A better pipeline

Urgency doesn't justify flying in the face of conservationist common sense.

Dead Sea good 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dead Sea good 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There would be sweet Zionist vindication were the Dead Sea rehydration project to actually be implemented with full Jordanian, Palestinian and world partnership. After all, the vision of refilling the Dead Sea, using water from the Mediterranean, was floated back in Theodor Herzl's seminal 1902 Altneuland. True, Herzl envisioned the project for generating hydroelectric power, while today's updated version of his dream would call for channeling Red Sea water for desalination purposes. Yet there's no denying that the very notion captures the imagination and raises our hopes of peaceful cooperation belying the ever-rampant regional belligerence and boldly charting the mutually beneficial alternative way. That's certainly the aim of the venture being promoted by Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, who claims to have secured provisional World Bank funding for a pilot to test possible effects of the proposed 112-mile pipeline that would annually pump 1.9 billion cubic-meters of Red Sea water. The Dead Sea would get half the untreated seawater; the other half is slated for desalination. Shalom has described the reported pilot as "a dramatic, important move that can lead to a breakthrough on the project, which was delayed for years. We see it as a staple for financial peace." The desirability, indeed indispensability of financial peace, as touted by the Netanyahu administration and envisaged in President Shimon Peres's New Middle East, is indisputable. The question is whether this kind of project offers the means to cement it. ALL THE benefits encompassed in the above program, after all, can be accrued from equally ambitious conventional desalination plants, some of whose liquid byproducts would be diverted to replenish the dying Dead Sea as well. And all of it would be achievable without bucking nature. The Red-Dead pipeline, by contrast, might needlessly, perhaps even dangerously, defy nature. Technion professor emeritus Yoram Avnimelech (formerly the Environment Ministry's chief scientist) has been consistently warning that the project's well-foreseen downsides could dwarf the environmental calamity of draining the Hula swamp. Foremost, salty as the Dead Sea is, it is supplied with fresh water from the Kinneret, via the Jordan River. The Red Sea is briny and so chemically different that it might turn the Dead Sea's consistency and composition into a gypsum-like lumpy paste. Subterranean contamination is likely, and even destabilization of the delicate equilibrium of the seismically active Afro-Syrian Rift cannot be ruled out. Environmentally, the safest bet is to pipe Mediterranean water from Israel's northern shores to desalination plants in the Haifa area. With World Bank financial underpinning and Israeli knowhow, there ought to be no impediment to providing 1.9 billion cubic meters of desalinated water to be channeled to Naharayim, and thence both to revive the Dead Sea and meet all regional needs. This plan would assure the Dead Sea of the sort of water it has been receiving from time immemorial. WHAT'S WRONG with this plan? Well, plainly it fails to meet prestige considerations on the Jordanian side. The south-to-north Red-Dead pipe would run entirely on the Jordanian side of the border and would empty into the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side as well. The north-to-south alternative would replenish the Dead Sea from the Israeli side. One way to perhaps deal with the diplomatic issue would be to desalinate the water from the Red Sea near Eilat, and then pipe it to the Dead Sea. This alternative, being proposed by Hebrew University of Jerusalem Prof. Avner Adin, would not only provide the Dead Sea with fresh water, it would minimize potential damage to groundwater if the pipe cracked while carrying seawater. Yet even Adin says he prefers what he refers to as "nature's way," letting water run freely down the Jordan River once again into the Dead Sea. Barring this, the Haifa-to-Dead Sea route would be closest to nature's own tested blueprints for a north-to-south flow of fresh water. If the prime objective is saving one of the world's natural wonders and quenching the thirst of parched lands, the only consideration ought to be the greater good. There's no dishonor in doing the right thing - and the sooner the better. That's preferable to squandering precious time on a protracted risky pilot that might itself cause havoc, as it involves piping no less than 100 million cubic-meters of the Red Sea into the Dead Sea, and waiting to see what happens. During the 20th century, the level of the Dead Sea declined by 25 meters. It's going down daily. No time should be lost. But urgency doesn't justify flying in the face of conservationist common sense. There may be no undoing the damage wrought by impulsive political expedience, however high-minded. Foresight is always more prudent. In this case, it's also cheaper.