Environment Ministry unveils old-new plan to slow demise of Dead Sea

Subject to Israeli and Jordanian approval, project would desalinate Mediterranean seawater using hydroelectricity, sell drinking water to Jordan and channel brine to Dead Sea

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Salt formations and sinkholes at the Dead Sea, southern Israel, May 2, 2023. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
Salt formations and sinkholes at the Dead Sea, southern Israel, May 2, 2023. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

The Environmental Protection Ministry unveiled a new plan on Tuesday to help raise water levels in the Dead Sea, provide desalinated water to parched Jordan, and create hydroelectricity that can be used to power the desalination in place of fossil fuels.

The plan to channel water from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea could become operational around 2045, ministry officials told a conference on the renewal of the Dead Sea’s industrial mining franchise in 2030 and the long-term future of the Dead Sea.

The confab was held on the slopes of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea, which is actually a lake, in southern Israel.

Environmental Protection Ministry officials said the initiative would require approval by the Israeli and Jordanian governments because the lake’s eastern shore runs through the kingdom. The ministry said a paying customer would have to be found for the desalinated water to make the project economically viable.

The Dead Sea, flanked by Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank, is the world’s saltiest body of water at the lowest point on Earth.

Today it is roughly half the size it was in 1976, and it continues to drop by 1.1–1.2 meters (45–48 inches) each year.

Freshwater from streams that once offset evaporation from the lake has long been diverted by Syria, Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel for human consumption.

People walk along the shore of the Dead Sea, in southern Israel, November 9, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Water is also being pumped out by factories on the Israeli and Jordanian shores to extract valuable potash, bromine and magnesium in massive evaporation pools. The factories only replace around half of the water that they remove.

As it recedes, the lake has left behind a barren landscape atop a layer of salt rock. As freshwater from winter rains comes down the mountains and onto the previously flooded plain, it dissolves the subterranean salt rock, opening up over 7,000 sinkholes beneath the thin crust.

Safe access to the lake hardly exists anymore. The hotels at Ein Bokek face an evaporation pool, not the lake.

A man swims in a water-filled sinkhole at the Dead Sea, January 19, 2024. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

The idea of transporting water from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea has been raised since the 1850s and considered numerous times, as detailed in a 2013 paper from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. To date, it has always been rejected on economic or political grounds.

Asked why it should succeed this time, Oded Karni, who is responsible at the Environment Ministry for Environmental Policy and Strategy, told The Times of Israel that tunnels could be constructed today in a way that was not possible in the past, to minimize environmental risks. Furthermore, income could be generated by something not previously considered — using briny water to dissolve the mounds of salt that Dead Sea Works pays an outside body to scrape from the bottom of the main evaporation pool. This process keeps water levels in the evaporation pool from rising and flooding the hotels on the shore. The idea would need further examination by geologists, Karni added.

Today, the salts are piled into huge mounds on the Dead Sea shore, until a better solution is found.

A salt dredger at Dead Sea Works. (Dror Sithakol)

Dissolving the salts and sending the mixture to the Dead Sea could solve the problem and bring income from whichever company wins the upcoming franchise, Karni said.

Discarded alternatives

The favored option among Environmental Protection Ministry officials, who worked with consultants on hydrology, economic cost-effectiveness, and more, would be to draw water from the Mediterranean at Haifa Bay in northern Israel, and channel it through the Jezreel Valley to a desalination plant near the Sheikh Hussein bridge, Tuesday’s conference heard.

Located between Irbid, in Jordan, and Beit She’an, in northern Israel, such a location would be close to Jordan’s main population centers.

From there, the salty byproduct of the desalination would flow south to one of two points at the Dead Sea.

Bringing water from the Mediterranean at Ashdod on the southern Israeli coast was rejected partly because the route of the pipes would cross important aquifers. Any leaked seawater would pose a danger to Israel’s groundwater.

According to initial estimates, it would cost roughly NIS 10 billion ($2.7 billion) to NIS 14.5 billion (just under $4 billion) to establish pumps at Haifa Bay, the hydroelectric and desalination stations, the piping and the dissolution of the salts from the Dead Sea evaporation pool.

That sum is considerably less than the $10 billion price tag put on a project earlier this century to pump water from the Red Sea, desalinate it, and direct the brine to the Dead Sea. The Red Sea is 230 kilometers (143 miles) from the Dead Sea, while Haifa Bay is 147 kilometers (90 miles) away.

The original Red Sea to Dead Sea project would have run the pipelines from a desalination plant at the Red Sea port of Aqaba through Jordanian land. A pilot projected the pipeline would have seen just 65 million cubic meters of desalinated water going to Jordan yearly, with 235 million cubic meters of brine and Red Sea water directed to the Dead Sea.

The Red-Med project was ruled feasible from an engineering point of view, but dogged by bureaucratic and financial hurdles. It was finally buried by Jordan in 2021 after years of Israel failing to approve the required funding.

The Dead Sea Works at the Dead Sea, southern Israel, March 21, 2023. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

A decade of fundraising?

The model now under consideration would provide 268 million cubic meters of desalinated water and 400 million cubic meters of brine. The latter is more than half the 700 million cubic meters lost annually by the Dead Sea to evaporation and would contribute meaningfully to slowing the lake’s decline — but not stopping it. This amount is the maximum beyond which scientists fear gypsum could develop on the lake’s surface.

Karni and Environmental Protection Ministry Director General Guy Samet insisted that if the government approved continuing the project, much planning would still be needed, including deeper surveys of the environmental, hydrological, and economic implications.

Karni said planning, statutory issues, and fundraising would take an estimated 10 years. Construction would start in 2036.

The conference audience reacted skeptically to the plan and wondered why getting such a project off the ground would take so long.

“The Dead Sea doesn’t have another 20 years,” said one woman. Others pointed out aspects that the project had not considered, such as the economic and social costs of doing nothing and allowing the Dead Sea to continue to drop, albeit more slowly.

The Dead Sea Works at the Dead Sea, southern Israel, March 21, 2023. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

A flurry of Dead Sea-related activity has been going on in the run-up to the renewal of the mineral mining franchise in 2030, with inter-ministerial teams hoping to publish the tender in 2025.

The Mediterranean to Dead Sea project is the subject of a subcommittee set up by the Environmental Protection Ministry that links the franchise with the lake’s water levels for the first time.

Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman said a draft policy paper on the future of the Dead Sea would be published in the coming months.

In the short term, she said, it was important to make the Dead Sea shore safely accessible to visitors.

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