The Med-Dead/Red-Dead headache

'The disaster is not the Dead Sea. The disaster is the people dealing with it," says Professor Dan Zaslavsky.

mud walk 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mud walk 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'The disaster is not the Dead Sea. The disaster is the people dealing with it," says Professor Dan Zaslavsky. After decades of studying the problem, Zaslavsky pulls no punches. "There is in fact no threat of the Dead Sea disappearing; this is nonsense. As a result of the fact that less water is flowing into the Dead Sea, its rate of evaporation is higher, and this makes the water level drop. But the Dead Sea will not disappear because, as the surface area decreases, the rate of evaporation decreases, too." While the water level is now 416 meters below sea level and even lower in some places - more than 20 meters lower than it was throughout the 1800s - Zaslavsky points out that the sea has had dramatic swings, both higher and lower, throughout its history. Millions of years ago, he says, it was even connected to the Mediterranean Sea. "People who do research on the Dead Sea," he adds emphatically, "have an interest in inflating the problem - because on the day that they say it's not a serious problem, that same day, they'll lose their funding. There is an entire community that makes its living off this issue." Mention the Red-Dead project, though, and Zaslavsky becomes even more animated. Digging a canal to the Dead Sea is an idea that dates back to the mid-19th century, and was even mentioned by Theodor Herzl in his 1902 book Altneuland. After the oil crisis of the mid-1970s, it received new life as a plan to channel water from the Gaza Strip to Masada. "The original idea to draw water to the Dead Sea was to create electricity," Zaslavsky explains. "Then, it wasn't about 'saving the Dead Sea' or anything like that. The Mediterranean-Dead Sea Company was founded, and millions of dollars in contributions were collected from around the world to construct the Med-Dead canal." That's when Zaslavsky got involved. "In 1983, I was about to receive the job of chief scientist of the Energy Ministry. The chief scientist, I should point out, was supposed to also take up a position on the board of directors of this company - and I didn't want to do so. "The outgoing chief scientist and I suggested that the Med-Dead canal be studied alongside an alternative: establishing a pumped-storage hydroelectricity facility along the Dead Sea, whereby water would be drawn uphill to a tank where, during peak demand hours, it would be released to create electricity. "Within a few weeks," says Zaslavsky, "it became clear that the pumped-storage idea was very, very worthwhile - it would return two dollars for every dollar invested - while drawing water via the Med-Dead canal would cost 10 times as much. It was idiocy, complete financial idiocy." The canal idea would not die easily, however. "When Yuval Ne'eman became energy minister, he couldn't bear the thought of the Med-Dead canal simply fading away. So he also studied the idea... and came up with the same result! I know of at least three more times when it was reviewed," notes the man who served as Israel's water commissioner from 1991-93, "and each time it was found to be not worthwhile." The change from a Mediterranean source to a Red Sea source only agitates Zaslavsky further. "This whole idea was made even worse by turning it into a Jordanian project," he says. "And the person who is responsible for that is Shimon Peres, who sees it as part of his vision to establish a 'new Middle East.' The problem is, since then, two other studies have been done to test the feasibility of the Red-Dead canal... and they both showed that the costs would be even higher than the Med-Dead idea and return even less benefit!" Recently, Zaslavsky pleaded with Peres to drop the idea; a lightning meeting was set up. "We were five scientists who were given only two minutes each to make our case. It was obvious that this was not a serious discussion at all," he says. "At one point, Peres got up and said, 'Excuse me. Don't you remember that I built the nuclear reactor in Dimona? Do you remember that everyone was against it? Well I was right in the end. And this will prove to be the same thing!' And with that," Zaslavsky says with a flourish, "he left!" Zaslavsky, who prefers measures to reduce pumping from the Kinneret in order to rehabilitate the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, is trying to interest the government in his plan to create enormous "energy towers" that would simultaneously produce hydroelectricity, desalinate water and create environmentally-friendly fish ponds without burning fossil fuels. A spokesman for Peres said the Red-Dead project was both economically and ecologically sound, adding that alternatives to the plan were "moronic." -