydrogeology. In addition, the report warned of the significant presence of nonrenewable energy that would be required to power the desalination plants.

Nonetheless, Water, Irrigation and Agriculture Minister Hazem Nasser described the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit project as a national program in Jordan's strategic interest, which the kingdom has "no choice" but to implement due to overall water scarcity. Meanwhile, Jordan's water shortage increases by 7 percent annually, Nasser added.

Water generated by the desalination plant would be sold to citizens at rates lower than water generated by the recently launched Disi Aquifer project, which now supplies Amman with an additional 100 million cu.m. of water from an ancient aquifer.

As far as the trade with Israel is concerned, Nasser explained that the two countries would not need to sign any new agreement, as the peace agreement of 1994 mandates that Israel sell to Jordan no less than 50 million cu.m. of water per year, an amount that can be redetermined. Currently, Israel provides Jordan with about 55 million cu.m. of water from Lake Kinneret each year, Nasser said.

In response to a query about the matter from The Jerusalem Post, Israeli Water Authority Spokesman Uri Schor said that "there are ongoing discussions all of time between the Jordanian and Israeli professional bodies, according to the peace agreement and the relationship between the two countries."

"Exchanges of ideas, requests and other things are taking place not through the press," Schor added.

Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director for the regional environmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East, said that while his organization praises cross-border cooperation on and commerce of water, this is not the ideal path to take.

"FoEME welcomes creative ideas of water trade between Jordan and Israel and sees the potential environmental, economic and political benefits of exploring these options if done in a transparent manner," Bromberg told the Post.

"Linking trade in water ­ Aqaba to Eilat and Kinneret to Amman with the Red-Dead project ­ however makes no sense." Bromberg pointed specifically to one of the World Bank's secondary studies ­ the Study of Alternatives ­ which demonstrates how the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit could cause serious environmental ramifications. Instead, his organization champions a partial restoration of the Jordan River, another solution toward rehabilitating the Dead Sea discussed in the Study of Alternatives.

"Over a decade has been lost and tens of millions of dollars spent on the Red-Dead proposal with nothing but poor results ­ environmental and economic," Bromberg said. "The public needs to call on our governments to move on, to deal with the root causes of the demise of the Dead Sea: charging the mineral extraction industry for the water they pump out of the Dead Sea and partially restoring the Jordan River."

Dotan Shaniv and Ariel Ben Solomon contributed to this report.

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