Red-Dead fairy tales

The trilateral water exchange signed between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan fails to solve the problems of the Dead Sea.

A pool on the southern shores of the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side  (photo credit: ALI JAREK JI / Reuters)
A pool on the southern shores of the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side
(photo credit: ALI JAREK JI / Reuters)
THE MEMORANDUM of understanding signed in early December between Jordan, Palestine and Israel on a water exchange and a regional effort to save the Dead Sea was a rare occasion of open consent in this region of discrete channels and foreign envoys. Finally a handshake in Washington, out in the open, in front of the cameras, to the joy of the media.
In principle, a limited water exchange between Israel and Jordan makes economic, environmental and political sense. It will significantly alleviate the worsening shortage of domestic water in Amman by adding an extra 50 million cubic meters annually from the Sea of Galilee to the Jordanian capital’s network, and supply much-needed water on the Israeli side of the Arava Desert to Eilat and other areas not connected to the national water carrier. Given the costs of the alternatives, this is the most economically efficient way of solving these water needs in both countries.
But it is not that simple.
Had this well-defined idea been launched as a project in and of itself, it would have been welcome. But stretching it the way the Washington signatories did to achieve additional, unrealistic goals makes it problematic, to say the least.
For one, in the case of Israel and Palestine, the proposal runs counter to the basic principle of equity that should be at the heart of every agreement on shared natural resources. Furthermore, instead of declaring a plan for a water exchange, the ministers’ meeting in Washington misleadingly announced the launch of a Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal that they claimed would provide “plentiful water for all and save the Dead Sea.”
This is patently false on several counts: The proposed plan has no connection to the original and now defunct Red-Dead Canal project, a megalomaniacal initiative deemed unfeasible by the World Bank on economic and environmental grounds. Moreover, although far more modest than the Red-Dead, this current plan threatens the Dead Sea in much the same way: Instead of disposing of the brine emitted from the proposed desalination plant in Aqaba near the source, or finding new and environmentally sound ways of treating it, the plan would pump it about 200 kilometers north into the dying Dead Sea supposedly to “save” it.
The cost of building this 200-kilometer pipeline is estimated at $400 million. Linking the desalination plant proposed for Aqaba with it makes the cost of desalination unaffordable. And here lies the real reason Israel and Jordan have declared this to be a project designed to save the Dead Sea. Such a label is more likely to attract international funding. However, according to the World Bank, Red Sea brine in the Dead Sea will likely lead only to its further decline. The likely outcome of merging these two very different ecosystems is the complete alteration of the very nature of the Dead Sea, mainly due to the growth of algae and gypsum.
Even if this plan were ecologically sound, 100 million cubic meters of brine are a drop in the bucket. They would do next to nothing to prevent the continued decline in Dead Sea water levels. Furthermore, the additional operational costs of pumping brine 200 kilometers would increase the cost of desalinated water by an estimated 30 percent.
While desalination costs on the Mediterranean are presently 57 cents a cubic meter, Aqaba-Dead Sea pipeline costs would be close to a dollar.
This does not make economic sense, any way you look at it.
In order to make this water exchange a significant first step in moving forward on regional water issues, the deal must be delinked from the worthy but unrelated efforts to save the Dead Sea, and from the Palestinians’ need to receive their rightful share of regional water without being asked to buy more from Israel.
Israel has managed to successfully transform its water economy in the last decade. Thanks to efficient leadership in the fields of waste water reuse and desalination, Israel has moved in a relatively short space of time from a dire reality of severe scarcity to a water surplus. As a result, sharing natural waters in an equitable way with the Palestinian Authority comes at low political cost. It is no longer a win/lose situation – no Israeli sector would be asked to cut back its water usage.
On the Palestinian side, few measures could improve living conditions in every household in the West Bank and Gaza more than a significant increase in the supply of fresh water. In other words, water could be used by the parties as a confidence-building measure to encourage forward movement on other core issues in the peacemaking process.
As for the declining Dead Sea, no grandiose God-playing scheme will save this rare natural treasure. The only way to do so is by addressing the root causes that led to its demise in the first place: diversion and over-extraction of Jordan River waters, and the failure to charge the mineral industry for the Dead Sea water they wastefully exploit.
Addressing these two issues would not only stabilize the Dead Sea, but also preserve its unique features as a natural spa.  Gidon Bromberg is the Israeli director of the environmental-based Israel-Jordan-Palestinian peace organization EcoPeace/Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME)