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Israeli environmentalists accused the World Bank of stacking the timetable of the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal project discussions in their favor, at a public hearing on Sunday in Neveh Ilan, west of Jerusalem that frequently erupted in chaotic screaming matches.
The terms-of-reference document generated by the World Bank's committee omits what environmentalists widely agree upon as the best solution to the gradual disappearance of the Dead Sea: rehabilitation of its sole tributary, the heavily polluted Jordan River, to act as a natural pipeline to stabilize the sea's water levels.
The Dead Sea has been shrinking since the 1950s, when Israel, Jordan and Syria began diverting water from the Jordan River.The sea's water level drops approximately one meter a year.
The deadline for objections to the document's terms of reference falls next month. Environmentalists say the time frame does not allow adequate time to both raise public awareness of the proposed canal, which could cost upwards of $5 billion and take 20 years to build.
World Bank representatives were unavailable for comment.
Rafi Benvenisti, a former economic consultant to the bank, was the only person - out of the nearly 40 who addressed Sunday's hearing - who spoke directly against the use of the Jordan River as a natural alternative to the proposed Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal.
"The Jordan [River] alternative was discussed in the [terms-of-reference] committee... all governments concerned rejected it," said Benvenisti, prompting shouts from the audience. "I told you my statements would make you angry," he responded.
The canal would carry water from the Red Sea, through the Arava, to the Dead Sea.
As the water level falls, the surrounding fresh water springs move closer to the sea, but the plant life is unable to follow suit, resulting in the destruction of the ecosystem dependent upon the Dead Sea.
One after another, environmentalists and private citizens present at the hearing denounced the World Bank, saying that it seemed it had already been decided to go ahead with the canal project and that any discussions of alternatives were already moot.
"Allow the public to have a say, to consider the path and the destination," Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, pleaded in his statement at the hearing.
Danny Rabinowitz, chairman of the Chaim v'Sviva environmental umbrella organization, expressed the distrust his group held for the World Bank: "The onus of proof is on the people initiating these projects, to convince the people that there is no danger involved."
"We see the World Bank as responsible, not just as the moderators [of the canal project]... We're not being told the truth here," said Bromberg, echoing Rabinowitz's assertion that the World Bank must accept a more involved role in the project.
Galit Cohen, head of the Environmental Ministry's environmental policy unit, told The Jerusalem Post that restoring the volume of water flowing through the Jordan River to rehabilitate the Dead Sea was politically unfeasible: "Jordan has a very serious water problem... we don't see how they'll let their water flow to the Dead Sea when they have such a serious problem of their own."
The Environment Ministry is not represented on the committee drafting the terms of reference for the canal project. "We asked for a place," said Cohen. "Our minister [Gidon Ezra] asked, but the decision was that we will be invited to all meetings without becoming one of the members... It was an Israeli decision and not a World Bank decision."
Israeli environmental groups each outlined their opposition to the plan to dredge an open canal through the earthquake-prone Arava Valley, where the mixing of seawater with the groundwater that feeds the region's agriculture poses an existential threat to the livelihoods of local farmers.
Solutions discussed ranged from the aforementioned revitalization of the Jordan River to the importation of Turkish water via Syria.
The NGOs called for increased transparency of the World Bank's plans, the formation of an independent analysis group, and expansion of research into alternatives to the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal.