Theodor Herzl’s Dream: Building a Canal to the Dead Sea

 At the KKL-JNF World Leadership Conference (WLC 2013), held in June this year, KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler, presidents of KKL-JNF Worldwide and the Israeli Minister for Energy and Water Silvan Shalom committed to the joint administration of the Red- Dead Sea Canal project. This huge undertaking aims to replenish the dwindling waters of the Dead Sea.

Energy and Water MP Silvan Shalom with KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler and Co-chairman Eli Aflalo.Energy and Water MP Silvan Shalom with KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler and Co-chairman Eli Aflalo.
Photo: Yoav Devir
This ambitious project has been discussed in Israel for decades, but what is less known is that the idea of building a canal to the Dead Sea was the dream of one of the State of Israel''s founding  fathers over 100 years ago.  
Theodor Herzl  dreamed about a Jewish homeland in Israel.  In his 1902 seminal Zionist work, the Old New Land (Altneuland), Herzl suggested ways to develop the future homeland of the Jewish people.  One of these methods was the creation of a canal for hydroelectric purposes:
Before them extended the Dead Sea spread out like a deep blue mirror, their ears assailed by the thunder of the canal waters, led hither through tunnels from the Mediterranean, rushing down to the depths ...  On the northern shore, near where they stood, was a narrow, pointed strip of land extending behind the rocks over which the waters of the canal came thundering down.  Below stood the power plant and beyond, as far as the eye could see, numerous large manufacturing plants.  The canal had brought the Dead Sea to life!”
As Earth’s lowest point, home to its own mix of hyper-saline waters, and one of the world’s few trans-boundary lakes, the Dead Sea has an undeniable uniqueness that attracts millions of visitors each year and makes it one of the most important environmental resources in the Middle East.
Due to freshwater diversions over the last century, the level of the Sea has dropped 36 meters, from a steady state of around -390m below sea-level up until the 1930s to -426 meters in 2012.  This has threatened both tourism and industry at the Dead Sea.  To solve this issue, many experts have suggested importing seawater to be conveyed into the Dead Sea to restore it back to historic levels.  Due to the negative differential between the elevation of ocean water and that of the Dead Sea, such a conveyance could also provide great benefits for the region: freshwater generation and energy security.  The question remains, which sea should the conveyance to the Dead Sea come from: the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea?
A potential Red Sea-Dead Sea conveyance (Red - Dead) has been extensively studied in the past decades, and many proposals have come and gone.
The Dead SeaThe Dead Sea
Photo: Akos
Using a combination of early land surveying and biblical beliefs, British naval officers proposed building a navigable canal from the Mediterranean Sea to the Galilee or Dead Sea as early as the 1850’s.  The British continued to weigh similar plans for a while, but the construction of the Suez Canal eventually led to abandonment.  The Zionist movement in the late 19th century led to further interest in a conveyance, but for hydroelectricity rather than navigation.  This idea climaxed in Theodor Herzl’s work “the Old New Land” when he proposed building a canal to power a manufacturing industry in the Jordan Valley.  As an early Israeli nation began to form, more plans started to unfold.  After Israel’s independence, the prospect of implementing a conveyance seemed to become a real possibility, and several detailed proposals were drafted in the decades after 1948.
In the late nineteen seventies and eighties, an Israeli engineering company TAHAL, followed by an American company BW Engineers, published a series of economic and engineering feasibility studies on potential Med-Dead routes.  This included the “Valley Route”, a canal through the Jezreel Valley, bringing seawater to the Dead Sea through the Jordan River.  Also discussed were more southern “Mountain Routes” which would convey water through a tunnel over the Judean Mountains and directly into the Dead Sea.  At that time in 1980’s, the most seriously considered option involved a sea intake in Gaza, which ultimately led to several UN resolutions condemning the project.  Since then, little research has advanced proposals for a Mediterranean Dead Sea route.
Israel has changed significantly since the early 1980s; the nation has seen the Palestinian uprisings and terrorism, the Russian Aliyah, and the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan were signed.  Changes in demographics have led to new needs and challenges, and potentially different benefits of a Mediterranean Dead Sea conveyance.  As the population of the entire region has greatly increased, strains on energy and water resources have become more widespread.  Israel’s energy problems lie largely in a lack of energy security and diversification.  
As there is currently no hydropower generation in Israel, a Mediterranean Dead Sea conveyance could tap into a new energy resource, introduce pumped storage to create an energy reserve for peak usage, and increase Israel’s renewable energy generation.  A hydroelectric plant could help diversify energy production in Israel and stimulate economic development through initial construction and continued maintenance of the conveyance and associated projects.  This could lead to further regional cooperation.
Six factors have been identified that would determine the economic feasibility for such a hydroelectric plant: Dead Sea annual evaporation rate and stream inflow, future fuel prices, discount rate, exchange rates, and electricity demand forecasts.  One important technological development has been the advance in desalination processes.  In the 1970s, desalinated water cost about $2.50 per cubic meter, and in 2003, the cost had dropped to $0.50.  The combination of seawater conveyance and hydroelectric power generation would make a reverse osmosis plant possible in locations beyond the coast.  As water resources are so scarce in the entire region, this could be of use for domestic, agricultural, and industrial purposes.
An updated engineering analysis of the Mediterranean Dead Sea conveyance incorporates a desalination plant into the technical layouts of the early 1980s.  The component of the project include: sea inlet, main tunnel, regulating reservoirs, power station, outfall canal, and pumped storage, as well as desalination plants.  The hydroelectric power station would be built underground on the lowest portion of the Dead Sea basin, on the western side.  The desalination plant would necessarily be limited to the Dead Sea region; it could potentially be built anywhere along a conveyance where the water would best be used, e.g. Be’er Sheva.  The location of the seawater intake basin depends on the route chosen.
Four Mediterranean Dead Sea routes have been promoted in the past.  Each has its own benefits and consequences in terms of economic and technical feasibility, environmental impact, and political possibility.  The first is the “Valley Route”, which would require little pumping to bring Mediterranean water though the Zevulon and Jezreel valleys and into the upper reaches of the Jordan River making it financially very attractive option for a conveyance. 
The alternative “Mountain Routes” avoid the valley by using a tunnel to convey the seawater over the Judean Mountains and into the Dead Sea.  The Northern Alignment intakes seawater north of Ashdod, tunnels water south of Jerusalem and under the West Bank and into the Jordan Valley just north of the Dead Sea.  The Central Alignment avoids both the West Bank and Gaza by beginning in Ziqim, jutting southeast, and outfalling near Masada, therefore making it the most feasible politically.  The Southern Alignment, which was once the preferred route, now seems less likely to materialize, as it would begin in Gaza, at Qatif.  The tunnel involved in the Mountain Routes prevents much ecological damage, but a leak could pollute groundwater and be difficult to fix, if the risks are not minimized in the planning phase of the conveyance system.  For any route, Valley or Mountain, the environmental effect of mixing seawater with Dead Sea water constitutes a major unknown.
Overall, more research should be carried out on a Med-Dead conveyance.  Based on an analysis of technical plans and expert interviews, potential routes have been well researched and seem within feasibility.  More complicated proposals have been implemented in the past.  For example, in the California Aqueduct, water is pumped more than 1,000 km and over 600m of elevation for delivery into Los Angeles.  The Gotthard Base Tunnel in Switzerland, when completed, will have more than 150 km of rail tunnels under the Swiss Alps.
The components of the various proposed Med-Dead projects fit together from an engineering perspective but an updated economic cost/benefit analysis was inconclusive.  However, limiting the analysis to only the factors used by TAHAL seemed to leave out many other potential benefits, such as those in regional development, agriculture, and energy diversification, which cannot be quantified with current knowledge.  A Red Sea Dead Sea route has been studied and negotiated for more than a decade, and yet no plan has emerged.  As an alternative, there is clear interest in the Mediterranean Dead Sea project.  The next step is exploration.
This article is based on research paper “A Pre-Feasibility Study on Water Conveyance Routes to the Dead Sea” (Willner et al, 2013) published by the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.