Greens have big doubts about Red-Dead Canal

Coalition calls for all parties to wait for comprehensive study before launching project.

Dead Sea good 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dead Sea good 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Five of the largest environmental organizations in Israel launched a joint public pressure campaign on Sunday to halt what they see as the headlong rush to begin the Red-Dead Sea canal project before feasibility studies have been completed. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED), Tzalul and Green Course fear that President Shimon Peres will announce the project's launch during French President Nicholas Sarkozy's visit to Israel next week. Peres and billionaire hotel magnate Yitzhak Tshuva announced at last month's President's Conference their intention to promote a vast tourist area along the route of the canal. According to Tshuva, the canal would provide 1 million jobs, 200,000 hotel rooms (more rooms than exist in all of Israel at the moment), desalinated water for Israeli and Jordanian use and also replenish the Dead Sea, which is shrinking at a rate of over a meter a year. The plan would include casinos, skyscrapers and even the creation of several desert lakes. The environmental groups formed the coalition in recent days to push for a more measured pace on action toward saving the Dead Sea. Their concerns are threefold, according to a joint statement released Sunday. First, they believe the connection between the canal and saving the Dead Sea needs to be investigated further, because it has not been fully demonstrated that bringing water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea would even work. Second, they protested the announcement of the project before feasibility studies have been completed. Only this month, the World Bank has launched a more than $10 million feasibility study on the effects of the proposed canal. Third, the coalition objected to the notion that a private law would be passed in the Knesset in order to authorize the project, rather than the usual planning approvals required for large-scale building projects. If subjected to the regular planning process, there may be some doubt as to whether the project would get approval, environmentalists charge. While the protesters believe action and declarations are imminent, Shaya Segel, a spokesman for Tshuva, denied there would be any immediate progress. "We are waiting for the law to be passed in the Knesset before we begin. Moreover, there is absolutely no intention to harm the environment through this project," he said. Segel told The Jerusalem Post late last week that "Tshuva's declaration at the conference was more about a vision that needs to be actualized." He said there are still several more steps needed before work would begin. An advisery council would have to be set up for this project, and since it is a government project, their full support would be needed as well, he added. A call to sources in the Knesset by the Post did not turn up any pending legislation authorizing the canal project. Nevertheless, environmental concerns about the project abound. Not least of which is the fact that there are really two proposed Red-Dead Canal projects, FoEME Director Gidon Bromberg pointed out. The first is a government endeavor to revive the Dead Sea by bringing in water from the Red Sea, probably by pipe. That is the possibility currently being examined by the World Bank. The second project is the Peres-backed Tshuva project to turn the canal and the Arava into a vast tourist enclave. That project is apparently independent from the government plan and Segel confirmed to the Post that the World Bank feasibility study was not connected to Tshuva's project. Bromberg noted that Tshuva was the first to start talking about an open air canal, rather than some type of pipe or tunnel. The energy needed to move water in an open canal is far greater than that needed for closed piping. "The original idea was some sort of conduit - most likely a tunnel. The World Bank has never talked about an open canal. They are only studying moving water, most likely in tunnels," Bromberg said. He met with World Bank representatives last week. Bromberg painted the picture of Tshuva's plan by describing three lakes in the desert, Las Vegas style casinos, and Dubai-style skyscrapers with sailboats and ships chugging down the canal and a mass transit system alongside. "All of which would completely change the Arava as we know it today. We are extremely alarmed," Bromberg said. He warned that Tshuva is trying to pass a law in the Knesset to avoid Israel's planning laws so he won't need to go through the regular planning processes that ensure projects are in line with the master plan for sustainable development in the desert, meaning new communities would be built adjacent to existing communities. If the law is passed it will deny the public a stage for protest as is normally allowed in these situations, Bromberg said. "The last unique desert landscapes left would be lost completely. There are also implications for climate change," Bromberg added. Bromberg is also perturbed that Tshuva's new vision sounds extremely energy intensive. "The whole project has a negative energy balance. He is talking about massive development in the hottest part of the country. That's never been studied or investigated, and will further contribute to our energy demands and the burning of more fossil fuels. At the very least, it will require round-the-clock air conditioning, which uses up a lot of energy," Bromberg said. According to Bromberg, Sarkozy is coming here next week with a planeload of French businessmen, including some from the Suez Company, which built the Suez Canal, and is planning to announce the launch of the project alongside Peres and Tshuva. None of FoEME's efforts to protest have received a response, Bromberg said. On Monday, FOE France and FoEME will issue a press release calling on Sarkozy not to join the Peres-Tshuva endeavor. Meanwhile, the World Bank teams hired to examine the technical and economic feasibility of the Red-Dead conduit, and to look at the environmental and social implications of its development just began surveying the area and are not going to look into alternative options. The contracts for the examination teams left no funding for an independent study of alternatives, Bromberg said, despite FoEME's success in getting the World Bank to include a clause last summer that called for checking them out. However, the Bank stipulated that the process should be carried out by one individual nominated by Israel, Jordan and the PA. Bromberg strenuously objects to such a process because it would not be an independent study. FoEME backs a complex plan to rejuvenate the Dead Sea by letting more of the Jordan River run free. At the moment, the Jordan is siphoned off almost completely just below the Kinneret. By the time it reaches the Dead Sea, it is mostly just sewage and effluence from fish ponds. "Israel should be managing water to take into account droughts and nature as a deserving recipient. Instead of agriculture getting cheap [subsidized] water, alternative income sources in rural settings should be developed. Options such as eco-tourism. The Jordan River is [holy] for so many, and there is no way to benefit from it because what runs through it now is little more than sewage," Bromberg said. Water Authority spokesman Uri Schor, however, told the Post that Jordan's water was needed for Israel's fresh water needs. "Even in an ideal world with no evaporation and no loss of water, the Jordan only produces 600 million cubic meters per year and the Dead Sea is evaporating at a rate of 900 million cubic meters per year," said Schor. Bromberg, who has talked to the Water Authority about this issue in the past, however, charged that reducing fresh water use in agriculture could free up water for the Jordan. Bromberg said the Water Authority did not want an independent study of Israel's water economy for fear of the severe criticism it would receive.