The only project agreed on by Israel and Jordan that could possibly, in the foreseeable future, help save the Dead Sea from further shrinkage is stuck in a byzantine web of politics, bilateral tensions and Israeli foot-dragging.
While the plan, conceived 17 years ago, gathers dust, the pace of the Dead Sea’s decline is gathering speed. Israel’s Regional Development Ministry reports that since 1976, the Dead Sea’s surface area has almost halved and its elevation has dropped more than 40 meters (130 feet) — from 390 meters (1,280 feet) below sea level to minus 434 meters (minus 1,425 feet) today.
This retreat has exposed more than 300 square kilometers (115 square miles) of seabed over the past 50 years. Today that area is peppered with some 7,000 sinkholes — cavities that form when the saltwater between salty rock and freshwater recedes and the freshwater dissolves the rock, causing the land above to fall in.
Buildings, agricultural areas and beaches have been abandoned and development projects put on ice. On the Jordanian side, holes have reportedly opened in the evaporation pools used to commercially extract minerals.
If nothing is done, the Dead Sea — which, according to the Water Authority, currently covers 650 square kilometers (250 square miles) — will not disappear completely. According to one scenario, it will continue to shrivel (though much more slowly, since the pace lessens as the lake becomes more saline), losing some 20 square kilometers (seven square miles) in the next 300 years and dropping to around 550 meters (minus 1,804 feet) below sea level within that time. The sea will be so salty by then that evaporation will dramatically fall.
Many ideas to reverse the decline have been suggested, and rejected, over the decades. The one that was finally agreed upon by Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, in 2013, is a Red Sea to Dead Sea pipeline that will convey seawater and the salty byproduct of a new desalination plant in Aqaba to the iconic lake to arrest its decline, initially by a third.
But this plan isn’t moving anywhere at present. Diplomatic relations between Israel and Jordan are at a historic low. The inaction has been compounded by Israel’s lack of a functioning government for nearly a year. The Red-Dead project is also expensive — it will cost Israel more than $1 billion. And bar the strategic interest of keeping the Hashemite Kingdom in power as a bulwark against Islamic extremists, not to mention restless Jordanian Palestinians, it is of no economic value to Israel, other than, perhaps, helping to slow the sea’s decline and in so doing harm tourism less. It mainly benefits drought-stricken Jordan, which is desperate for water. And it will require Israel to purchase costly desalinated water from Aqaba when it can, and already does, desalinate water from the Mediterranean Sea for much less.
Eight years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on TV to ask Israelis (in Hebrew) to vote to have the Dead Sea recognized as one of the new seven wonders of the world. The Dead Sea didn’t win the contest, and it is just as unlikely to win the war for rehabilitation because, at the end of the day, it cannot compete on the larger regional battleground for water. The imperative to save the Dead Sea is less urgent than providing for people’s basic water needs.
If the Red-Dead project doesn’t happen — and many Israelis in the field are skeptical that it will — then the needs of thirsty Jordanians and Palestinians will take precedence above the needs of a lake when it comes to any surplus water that Israel might produce in the future.
It’s all about water
Water — or the lack of it — is a thread that has run through conflicts in the region since the beginning of time. The Six Day War in 1967 arguably had its origins in a decision by the Arab states to divert both the Hatzbani and Banias rivers to the Yarmouk to stop their waters from entering the Sea of Galilee and, from there, Israel’s National Water Carrier. Syria built a canal to take water from the Banias to a Yarmouk canal in 1965 and Lebanon started building a canal to take waters from the Hatzbani to the Banias.
A devastating drought in Syria, from 2006 to 2011, is credited with helping to fuel the deadly civil war there, as farmers packed it in and moved to the cities, where unemployment intensified discontent.
Jordan is one of the most water-starved countries in the world. It draws nearly 60 percent of its water from underground aquifers, extracting at twice the rate that the groundwater can be renewed. The rest comes from rivers and streams.
In the capital, Amman, water is supplied to rooftop tanks once a week; other areas of the country are supplied even less frequently.
According to one estimate, Jordan’s water is enough to sustain two million people, in a country that has close to ten million — a figure swelled over the past decade by 1.5 million refugees, most of them fleeing civil war in neighboring Syria.
Lack of data, insufficient groundwater monitoring, poor infrastructure maintenance leading to leaks, and massive theft of water through thousands of illegally dug wells only exacerbate the shortages there.
Within just over ten years, the average annual recharge in all the water basins of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, will not meet even the basic human needs of the existing populations, let alone industrial, agricultural and environmental needs
One model, from the Stanford University Jordan Water Project, predicted that by the end of the century, if nothing radical is done to stem global warming, rainfall in Jordan will decrease by 30%, temperatures will increase by 6 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit), and the number and duration of droughts will double. Flow from the Yarmouk River, an important source of water for Jordan that flows from Syria, will decline by up to 75%, the model suggested.
According to a World Bank report last year, the Palestinian population is also suffering from chronic and growing water insecurity.
Within just over ten years, the average annual recharge in all the water basins of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority will not meet even the basic human needs of the existing populations, let alone industrial, agricultural and environmental needs.
To meet the challenges of reduced rainfall and multiyear droughts as the climate warms, Israel has built five desalination plants — in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Palmachim, Sorek and Hadera. These supply around 80 percent of the country’s drinking water. Mekorot, the national water company, receives the water from the plants and channels it into the national water carrier. A sixth plant, adjacent to the existing Sorek facility, and a seventh, in the Western Galilee, are planned.
Jordan is in no such position, lacking a long coastline along which to build desalination plants. It has just a small stretch of coastline along the Red Sea, in the south; most of its population lives in the north.
Human actions are chiefly responsible for the imbalance between the amount of water that enters the Dead Sea and the amount that leaves it, Nadav Lensky, head of the Dead Sea Observatory at the Geological Survey of Israel, explained.
If 80 years ago, 1.2 billion cubic meters (530,000 million tons) of freshwater flowed into the Dead Sea yearly, mainly via the Jordan River that is connected to the Sea of Galilee further north, today, the river supplies only a measly 100 to 150 million cubic meters per annum (mcm/pa). The rest is diverted for drinking water, irrigation, hydroelectric power and industry by Israel, Syria and Jordan.
In very approximate terms, around 450 mcm/pa (160 tons) is skimmed off the Sea of Galilee by Israel, 400 mcm/pa (140 tons) is extracted from the Yarmouk River by Syria and Jordan, and a further 300 mcm/pa (100 tons) is diverted by Jordan from various streams that would otherwise flow into the Dead Sea basin.
The Dead Sea loses around 700 mcm/pa (250 tons) to natural evaporation. That is compounded by commercial exploitation of the mineral-rich waters by Jordanian and Israeli companies. The Arab Potash Company and Israel Chemicals Ltd (owners of Dead Sea Works) currently pump out around 600 mcm/pa (212 tons) of water from the deeper, northern part of the lake (ICL pumps two-thirds of the total), returning just half that amount — 300 mcm/pa (100 tons) — after evaporation and extraction of minerals.
ICL’s franchise runs out in 2030 but will in all likelihood be renewed, despite pressure from environmental groups to stop pumping altogether.
No shortage of ideas
Many ideas to artificially add water to maintain the Dead Sea at current levels, or even to raise it, have been proposed over the decades.
These include bringing water from different points of the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea; piping water from the Euphrates River in Iraq (with which Israel has no diplomatic relations) or from Turkey (with which relations over recent years have considerably soured); rehabilitating the Jordan River, the Dead Sea’s main feeder, by adding desalinated water to the Sea of Galilee and treated sewage and other kinds of wastewater further downstream.
But the Red Sea to Dead Sea pipeline is the only project that has been agreed upon by Israel, which controls the Dead Sea’s western coast, Jordan, which has the eastern coast, and the Palestinian Authority, which oversees part of the northern coast. This plan is actually a side story to a bigger project to pump seawater to a desalination plant in Aqaba, Jordan, to provide clean water to the Jordanian population.
Desalination generates brine, which has to be stored somewhere. In this case, the project kills two birds with one stone by channeling the brine to the Dead Sea, along with seawater. But it does so in quantities estimated at the pilot stage to only slow the Dead Sea’s decline by a third, and its environmental implications are far from fully understood.
The long march
In 2002, Jordan’s King Abdullah called on Israel to help save the Dead Sea. This kickstarted a three-sided partnership with the Palestinian Authority, and a World Bank-sponsored feasibility study of a Red Sea to Dead Sea Conveyance (RSDSC) aimed at eventually pumping two billion cubic meters (706,000 tons) per year out of the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.
With the declared objectives of saving the Dead Sea, desalinating water, generating affordable hydro-electricity and building a symbol of peace and cooperation, research teams were set up to examine the financial, technical and engineering aspects of the project, as well as the environmental effects on marine life and coral larvae of pumping sea water out of the Red Sea and piping it across the Jordanian side of the Arava Desert, over important underground aquifers. They concluded that with the right planning and design, solutions could be found to most of the challenges.
One team also considered the many alternatives that had been discussed over the years, making clear that failing to act on the Dead Sea would also have significant costs — environmental and financial. The chemical industries would eventually go bust, hitting regional GDP; tourism would wither; and additional sinkholes would further threaten infrastructure such as roads.
With an initial price tag of $10 billion, and with environmental groups warning that piping anything more than 400 mcm/pa (140 million tons) of mixed seawater and desalination plant brine into the Dead Sea could spur the formation of unwanted white gypsum and/or colorful algae, the three partners decided to start with a much smaller pilot, during which the potential for environmental, finance-related or other problems could be monitored.
In 2015, Jordan, backed by Israel, issued a pre-tender document for the construction of the pilot Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance.
In 2016, a conference of donor governments and institutions was held to raise grants and loans for the transfer of seawater and brine to the Dead Sea. (The desalination plant is intended to be built as a commercial enterprise.)
Last year, the Israeli cabinet saw a presentation on the whole project, but no decisions were made. In December, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi announced that the plans would be brought to the cabinet for approval. But Israel had already entered election mode, and that meeting never took place.
If the next Israeli government does approve the tender — which Jordan will publish (in line with the bilateral agreement) — it will take up to 20 months to choose the franchisee, a further nine months to complete the financing, and an estimated 3.5 years to build, according to Oded Fixler, deputy director general of Israel’s Regional Development Ministry.
Testing the waters with a pilot project
The pilot project envisages pumping 300 mcm/pa (100 tons) of Red Sea water from the eastern edge of the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba via a pipe 140 meters (460 feet) under the sea (to protect corals) and desalinating 65 mcm/pa (23 tons) of that at a plant just north of Aqaba city. Of this, Jordan will buy 30 mcm/pa (11 million tons) of water and Israel 35 mcm/pa (12 million tons) – the latter for communities in the Arava desert in Israel’s far south.
The remaining 235 mcm/pa (83 tons) – combining Red Sea water with desalination brine — will be pumped some 230 kilometers (145 miles) from Aqaba to Lisan, entering the Dead Sea from the Jordanian side. Hydroelectric plants taking advantage of the drops in sea level between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea will supply around 32 megawatts of electricity per year, roughly what is needed to pump the water (but not to operate the desalination plant itself).
The project also provides for a swap. In return for the water it will buy from Jordan, Israel will sell Jordan 50 mcm/pa (18 tons) of water and the Palestinian Authority 33 million mcm/pa (12 million tons) from the Sea of Galilee or sources such as the National Water Carrier.
As with Israel’s national gas industry, the business model for the project will be Build Operate Transfer (BOT). The companies that win the franchise will borrow money to build the project and will recoup their investment — plus a profit — during the period of a 25-year lease by charging for the desalinated water. After that, the lease will come up for renewal.
A pre-tender document of Preliminary Qualification was issued in 2015, and 17 consortia applied. Of these, five passed the initial stage — from China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and France. The Singapore consortium includes Hutchison Water, which is already involved in desalination in Israel. Neither the Ofer family, which owns the rights to pump minerals from the Dead Sea, nor Yitzhak Tshuva of the Delek Group, which is invested in desalination and natural gas in Israel, is involved in any of the consortia.
The pipeline to the Dead Sea, which offers no profit, is the only part that Jordan and Israel will have to pay for.
At the donors’ conference held in 2016, the US agreed to grant $100 million, Japan pledged $20 million worth of equipment, the EU promised 160 million euros in soft loans (after carrying out its own environmental research) and Italy threw in a couple of million euros by itself.
This part of the project is expected to cost Israel more than $1 billion. The Regional Cooperation Ministry’s Fixler, Israel’s pointman for the Red Sea-Dead Sea project, told The Times of Israel that with a tender in the pipeline, he could not reveal the exact cost.
A project mired in politics
Dr. Clive Lipchin, an ecologist and director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute, who served as a consultant to the World Bank feasibility study on the environmental impacts of the various pipeline routes in the Arava Desert, told The Times of Israel that the Red Sea-Dead Sea option was not the best economically, environmentally or technically, but was the best politically. “It depends how you frame the question,” he said. “This project is mired in politics.”
Not only will it cost Israel dearly, but Israel will have no control over the maintenance of the project, which will be entirely in Jordan, he added.
The infrastructure will run along a section of the Syrian-African Rift Valley, a major ecological corridor leading from northern Syria to Mozambique in East Africa. Earthquake-prone, this land has important freshwater aquifers.
Burst pipes and seepage of saline water into the ground, he noted, are environmentalists’ worst nightmare.
Little conviction about the project’s feasibility
Oded Eran, a senior researcher at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv and a former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and the European Union, told The Times of Israel that the Jordanians have been enamored by the Red Sea-Dead Sea project ever since it was discussed at the Madrid peace conference in 1991. [The idea itself was first suggested in the mid-19th century]. “The project was much larger and I suspect that they saw billions pouring into the country,” he said.
But asked why there has been such a long delay in getting it started, he said, “With the exception of the Jordanians, there is very little conviction elsewhere about the physical, chemical and economic feasibility of the project. The relevant Israeli professional community is largely against it.” He said that in the absence of a sufficient international financial commitment, the Jordanians were pressing Israel to commit to cover the bulk of the funds for what was a “dubious project.”
It would be far more logical, he continued, to supply Jordan with Mediterranean desalinated water, because the distances are shorter and the costs would therefore be lower, he went on. But that, of course, would do nothing to help the Dead Sea.
Eran said he believed the Jordanians would be prepared to discuss a concrete proposal covering technical aspects of such an alternative, as well as financial and political guarantees. Jordan, he noted, was not averse to accepting natural resources from Israel — it already received water from the Jewish state (as part of the 1994 peace agreement and later deals) and had signed a $10 billion deal to acquire natural gas.
That said, according to a Haaretz report in January, Avi Simchon, chairman of the National Economic Council, did try to suggest selling the Jordanians desalinated water instead of building the project, but Jordan stuck to the Red Sea-Dead Sea pipeline, which guarantees its water security. Deals with Israel — while they exist — are not exactly popular in Jordan. In May, Jordanian lawmakers called for cancellation of the gas agreement.
On the ground — and despite a formal agreement to the contrary — the Jordanians are not even allowing Israeli scientists to enter Jordanian territory to take the baseline measurements of the Dead Sea they will need to monitor the effects of adding seawater and brine.
Bilateral relations at a nadir
Bilateral relations are currently at a nadir. King Abdullah’s distrust of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been fueled by events such as the 2017 shooting of two Jordanian citizens by an Israeli embassy guard in Amman and Israel’s failure to prosecute the guard; US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; constant tensions related to the Temple Mount; Israeli talk of annexing the Jordan Valley; and stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
Not a few political observers see Amman’s recent refusal to extend existing leases to two pieces of land along the Israeli-Jordanian border — including Naharayim, the so-called “Isle of Peace” — as a tool to try to force Israel to move ahead with the water project after repeated delays.
Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East (formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East), which has been working for 25 years with Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians to create a comprehensive integrated development plan for the entire Dead Sea region, said the organization supported Jordan’s efforts to guarantee its own water security via a desalination plant in Aqaba, as well as the supply of desalinated water to the Jordanian and Israeli sides of the Arava and the water swap deal.
All this was quite different from the original proposal to pump two billion cmc/pa (705,000 tons) from the Red Sea annually, which EcoPeace Middle East strongly opposed at the time, fearing the implications on such a large project of terror, earthquakes and human error and the possible impacts of seawater pumping on Red Sea coral reefs, among the only ones in the world that are still robust in the face of climate change.
He added, “We still have concerns as to whether the brine from the pilot stage should go to the Dead Sea and would like further research into the environmental and economic options for the brine disposal before the pilot gets underway, and for the governments to decide on that basis.” Alternatives included evaporating the brine in reservoirs in the desert or injecting it into the deep waters of the Red Sea, far from the coral reefs.
EcoPeace has called for sustainable solutions that tackle the core of the Dead Sea’s problem, including the partial rehabilitation of the Jordan River and reduction of the damage caused by the mineral industries on both sides of the border.
“The Lower Jordan River can be rehabilitated, the Dead Sea stabilized, and sufficient water made available to our respective publics without the risk of undertaking an experiment that constitutes ‘playing God’ by mixing two seas, leading to likely irreversible damage to the environment and the political instability of unparalleled public debt,” it said in a position paper on the original, larger project several years ago.
EcoPeace hired Dutch engineering consultants to create a Master Plan for Sustainable Development in the Jordan Valley, that focuses on the area between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The plan deals with water management, pollution control, agricultural development, tourism and cultural heritage, land use, governance, sustainable energy, urban development and infrastructure. It proposes 127 measures to be taken by 2050, with a total price tag of $4.58 billion.
The EcoPeace vision includes adding desalinated water to the shrinking Sea of Galilee (to provide drinking water to people in northern Israel and Jordan), and boosting the treatment of waste water in the Jordan River further south (to be used for irrigation). The organization is currently undertaking a study on the possibility of adding treated wastewater to the lower section of the Jordan River that flows into the Dead Sea to help stabilize its water levels.
This, says EcoPeace, could make 400 mcm/pa (140 tons annually) available for the Dead Sea. Changes in mineral extraction technology could release an additional 330 mcm/pa, enabling the Dead Sea to at least remain at current levels, while further amounts could be generated by better maintenance of existing infrastructure and by charging for water in a way that would motivate users to consume less.
Israel is, in fact, in the midst of a NIS 1 billion ($276 million) project to pump desalinated water from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee. The official expectation is that it will come on line in four to five years, but given the strength of public opposition to the location of desalination facilities in the Western Galilee and logistical issues such as rezoning in areas that the pipelines will have to cross, it is not clear when this project will actually see the light of day either.
Commenting on the EcoPeace plan, Clive Lipchin said that that he thought the Palestinians and Jordanians would demand that any additional water be made available to them before it was used to rehabilitate rivers. “Water is a fundamental, basic human right and it will always be the top priority.”
He added, “In a perfect world, one should think about the river, which today, is practically dead. But the Red Sea-Dead Sea project is far more straightforward than the EcoPeace masterplan.”
Red-Dead also had immediate strategic importance for Israel, he continued, in that it would save Israeli farming communities of the Arava, which are running out of water. Israel’s national water carrier does not reach so far south. The brackish groundwater that farmers use is not renewable and the more they use, the saltier it gets.
There is no talk yet of creating a desalination plant in Eilat, adjacent to Aqaba, but pressure might build if the Red Sea-Dead Sea project does not get off the ground. Desalinated water mixed with brackish water would give farmers — famous for growing peppers and cherry tomatoes in the desert — more and better quality water, which would enable them to expand their businesses, Lipchin said.
Limiting commercial exploitation
Israel Chemicals Ltd, the private company that currently extracts two-thirds of the commercially exploited water from the Dead Sea for mineral production, says that its activities cause nine percent of the Dead Sea’s shrinkage. The environmental group Adam Teva V’Din puts the figure closer to 30%.
ICL pumps water from the deeper northern side of the Dead Sea into evaporation ponds in the shallow southern section, where the minerals are extracted. The remaining water and salts are then sent back to the northern side.
A series of legal petitions brought by Adam Teva V’Din over the past four years has exposed not only that ICL has been working without a license but that it has also not paid a dime for the water it uses so that there is no economic incentive to save.
The Water Authority, for its part, has essentially stood by, trying only meekly, after the start of the legal action, to exert some authority via voluntary guidelines it signed with Israel Chemicals in 2016.
Earlier this year, Adam Teva V’Din won what is a relatively rare victory against such a powerful company when Judge Ron Sokol of the Haifa District Court ruled that the Dead Sea was definitely covered by the 1959 Water Law (despite ICL’s arguments to the contrary) and that as such, ICL could continue to operate only with a license.
A license, Sokol wrote, would allow proper governmental supervision of commercial operations and ensure that private activity did not harm the public interest.
He slapped a six-month deadline on the Water Authority to compile a license and to release it for public comment, warning that failure to do so (by February 4, 2020) would mean ICL would have to stop pumping.
Environmental organizations say that the government is wrong to see the Dead Sea as purely an economic resource and that the mining franchise — due to run out in 2030 — should not be renewed
“Water sources that are not freshwater are also of public importance, of importance to environmental conservation, to nature and to the country’s development,” he wrote in his judgement. “Preservation of the Dead Sea as a water source is of great public significance. If it is not preserved, there will be harm to the environment, to interests of tourism and industry, the land around it will be damaged, so will the ecological balance…”
Renewing the commercial franchise
Environmental organizations say that the government is wrong to see the Dead Sea as purely an economic resource and that the mining franchise — due to run out in 2030 — should not be renewed at all.
If this is not possible, a license should at least contain provisions to force industry to pay for restoration of degraded areas, comply with strict environmental conditions, pay for the water used, and levy higher taxes that could be used to fund research into more water-wise extraction techniques — all conditions that companies like ICL can be expected to fight.
A committee set up under the accountant general to review renewal of the franchise has reportedly decided to renew the franchise, but to charge for water used and to limit the amount of water that can be pumped, as well as the physical area available.
There are even discussions with ICL about ending the franchise before 2030. ICL is presumably reluctant to make any major investments in an atmosphere of uncertainty, despite the fact that it has first refusal on a renewal agreement that is embedded in law.
Leehee Goldenberg, director of the Economic and Natural Resources Department at Adam Teva V’Din, said, “We’ve often seen the government make cynical use of the Dead Sea — for example, when asking Israelis to ‘phone in’ and vote for it as an international ‘wonder of nature’ while often ignoring its speedy deterioration.
“The years have shown, particularly because the Ministry of Finance is ‘responsible’ for the Dead Sea, that it is seen through dollar signs as an economic asset.
“It’s time for the government to make real and brave decisions regarding the future of this natural phenomenon,” she urged. “If the government truly wants future generations to enjoy this disappearing natural resource, it’s time to examine ending the Dead Sea Works’ franchise and the economic exploitation of this natural wonder, and to take steps towards its rehabilitation.”
If these urgent steps are not taken, then Israel, the world and future generations will be deprived of a natural wonder that has been around, in its present form, for thousands of years.