In September the World Bank published its report on the Red Sea- Dead Sea canal project it had been examining, with the help of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of experts and research outfits from around the world. Its final conclusion, published in January, is that the project is feasible from financial and engineering points of view.
The idea of utilizing the differences in altitude between the Dead Sea on the one hand and the Mediterranean and Red Seas on the other (around 400 meters) has captivated the imaginations of hydrologists, experts on power generation, environmentalists, strategists, visionaries and politicians since the middle of the 19th century.
All the various plans foresaw connecting the Mediterranean and/or the Red Sea to the Dead Sea by means of canals, tunnels and pipes. The three main courses proposed were the northern Med-Dead plan (Haifa Bay- Esdraelon Valley-Bet She’an-Jordan River-Dead Sea), the southern Med- Dead plan (Mediterranean south of Ashkelon-Dead Sea), and the Red- Dead plan (the northern tip of the Red Sea-Dead Sea).
Among the goals that have been envisioned by the ever-growing crowd of dreamers and supporters are the generation of electricity (Theodor Herzl wrote about this in his 1902 Altneuland), desalination of seawater to resolve the ever-growing regional water shortage, and more recently, encouraging regional cooperation, and saving the Dead Sea from decline and gradual disappearance, resulting both from the diversion of Jordan River waters further north by both Israel and Jordan, and the consequences of the utilization for commercial purposes of the raw materials found in the Dead Sea – again by both Israel and Jordan.
Only twice, to the best of my knowledge, have any of these ideas and projects actually reached the point of possible realization. The first was the Mediterranean-Dead Sea project seriously considered by the two Begin governments and the first Shamir government in the years 1978-1985. The second is the current World Bank proposed project.
I was first introduced to the issue by the late Yigal Allon, with whom I worked from 1977 until his premature death on February 29, 33 years ago. As a member of the opposition he was one of the most active proponents of realizing the southern Med- Dead plan, with which he had become acquainted when he served as foreign minister in the first Rabin government. In fact this particular project, called the “Seas Canal,” got so close to realization that in February 1982 MK Shoshana Arbeli- Almoslino (Labor Alignment) actually proposed a motion for the agenda in the Knesset concerning the integration of Israeli drilling companies in the project, so as to help solve the unemployment problem current at the time.
This project finally fell through because of its lack of economic feasibility, and because the UN raised objections due to its unilateral nature and the contravention of international law allegedly involved in its realization.
The current World Bank project, first germinated (before the bank itself was involved) in the aftermath of the signing of the Jordanian-Israeli Peace Agreement in 1994, and today involves Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in addition to various other international factors.
If fully realized the project will involve the conveyance of water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, 850 million cubic meters of which will be desalinated and supplied to Jordan, in which potable water shortage is a burning issue. The brine created as a result of the desalination process will be poured into the Dead Sea, and the electricity generated by means of the water dropping 400 meters will cover the electricity requirements of the project. The cost of the project is estimated at around $10 billion, which will be provided from commercial sources, and “soft” international financing (mostly from the World Bank itself).
In the course of discussions on the World Bank project in the past few weeks, it has become apparent that at least in Israel there is growing opposition to the project, both in the government ministries directly concerned (Environment, Energy and Water, and Regional Cooperation), and in professional circles, due to the fear that it will cause irreversible environmental damage, and inter alia turn the Dead Sea white, as a result of the creation of large quantities of gypsum in the Sea, or red, as a result of the development of algae.
The growing consensus appears to be that while Israel will not object to a small-scale pilot plan, which will demonstrate the real geological and environmental consequences of conveying water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, the preferred solution is to enable fresh water to flow into the Dead Sea by stopping most of the diversion of Jordan River water in Israel and Jordan (inter alia involving the cancellation of the “National Water Conveyor” which Israel completed in 1964), and replacing the water which such action will deny the water systems of Israel and Jordan with desalinated water from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea (at Aqaba), and high quality purified sewage water. Perhaps it will also be possible to revive the plan, discussed from the mid- 1980s to the beginning of the millennium, of conveying water to the region from Turkey by means of a pipeline, or tankers.
Realization of the idea of renewing the flow of fresh water to the Dead Sea rather than conveying Mediterranean or Red Sea water to it will not return the Dead Sea to its “pristine glory,” but will stop the deterioration, and allow nature to take its course without the intervention of men trying to play God and interfering with the laws of nature.
The only problem with this vision, which I believe is the only one unlikely to end in catastrophe, is that the cost would be exorbitant, and it is not clear who will be willing or able to finance it. It is also doubtful whether in the current political reality in the Middle East sufficient cooperation can be generated and sustained by the parties involved to realize it.
My gut feeling is that in the final analysis nothing much will happen in this area in the foreseeable future, and the Dead Sea will continue to disappear (its water level is falling at an annual rate of one meter), the phenomenon of geological sinkholes in the Dead Sea area will turn into a real nightmare, and we shall continue to clasp our hands in despair.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.