As the World Bank prepares to move forward with public hearings on a Red
Sea-Dead Sea conduit project next week, regional environmental group Friends of
the Earth Middle East and the Environmental Protection Ministry have slammed the
plan as destructive to the very sea that it aims to save.
“We coined the
phrase ‘Save the Dead Sea’ 15 or 16 years ago, so we want our governments to
come with support – but to the right project, not the wrong project,” Friends of
the Earth executive director Gidon Bromberg said, at a press conference in Tel
Aviv on Tuesday.
A month ago, the World Bank released three detailed
reports regarding a trilateral plan to build a 180-kilometer pipeline to
transport water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea – a feasibility study, an
environmental and social assessment, and a study of strategic alternatives,
drafted by different external authors.
Defining the objectives of such a
project as saving the Dead Sea from environmental degradation, desalinating
water and generating hydroelectricity at reasonable prices, the World Bank also
stressed that the program should be “a symbol of peace in the Middle East,”
particularly among the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian
As those involved have pondered the pros and cons of such a
project for a decade, the Dead Sea water level has continued to decline at a
rate of one meter per year, due to the progressive decline of the Jordan River
The feasibility study determined that going ahead with the conduit
would feasible, involving 180 km. of tunnels and pipelines, a tremendous
desalination plant and two hydropower plants, all in Jordan.
would cost an estimated $9.97 billion.
While the feasibility study gave
the project an unofficial go-ahead, the environmental and social assessment
warned of grave risks such as detrimental “changes to the appearance and water
quality” of the Dead Sea as well as damage to the region’s overall
The third report, on alternatives to the Red-Dead conduit plan,
pinpoints an option that combines several solutions – desalination at Aqaba and
the Mediterranean shore, with water importation from Turkey and water
conservation and recycling.
Although both the Environmental Protection
Ministry and Friends of the Earth Middle East vehemently object to carrying out
the plan offered in the feasibility study, Regional Cooperation Minister Silvan
Shalom has continually supported the project as one that will benefit all sides
and save the Dead Sea.
The World Bank will hold a public hearing in
Jerusalem next Tuesday, as well as similar forums in Amman this Wednesday and
Ramallah next Wednesday.
The feasibility study identifies issues that
might be bad for the Dead Sea environment, Bromberg explained. Gypsum levels may
rise as marine water mixes with the hypersaline Dead Sea. If the gypsum does not
crystallize and fails to sink to the sea’s floor, the water will become a milky
white color, Bromberg said.
There is also the possibility of rampant red
algal blooms following the change in chemical composition of the waters, he
said, citing the feasibility study.
“When you have the growth of algae,
you’re going to have slime,” Bromberg said.
Quoting a section of the
environment and social assessment, he pointed to an inherent risk of
irreversible damage to the Dead Sea waters, destroying its integrity and
rendering it incapable of ever achieving World Heritage Site status.
feasibility study deems a pilot program impossible, as only one of at least 75
percent of the full project size would be a reliable model for evaluation,
“Either we go the whole way and play God or we don’t do
anything at all,” he said.
The project could also threaten the Arava on
both sides of the border, creating vulnerabilities to insidious leakage or
catastrophic failures resulting from terrorist attacks or earthquakes, Bromberg
added, quoting the environmental and social assessment.
decided to develop tourist sites with additions such as artificial lakes
stemming from the aqueous pipeline, “Disneyland style development” could also
damage the region, he added.
And due to the energy required to pump the
water, the project would actually leave Israel/Jordan 880 megawatts in the hole
and double Jordan’s greenhouse gas emissions output, he said, citing both the
Environmental and social assessment and the feasibility study.
the brunt of the project would occur in Jordan, Friends of the Earth Jordanian
executive director Munqeth Meyhar expressed major concerns about potential land
and habitat degradation in his country.
“We do have regional concerns as
Friends of the Earth Middle East, but as a Jordanian I have a bit more
concerns,” Meyhar said. “As you see the whole project is in Jordanian land. The
intake will affect coral reefs of the Jordanian side. The water will be dropped
in the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side, so this area will be affected first if
anything will happen.”
As far as providing desalinated water and
generating affordable hydroelectricity, Bromberg argued that neither would be
achieved affordably, with water costing three times as much as now, according to
feasibility study data.
In addition, for the first $4.5b. required for
the project, the countries involved would be dependent on international gifts,
and Jordan would also need to raise a loan of about $2.6b. for water
“Everybody knows that the Jordanian economy is suffering,”
Meyhar said. “We are in deficit of about $20b. and here we are looking for
another grant from somewhere.”
While the Jordanian government renounced
interest in the project a few months ago due to such financial concerns,
following the World Bank report publications, officials once again declared
their eagerness to participate, Meyhar said.
“They received a promise
from the Gulf in case this project will be a peace-building project,” he
Looking at the project’s other objective – building peace –
Bromberg said he felt achieving such an objective was impossible if the
countries involved did not first recognize each other as equals.
than being a symbol of peace, we are likely to see the Dead Sea as another issue
of controversy and squander,” he said.
The Environmental Protection
Ministry likewise announced its rejection of the Red-Dead program on Tuesday
morning, stressing that without more informed data and experimentation, such a
plan cannot proceed. Citing experts from the Geological Survey of Israel, the
ministry said that pumping more than 350 million cubic meters of seawater and
brine to the Dead Sea could lead to an outbreak of bacteria and algal growth,
causing disturbing odors in the region. The ministry likewise described the
unsightly gypsum that could take hold in the water, creating an unattractive sea
and deterring tourists from visiting the area.
But Friends of the Earth
and the Environment Ministry differ on what precisely should occur going
“The ministry welcomes the project in general,” it
“However, from a national and regional responsibility standpoint,
there is a need for precautionary measures, while examining the environmental of
implementing the project.”
Before proceeding with any plan, ministry
officials said they advocate a limited pilot program that would enable the flow
of large quantities of water into the Dead Sea while examining the effects on
the ecosystem. Transferring brine through pipelines on a limited, closed basis
into a southern portion of the northern Dead Sea basin would allow researchers
to monitor environmental impact and gain more certainty about the processes that
would take place, according to the ministry.
Acknowledging that the World
Bank has denied that a small pilot project is a viable option, the ministry
stressed the necessity to implement one in the face of possible irreversible
consequences. “The Dead Sea is a unique natural resource, and a hasty decision,
devoid of real data and tests, is likely to destroy it completely and with it
all the tourism in the area,” Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan
said. “Launching a preliminary pilot is the only viable option for saving the
sea in a responsible manner.”
Friends of the Earth, on the other hand,
has championed the combination option suggested in the study of alternatives,
that calls for combining Aqaba and Mediterranean desalination with Turkish water
import, conservation and water recycling – the last of which could also be used
to the Jordan River’s benefit.
“There’s no need for pilots because
everything is using existing technologies,” Bromberg said. “For your money, you
get double impact – not only do you get rehabilitation of the Dead Sea but also
partial rehabilitation of the Jordan River.”
“We are calling on our own
governments to support the combination of alternatives, and in that manner we
can rehabilitate both the Lower Jordan River and the Dead Sea, providing more
affordable [water] prices to our own people,” he said.