A meeting in Herzliya on Wednesday meant to let the public express its opinion on the Red-Dead canal to save the Dead Sea was taken over by environmental groups that all espoused practically the same mantra: Check alternative options. Expert after expert acknowledged the need to save the Dead Sea, but suggested other well-known alternatives such as letting the Jordan River run freely again or building a Med-Dead canal instead. The World Bank team managing the feasibility studies of the Red-Dead canal organized the public stakeholders' meeting on Wednesday to hear the Israeli public's views on the controversial project. Similar meetings were held this week in Ramallah and Amman. "There was great interest expressed at each of the three meetings," Stephen Lintner, the World Bank's top environmental adviser worldwide, told The Jerusalem Post in a sit-down interview after the meeting. "The Israelis stressed studying the alternatives. The Jordanians advocated both letting the Jordan run again and building the Red-Dead conveyance structure and wanted to know how soon the project could get going. The Palestinians were mainly concerned with Palestinian participation in the project and what the role of Palestinian experts would be," Lintner said. The Jordanians are keen on getting the project started because an integral part of the plan is desalinating water for regional use. Alexander McPhail, the World Bank team leader, told the Post that the original projections called for the desalination of 500 million cubic meters per year, but that that could change depending on what was needed to stabilize the Dead Sea. A projected 2 billion cu.m. per year would flow from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea through the conveyance. Both Lintner and McPhail continually stressed to the Post that the World Bank was in no way connected to the Tshuva initiative to turn the Arava Valley into a cross between Las Vegas and Dubai along the route of an open canal. "The beneficiary parties [Israel, Jordan and the PA] asked the World Bank to help raise money for and then manage feasibility and environment and social assessment studies for a specific project - a conveyance structure from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. If it is built, it is likely to be a combination pipe, tunnel and canal," McPhail said. "The original proposed route would run through Jordan from Aqaba, as opposed to the Tshuva plan [which moved it across the border to Israel]. Right now, pumping costs would probably not make it feasible to move the water back and forth across the border," Lintner added. The public meeting was the next step in an approximately two-year process envisioned by the World Bank. The first step - procuring companies to conduct the assessments - was recently completed, and the companies began work at the end of May. The companies also presented their initial work plans to the attendees. Lintner said responses to the queries from all three meetings would be posted by September 15. By the end of 2008, the bank hopes to have completed outlines of the feasibility and environmental/social studies as well as the initial technical reports. The bank has envisioned the process divided into three phases: literature review and identification of knowledge gaps; preliminary draft reports and new and additional studies; and draft-final and final reports and integration of sub-studies. The first phase would take an estimated four months, the second approximately 15 months, and the third five months. However, Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), who have been closely following the beneficiary parties' creation of the project's Terms of Reference, charged that the World Bank was lagging behind in creating an international panel of experts. McPhail acknowledged the point after the meeting and said he had been busy procuring the companies for the assessment. FoEME's director, Gideon Bromberg, also charged that a year was far too short a time to do an in-depth study and demanded full disclosure of all documents instructing the consultants and shaping their task. Despite the calls to look into the alternatives, according to the World Bank's presentation, a parallel study of alternatives is in fact intended. The World Bank plans to select three of nine candidates proposed by the three countries - one from each country - to oversee the study. But Bromberg charged that such a setup was not independent since the countries favored the Red-Dead conduit plan, and that the independent consultants should be tasked with the alternatives study as well. However, McPhail and Lintner said the process would proceed as planned and that terms of reference for that study would be drawn up soon. "I hope that we can start that study in the fall. It would compare and contrast various options [such as] what if we did nothing, the Med-Dead canal, the Jordan River, desalinating more Mediterranean water and then shipping it to the Jordan Valley. The parties could also pick and choose various combinations," Lintner told the Post. That sub-study would be integrated with the two main studies, according to Lintner. None of the final reports would present a recommendation, he said. Instead, they would present the pros and cons as analyzed by the consultants. The total project budget has been estimated at $14 million. The feasibility study and the environment and social assessment study have been budgeted at $10.3m. As of June, $10.5m. had been raised from five countries: France ($4.5m.), Japan ($2m.), the Netherlands ($1.5m.), the US ($1.5m.) and Greece ($1m). McPhail admitted they were negotiating with more countries for donations, but refused to reveal which ones specifically. "Japan has a longstanding relationship with Jordan on both water issues and regional peace," he pointed out. "Greece is a new donor and interested in asserting its influence both in the region and on environment and water issues worldwide. The Netherlands also provides a lot of assistance on water and environment issues worldwide." France was obviously very interested in the Middle East, as was the US, Lintner said. McPhail added that the French embassy in Israel was planning a meeting for all ambassadors to Israel in September to explain the project.