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The Dead Sea is shrinking fast. As the World Bank puts it, "The water level of the Dead Sea has fallen over 20 meters in less than 50 years. The current rate of decline is approximately one meter per year. The consequent impacts on the region of the shrinking Sea are varied, numerous, and may soon become irreversible."
The solution, according to Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and the World Bank, is to spend some $5 billion to link the Red Sea with the Dead Sea. This is one variation of an idea with a long pedigree, but for all the understandable international fascination with it, is not nearly as attractive as a possible alternative.
The fascination with linking the disparate seas of the region can be seen as early as 1902, when Theodor Herzl suggested building a canal from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea to utilize the 400 meter drop to generate hydropower. In 1955, the US broached the Johnston Plan for regional water management, which proposed either a Med-Dead or Red-Dead linkage.
At the 2002 World Environmental Summit in Johannesburg, Israel and Jordan asked the World Bank to study the project. Yet since launching the $15 million study in 2004, the Bank has failed to convince donor nations to fund it.
Why has the Bank been unable to find what is a relatively paltry sum for this study? Evidently, there is a large degree of skepticism, and with good reason.
Since a large land mass separates the Gulf of Eilat from the Arava valley, a Red-Dead link would require the world's largest pumping station to bring water up about 170 meters. The water would then drop about 570 meters to the Dead Sea, generating power along the way.
A preliminary study suggested that this hydropower would be sufficient to power both the massive pumping station and a large desalination plant with power left over. Now, even the World Bank is implying that, not only will there be no surplus power, but means must be found to provide "additional energy needs" to power the planned pumping and desalination plants.
In addition, a major feature of the plan, according to its most prominent advocate, President Shimon Peres, is a series of artificial sea-water "tourist lakes" to transform the Arava valley into a "booming parkland."
We do not wish to dampen Peres's ardor for promoting bold visions, especially at a time when vision seems to be in a short supply. But environmental groups raise serious issues with this particular plan, which risks harming the natural ecosystem at great cost, while there seems to be a simpler, better alternative.
At a hearing held by the World Bank this week near Jerusalem on the "terms of reference" for its study, environmental groups strongly opposed the project, and demanded that the Bank seriously study alternatives. The most obvious alternative is to address the source of the Dead Sea's problem, namely the draining of the Jordan river.
Until the 1950's, about 1.3 million cubic meters (MCM) a year of water flowed from the Jordan river into the Dead Sea. Since then, Israel, Jordan and Syria have diverted 95 percent of this flow. The results are devastating, as research by the Friends of the Earth Middle East explains: "By diverting fresh water from Jordan River tributaries and replacing it with sewage, not only has the Dead Sea been devastated but also the culturally and historically important Jordan River has been turned into little more than an open sewage channel." Even the environmental groups are not advocating restoring the Jordan or the Dead Sea to their former levels, but stabilizing the Dead Sea at roughly the current level. This would require bringing the flow from the Jordan up to about 800 MCM/year.
Former water commissioner Dan Zaslavsky estimates that it would cost about $800 million to construct desalination plants that would allow Israel to restore the 400 MCM/year it is utilizing from the Jordan. More water could be restored to the Dead Sea by reducing the 350 MCM/year that the industrial evaporation ponds draw. Israel could find another way to support farmers besides subsidizing water, thereby drastically reducing agricultural water use.
The Dead Sea does need saving. But rather than chasing after exorbitant sums for an ecologically risky and uneconomical project that would leave the Jordan River a sewer, the Israel and the World Bank should study and implement the natural alternative that could save both the Sea and its source at a fraction of the cost.
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