When Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders gathered, along with US envoy Jason Greenblatt, in the King David Hotel last month to announce the signing of a breakthrough trilateral water deal, they told the world the “Red Sea-Dead Sea” agreement would doubly bless the Middle East. The new desalination plant would purportedly fill the region’s water needs, while the purifier’s briny byproducts would be pumped north to rescue the dramatically shrinking Dead Sea, which is teetering on the brink of being a sludgy, salty puddle by the year 2050.
Except it won’t.
Instead, experts say the proposal is a trumped-up water swap that may wreak havoc on the environment and will do little to save the Dead Sea, and is only being pursued for its public relations value and political expediency.
Zionist leaders have had a love affair with using a pipeline or canal to connect the Dead Sea to a sea, either the Mediterranean or the Red Sea, for more than 150 years. Theodor Herzl even envisioned a canal in “The Old-New Land,” his utopian view of Israel.
For the past 50 years, politicians from both Israel and Jordan have embraced plans for Dead Sea canals, utilizing them as a political tool to propose mega infrastructure projects with questionable utility and little thought to environmental harm. After all, who wants to go on record in opposition to a “Peace Canal,” which can bring badly needed water and hydroelectric power to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, all while saving the irreplaceable Dead Sea?
There’s no doubt that the three countries need more water, and no one is opposed to additional electricity sources. But the current plan won’t save the Dead Sea, environmentalists and scholars say.
According to the agreement approved on July 13, sometime in the next decade, there will be a pipeline bringing the leftover salt water from an Aqaba desalination plant to the Dead Sea, creating a direct connection between the Red and Dead seas. But the amount running through the 227-kilometer (141-mile) pipeline will be so small it will add just a handful of centimeters to the body of water every year.
“The quantity of water they’re talking about will bring an insignificant amount of water for the needs of stabilizing the Dead Sea,” said Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli co-director of EcoPeace, an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental organization that specializes in water issues. “The Dead Sea is dropping from 1.1 to 1.2 meters every year, and with this initiative it will still drop one to 1.1 meters every year.”
Despite the minimal impact, politicians are still trying to drum up support for this far-fetched and expensive plan. But they’re not charting new waters. The idea of digging a canal to “save” the Dead Sea has been around for hundreds of years.
The first mention of a canal linking the Dead Sea to another body of water came in 1664 from German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, who envisioned it would be a part of a network of water transportation.
In 1855, British naval officer William Allen proposed a canal from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea to the Red Sea, claiming that would be a cheaper alternative to the Suez Canal. His plan was scuttled after geographers discovered, around the same time, that the Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth.
In 1902’s “Altneuland,” or “Old-New Land,” Herzl envisioned that a third of the Jewish state’s energy would come from a Dead Sea Canal, utilizing hydroelectricity gained from the elevation drop from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea:
While driving down from Jericho, they had not been able to get a full view of the Dead Sea. Now they saw it lying broad and blue in the sun, no smaller than the Lake of Geneva. On the northern shore, near where they stood, was a pointed strip of land extending behind the rocks over which the waters of the Canal came thundering down. Below were the turbine sheds, above, extensive factory buildings. There were, in fact, as far as the eye could reach around the shore, numerous large manufacturing plants. The water power at source had attracted many industries; the Canal had stirred the Dead Sea to life.
The 1973 energy crisis prompted the Israeli government to seriously examine whether a canal could produce hydroelectricity. The issue of using a canal to start “saving” the Dead Sea from its rapid demise was first floated in the 1980s, as the public slowly became aware of the declining sea level. At the time, proposals envisioned a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, considered at the time the cheapest option. Prime minister Menachem Begin even attended a cornerstone-laying ceremony at the start of the proposed canal, near Ashkelon, and talked about Israel’s process of “taming the desert.” But the project was abandoned in 1985 after a few hundred meters of the canal were dug.
In the 1990s, the optimism after the Oslo Accords shifted the canal discussions to yet another subject: peace.
A Dead Sea canal would foster cooperation between Palestinians, Jordanians and Israelis. Suddenly, a Dead Sea canal became more than just an expensive way to save a natural phenomenon or produce electricity. It became a political tool, with a new emphasis on solving water scarcity issues. The international community, desperate to see trilateral cooperation of any type, would surely sink lots of donor money into a project like this, politicians reasoned.
Under a 2002 proposal, known as the “Red Sea Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project,” water would be pumped north from the Red Sea. Once it reached the southern end of the Dead Sea, it would go through a desalination plant. Half of the now-sweet water would go to Israel and the other half would go to Amman, which would require a vertical climb of more than a kilometer and a half from the level of the Dead Sea (400 meters below sea level) to the Jordanian capital (about 1,000 meters above sea level).
The price tag for this megaproject? A cool $10 billion. Possibly as much as $30 billion, according to EcoPeace.
“That project is not happening, because the costs are enormous to such an extent that the economic viability makes it impossible,” said Bromberg.
The project erroneously assumed the Red Sea water coming downhill toward the Dead Sea would create enough hydroelectric power to pump the water uphill to Amman.
Although the Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth, the first 100 kilometers of the route from the Red Sea northwards are uphill, requiring enormous amounts of energy. A World Bank study found that the original 2002 proposal would require the construction of an entire additional electric plant, just to power the pumps moving water from the Dead Sea to Amman.
In the new agreement announced in July, the desalination plant will be in Aqaba, and Amman will buy water from northern Israel, eliminating the costliest parts of the project.
The water deal announced July 13 was reached under the tutelage of Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who hailed the current Red Sea-Dead Sea agreement as the “biggest and most ambitious project event initiated and exercised” in the area.
Like many politicians before him, Hanegbi painted the water infrastructure project with broad brushstrokes of engineering marvels and visions of peace negotiations, to help bolster the agreement on a political stage.
The agreement showed “water can serve as means for reconciliation, prosperity, cooperation rather than calls for tensions and dispute,” Hanegbi said.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the EU, US, Japan and Italy, among others, have already committed to cover some of the cost of the pipeline, which will run to millions of dollars.
In reality, the deal is a staid and straightforward water swap. In the north, Israel will sell water to Jordan, in the south, Israel will buy water from Jordan. Israel will also sell water to the West Bank and Gaza. But a water sale, even though it is the cheapest and most effective option, isn’t as exciting as a multibillion-dollar shiny new pipeline that answers decades of political dreams.
“The only link to the Dead Sea is that in this version, they still want to build a pipeline to carry the brine from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea,” said Bromberg.
‘People are thinking that there’s this big pipeline and a billion cubic meters will be produced and the Palestinians will get water from there’
“People are thinking that there’s this big pipeline and a billion cubic meters will be produced and the Palestinians will get water from there,” said Bromberg. But what’s really going to happen is that Gaza and the West Bank will start buying more water immediately according to terms of the sale, using existing infrastructure, such as a water pipeline from Israel to Gaza at Nahal Oz that is ready for immediate use.
“This plan requires very little investment in new infrastructure,” said Bromberg. But instead of celebrating the fact that the governments found an inexpensive and efficient agreement to address a major problem, politicians are focusing on the most far-fetched and expensive part of the project: the Red Sea-Dead Sea pipeline.
Under the approved plan, the Jordanians will build a desalination plant at Aqaba under private contractors, a project that could take up to a decade. An international conglomerate of supporters will pay for a pipeline to carry 80 to 100 million cubic meters of brine, the salty byproduct created during the desalination process, from Aqaba to the southern Dead Sea.
Put this in your pipe
Although a pipeline from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea is less environmentally invasive than an open canal, there are a myriad of problems that still concern environmentalists.
First is the location of the 227-kilometer pipeline down the Dead Sea fault line, an area with high seismic activity. There is a major earthquake in the region every century or so, with the last major local earthquake in 1927, meaning the area is due for another one soon.
“[The Arava Valley] is an earthquake area and the concern is that pipeline could leak or rupture,” explained Bromberg. He noted that a 2014 rupture in the Ashkelon-Eilat oil pipeline, considered one of Israel’s worst environmental disasters, didn’t even need an earthquake. It happened during routine maintenance work.
“Here, the concern is that it’s transporting saline water, seawater or brine,” Bromberg added. “A leak will contaminate the fresh water in Arava valley, and all of the kibbutzim are dependent on fresh water. There is about 50 million cubic meters of groundwater, which is a shared aquifer between Israel and Jordan. That’s what people drink in the Arava Valley.”
The idea of transporting brine to the Dead Sea seems at first like a good idea. Brine is too salty to put back into the Gulf of Aqaba, where it could harm the rich fish and coral life. The Dead Sea is salty anyway; what could a bit more saltwater hurt?
But environmentalists are worried about what will happen upon mixing the two very different bodies of water. One possibility is the creation of gypsum crystals. Gypsum, a material used in plaster, is already prevalent in the Dead Sea but does not crystallize. With the introduction of high-sulfate Red Sea water, it could create a chemical process whereby the gypsum would solidify. The gypsum could either fall harmlessly to the sea floor or it could float on the surface of the Dead Sea, turning the sea milky white.
This would increase the amount of sun that the Dead Sea absorbs and significantly increase the temperature of the water and the area surrounding the water, thereby drastically changing the environmental conditions.
Other options include a possible algae bloom due to mixing the two bodies of water, which might turn the Dead Sea a brilliant red color on a permanent basis.
Mixing the water from the Dead Sea and the Red Sea could turn the Dead Sea a milky white or a brilliant red
And the water diverted to the Dead Sea, an increase of only 10 centimeters (four inches) or less to the water level, would barely dent the more than a meter lost each year.
“We strongly support the agreement that was signed last week. We think that it was absolutely needed and we were very much behind the scenes helping move that forward, particularly the additional 10 million cubic meters needed to Gaza,” said Bromberg.
“We also support the notion of the water swap between Eilat and Aqaba, and between the Sea of Galilee and the north of Jordan and Amman. But the issue of bringing brine to Dead Sea is something we think should be further studied. We shouldn’t automatically go ahead and see that as the only option.”
EcoPeace has suggested two other options for the brine that will be created during the desalination in Aqaba: large evaporation pools in the Jordanian Desert, or injecting the brine far out to sea in an area that is beyond the delicate coral ecosystem.
“The governments need to study these options from an environmental and economic perspective to see what is the best, because [the Red-Dead pipeline] not going to have much impact on stopping the drop of the Dead Sea,” he said.
The bigger the better
Although the plan proposed in 2002 and the one signed in July in Jordan are significantly different, the emphasis on the Red Sea-Dead Sea link is the same. So why would a project deemed to be prohibitively expensive persist?
Megaprojects such as the Red-Dead have a tendency to become a political tool for politicians who want to show a big impact, regardless of what is actually needed on the ground, explained Dr. Yaakov Garb, a senior lecturer at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. There’s nothing like a good megaproject to make a big splash.
He cited the example of the construction of Route 6 in the 1990s and 2000s as an example of the power of megaprojects.
“Sustainable, long-term solutions would have been much more complex and diffuse,” he said. Utilizing efficient city planning that reduces sprawl, improving public transport, adding bus rapid transport lanes, building a light rail, or reducing car dependency are all ways to alleviate traffic, Garb explained.
“In the face of these kinds of complexities, when you have a big, single solution of a silver bullet, it can seem easier to choose that one,” he said.
Spending the NIS 4.6 billion ($1.3 billion) on Route 6, Israel’s largest ever infrastructure project, was actually the easier solution to the traffic problem. The smaller, local changes would also have helped lighten traffic jams but in a much less dramatic way, while also addressing the root of the problem. New roads may be needed, but without solving the issue of car dependency, Israel is condemned to continue building more and more highways.
“It’s often the single, capital-intensive project that wins out,” said Garb. Garb was one of the consultants to the World Bank study in 2011 examining the viability of the Red-Dead conveyance project.
“You get this coalition where [the Red-Dead canal] is many things for many people, especially when some of those are powerful actors,” he said. “They are over-determined, and often the solutions that take careful, slow thinking are the kind of things that doesn’t get your name in the papers, so these alternatives have much less of a chance.”
“The solution to water issues can also be done in a diffuse, decentralized, low-tech way that takes a lot of slow thought,” Garb said. “Or, it could be a big, heavy, capital-intensive centralized solution that cuts through it all and offers one single answer.”
“My message [in the World Bank study] was if you’re going to do this, take it seriously,” said Garb. “If your concern is making peace, there’s other things you can do first. If your concern is saving the Dead Sea, there are other things you can do first.”
As the politicians continue to quibble and float expensive projects, the Dead Sea continues dropping at an alarming rate. The answer, environmentalists believe, lies not in expensive and invasive infrastructure projects from the south. Nature has already built a pipeline to the Dead Sea. It’s called the Jordan River.
Less than 5 percent of the water that is supposed to run through the Jordan makes it to the Dead Sea. A severe drought in the north has kept Israel’s Water Authority from opening the Deganya Dam to allow more water from the Sea of Galilee to trickle down to the lowest point on earth. There simply isn’t enough water to go around, Water Authority head Uri Schor said in February.
But the strides in desalination mean that Israel has more water than ever before. As populations grow and Jordan supports a million Syrian refugees, more people are clamoring for pieces of the pie, but the pie itself is also growing.
“The hydraulic engineers had achieved remarkable things,” Herzl wrote in 1902. Herzl may not have dreamed that the canal would still be a political game piece, more than 100 years later, but he got a few things right.
“Every drop of water that fell from the heavens,” he predicted, “was exploited for the public good.”