The future of the Dead Sea in the Middle East is in grave danger. Its water level is dropping at an alarming rate of one metre per year and by 2050, if no urgent action is taken, the saltiest lake at the lowest point on earth will be reduced to little more than a large pond.
Five years ago this month, in recognition of the precariousness of the situation, the governments of Jordan and Israel and the Palestinian Authority, working with the World Bank, took the unprecedented step of all agreeing to a $15 million study into a large-scale engineering project to save the Dead Sea.
The main idea: the transfer of two thousand million cubic metres (mcm) of water per year from the Red Sea 180km northwards, probably through a pipeline, to replenish and rehabilitate its saltier cousin.
The project, currently estimated to come in at $5 billion, would also include a desalination plant to generate fresh water and would act as a symbol of peace and co-operation between the nations.
But environmentalists are adamant that the proposed Red to Dead water conveyance plan is not the best solution to save the Dead Sea and could result in ecological disaster.
They argue that a massive engineering scheme will not tackle nor solve the core problem, the unsustainable use of the sea’s main tributary, the River Jordan.
River Jordan reduced to a trickle
'We are extremely worried about the Dead Sea,' says Stefan Hörmann, project director for the Living Lakes programme, a partner of German environmental foundation Global Nature Fund.
|Water levels in the Dead Sea have fallen dramatically over the past century|
'In 2006 we declared it ‘Threatened Lake of the Year’ and we could easily do it again for 2010. We have the feeling that the governments are only interested in talking about huge projects, without talking about alternative, more sustainable, solutions.'
Extensive Israeli and Jordanian dam and diversion projects for agriculture and drinking water have reduced the River Jordan to little more than a trickle. More than 95 per cent of the river is diverted along its course, leaving a tiny amount to reach its final destination, the Dead Sea.
Until the 1950s, 1.3 billion cubic metres of fresh water flowed; now just 50 million cubic metres (mcm) run – and this is mostly made up of agricultural run-off and fishpond effluence.
Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) has calculated that in order to begin rehabilitation of the river, an extra 400 mcm would need to flow per year. They say that 600 mcm would restore the river to half its historical amount.
Alternative to pipeline
Mira Edelstein, spokesperson for FoEME Israeli branch, is convinced that the water level at the Dead Sea could be stabilised without the pipeline.
'We have new research that shows that between Israel and Jordan we could ‘return’ 800 mcm of water to the River Jordan, through conservation and less agricultural use,' she says.
'But it’s also about taking out less. Our research shows it is possible to stabilise the Dead Sea if you combine this water saving with containment of the mineral works on the south shore and forcing them to use more efficient membrane technologies. We’re realistic and know this won’t bring it back to the levels it used to be, but for now it would be enough.'
Environmentalists also point out that fixing the problem with a big engineering solution is likely to institutionalise inefficient water use along the river, storing up problems for years to come.
'We will continue to mismanage water and continue in the same unsustainable fashion. It will give us a false feeling of water security,' says Abed Sultan, deputy director of FoEME’s Jordanian branch.
'There are officials saying that if the pipeline is built, it will be OK to waste water as there will be an abundance. That is such a false statement.'
Jordan 'desperate' for water
A key feature of the pipeline solution is a desalination plant close to the Dead Sea that could produce millions of cubic metres of desperately needed fresh water. It is this promise that gives the pipeline proposal an extra appeal, especially to Jordan, which is classed by the United Nations as one of the most water-poor countries in the world.
Dureid Mahasneh is a Jordanian water expert and former co-chairman of the Israel/Jordan water committee. His preferred solution would be to unblock the dams and rehabilitate the river but thinks this is currently not possible.
'Jordan is desperate for water,' he explains. 'It can’t afford not to gather every single litre it can lay its hands on, and unfortunately we can’t tell it to stop – it is its duty to its citizens. We have no alternative realistically and politically but to look for other solutions. It is for this reason we must examine the pipeline proposal.'
Galit Cohen, head of environmental policy at the Israeli government’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, agrees that water scarcity in the region means it is unlikely that governments on all sides would let the River Jordan flow any fuller.
'Say Israel decided to let all the water flow down the River Jordan to replenish the Dead Sea,' she proposes. 'Because of the water problems in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, they couldn’t afford not to pump this extra water for themselves, in which case we would not have use of it nor would it reach the sea.'
However, water expert Mahasneh will only support the pipeline if the studies currently underway show there will be no negative impact on the environment.
|Environmental campaigners say more sustainable use of the River Jordan would be a better solution for saving the Dead Sea|
'This has to be an ecologically sustainable project and nothing less than that,' he says. 'Nothing less, or it does not have my backing.'
World Bank study delayed
Whether the proposed pipeline will have a negative impact on the environment or not is yet to be determined. The findings of the World Bank-managed feasibility, social and environmental studies currently being undertaken by the French company Coyne et Bellier and British consultants Environmental Resource Management, have been delayed due to political turmoil and funding issues until mid-2011.
Environmental campaigners say there is no question that the pipeline will be damaging. The main concerns include: how a change in currents at the Red Sea will effect sensitive coral reefs there, how potential pipe leaks may pollute underground aquifers in the Arava Valley, and, most importantly, how will the two waters from the Red and Dead seas blend?
Previous small-scale tests by the Geological Survey of Israel have indicated that the mix could cause a change in the chemical composition of the Dead Sea, resulting in the growth of alien algae and accumulation of gypsum.
But Dr Stephen Lintner, a senior advisor at the World Bank on environmental issues, and member of the technical steering committee overseeing the $15m study, says that the tests carried out so far are insufficient.
'This is clearly a very important issue and we recognise that this has to be studied in a thorough way. We need to know all the consequences – biologically and chemically. There is a full scientific study being carried out at the moment.'
Rehabilitating the River Jordan
Dr Lintner acknowledges that there is a diversity of opinions on how to save the Dead Sea and points out that the World Bank also commissioned a smaller study in 2009 to look at alternatives to the pipeline, including rehabilitating the River Jordan.
Environmentalists see this as a small success (although they question the amount of resources put towards the alternative study) and are also pleased that people are now talking more seriously about rehabilitating the River Jordan.
'A couple of years ago no-one wanted to even talk about this but people are now saying "Does it make sense? Is it possible?"', says FoEME’s Edelstein.
'This is the natural solution to the problem. There is already a water source to the Dead Sea, it’s called the River Jordan.'
World Bank website on Dead Sea plan
Friends of the Earth Middle East website on Dead Sea plan
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