World Bank: Red-Dead pipeline is feasible

Project connecting the two seas would be an environmental disaster, green activists warn.

The Dead Sea 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Dead Sea 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
While there may be environmental and social impacts on the region, a trilateral plan to construct a 180-kilometer pipeline transporting water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea is feasible, a World Bank study has determined.
After nearly a decade of pondering the project in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, the World Bank recently released its final draft version of its Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Study Program: Feasibility Study.
Published as part of a series of studies, the World Bank printed the report alongside an environmental and social assessment study and a study of strategic alternatives, as well as various other studies and models of the Dead and Red seas – all done simultaneously, but conducted by different companies.
The main objectives of building a water conduit from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea would be saving the latter from environmental degradation, desalinating water, generating hydroelectricity at affordable prices and generating “a symbol of peace in the Middle East,” according to the feasibility study.
The Dead Sea water level has been declining at a rate of more than a meter per year, with its surface area shrinking from 960 square kilometers to 620 sq. km. in the past 50 years, the report said.
The severe losses in the Dead Sea’s volume are in large part due to the progressive decline of the Jordan River flow due to upstream diversion by Israel, Jordan and Syria.
Influx of water into the sea has dwindled from 1,250 million cubic meters per year in 1950 to around 260 million cu.m. per year in 2010, the report said. Meanwhile, there are less than 10 centimeters of rainfall in the area each year, with peak temperatures in the summer exceeding 45 degrees Celsius.
The feasibility study looked at three scenarios – a “no project” situation, a base case scenario to stabilize the Dead Sea, and a base case plus scenario that also includes desalination and hydroelectricity generation.
As the Dead Sea continues to decline, the report cited many benefits of going ahead with the project. With increased water influx, the project would gradually diminish the basin’s sinkholes, as well as restore water to the groundwater table and curb the infrastructural erosion that has been plaguing the region.
In addition, the project would be able to reverse the decline in tourism that has been correlated to the plummeting level of the Dead Sea, the study said.
After examining all the alternatives, the feasibility study settled on the “base case plus scenario” as the best plan. The option would entail the lowest installed cost and far less onerous engineering, though it would involve higher net energy demands and generate a larger carbon footprint, the study said.
According to this plan, an eastern intake site would be submerged off the coast of Aqaba in Jordan at the site of an old thermal power station.
A combination of 180 km.
worth of tunneling and pipelines would extend from this point to the Dead Sea, with stops along the way for a tremendous desalination plant and two hydropower plants.
The desalination plant would have a capacity of 320 million cu.m. per year at startup, rising to 850 million cu.m. per year by 2060. It would require 247 MW of power in 2020, and 556 MW in 2060.
While the estimated total cost of the project is $9.97 billion, the study concluded that it is economically feasible, and direct economic benefits exceed the costs by some $1b.
The greatest risk posed by the Red-Dead pipeline would be the leakage of seawater into valuable groundwater, and appropriate engineering solutions must be incorporated to minimize the risk, the study said.
Examining the potential impacts of the project on the Red Sea, the study concludes that damage to benthic habitats, in the ecological region at the lowest level of the sea, can be minimized, as can disruption to coral reefs, by planting the intake site 90 meters deep or more.
In the Dead Sea region, the study predicted a change in chemical composition as well as a rise in gypsum growth, potentially causing increased whitening in the surface waters.
While Dead Sea salinity would probably decrease from the current 1.24 grams per liter to 1.17 gr. per liter, this would likely not be a large enough drop to cause increased red algae blooms, the study said.
Although the feasibility study may have identified the pipeline plan as the best solution, the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Study Environmental and Social Assessment published along side it highlighted many more risks.
One of the biggest concerns expressed in the assessment is “the risk that the influx of seawater and reject brine into the Dead Sea will cause changes to the appearance and water quality such that its value as a heritage site of international importance will be damaged.”
There would also be a major impact on the Dead Sea’s appearance and integrity, as well as the 48 archeological sites along the route.
Socioeconomic concerns would arise as residents protest the route and as labor accidents occur, and the appearance of the region’s landscape would be affected by the new desalination and hydropower plants. Other negative effects would include damage to the region’s ecology and hydrogeology, as well as the significant presence of nonrenewable energy resources generated in the region, according to the assessment.
In the other publication that was printed alongside the feasibility study – a report centered on alternatives to the Red-Dead pipeline – the authors focused on all options that would save the Dead Sea from environmental degradation, desalinate water, generate affordable energy and build a symbol of peace for the Middle East, the report said.
One of the alternatives presented is a “Lower Jordan River Option,” with either full or partial restoration of historic Lower Jordan River flow levels using recycled water.
A second choice is a “Water Transfer Option,” involving the transfer of water from either the Mediterranean Sea, from Turkey or from the Euphrates River basin. The “Desalination Option” suggests several desalination options rooted in the Mediterranean or Red Sea waters, while a “Technical and Water Conservation Option” proposes changes in technology used by the Dead Sea chemical industry and increased conservation in the Lower Jordan basin.
Aside from the Red-Dead pipeline, the report found that the Mediterranean Sea- Dead Sea conveyance would be the best option from cost standpoint, but also not without environmental and social impacts. Another option would be a combination of desalination at Aqaba and at the Mediterranean Sea, with water importation from Turkey as well as water recycling and conservation, according to the report.
In response to the feasibility study’s unveiling, Development of the Negev and Galilee and Regional Cooperation Minister Silvan Shalom praised the World Bank’s determinations.
“This cooperation will benefit all sides given the existing deficiencies in the area, and this will lead particularly to the salvation of the wonder of the world that is the Dead Sea,” Shalom said. “The World Bank and donor countries believe in the ability to realize cooperation from this activity.
From here on we will harness the influential bodies in order to ensure that the project will implemented in reality.”
Cross-border environmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East, however, called the World Bank “irresponsible,” slamming the idea that a Red-Dead conduit was environmentally and economically feasible.
“If this project were to go forward, the real beneficiaries would be Israeli business tycoons associated with the building of the largest desalination plant in the world, and foreign pipeline construction companies,” said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of FOEME. “The public would be the ones to foot the bill, twice over – once, in unaffordable water prices, and again, in the further demise of the environment.”
The group pointed out that the report warms of gypsum formations as well as the possibility of polluting the groundwater and the leap in energy usage.
While the report deemed the project economically feasible, it failed to point out that the $2.6b. of private sector funds required would be dependent on receiving $5b.
worth of international grants and $2.5b. raised by Jordan for water infrastructure costs, according to FOEME.
“The study seems to forget that there is a global economic crisis, that Jordan is on the verge of bankruptcy, and that Israel is heavily in the red. The study also ignores the fact that a cubic meter of water from this project would cost up to $2.7b. in Jordan; an impossible expense for Jordanians to pay, that will lead to riots in the streets,” said Munqeth Mehyar, Jordanian director of FOEME.
“Similarly, for Israelis and Palestinians, the water from this project will cost $1.8 per cubic meter, more than triple the cost of desalination at the Mediterranean,” he said.
In November, the Jordanian Water and Irrigation Ministry announced that due to financial obstacles and feasibility concerns, the country would be downsizing its participation in the potential project, The Jordan Times reported at the time. The ministry said the country would now be initially desalinating only about a quarter of what it had original planned, according to the Jordanian newspaper.
Nader Khateeb, Palestinian director of FOEME, deemed the 10 years of research that the World Bank put into studying the Red-Dead idea as “wasted” time. During that period, international attention should have been devoted to the “root cause of the problem and the real reason for the shrinking of the sea – the diversion of the Jordan River flow and the unlimited use of Dead Sea waters by the mineral industries,” Khateeb explained.
The alternative study demonstrates that there are indeed other options that can help stabilize the Dead Sea and provide more water to the region while promoting regional cooperation – including a plan combined with Jordan River rehabilitation that would require Israeli Dead Sea Works and the Jordanian Arab Potash to pay for the water they extract, FOEME said.
“The bottom line is that the bank doesn’t have an opinion yet,” Bromberg told The Jerusalem Post. “The bank is presenting three different studies written by three different groups.”