Save Dead Sea by Restoring Jordan River, Not by Red Sea Channel

Environmentalists in Israel and the Middle East have a clear vision on how to save the Dead Sea, which has been losing 850 million cubic meters per year thanks to water diversion upstream and mineral extraction at the sea.

This vision sees fresh water flowing again into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River, arresting the sea’s declining water levels. It envisions Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian communities that live along the Jordan River benefiting collectively from a revitalized economy based on shared water and sustainable tourism, including Christian pilgrimages to holy sites on the rehabilitated river.

This vision, however, could not be more different from that of the World Bank, Israeli President Shimon Peres or Israeli billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva.

Their solution is to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which they say also will counter water scarcity in the region and bolster peace ties. Along the route of the canal, in the Arava Valley, Peres and Tshuva have proposed building artificial lakes, casinos, Dubai-style skyscrapers and 200,000 hotel rooms.

Ignoring the environmental impact of their plan is a grave mistake.

The Red-to-Dead canal plan places the fragile coral reefs of the Jordanian city of Akaba and the Israeli city of Eilat at risk. Pumping 2 billion cubic meters of water out of the Red Sea could alter water temperatures in the Red Sea Gulf.

Transporting seawater in a pipeline or open canal through the Arava Valley, an area where earthquakes regularly occur, likely would lead to spills and the salinization of groundwater. And the development ideas Peres and Tshuva harbor for the route of the canal would transform the unique desert landscape of the rift valley in the Arava into a Las Vegas-type strip mall.

The canal plan jeopardizes the Dead Sea as well. Scientists are now vocal in their concerns that mixing sea water with the unique minerals of the Dead Sea could lead to the growth of algae and turn the Dead Sea’s waters from deep blue to reddish brown.

By contrast, rehabilitating the Jordan River would strengthen existing but all-but-forgotten Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley by bringing an influx of tourists and investment to the struggling region. New infrastructure would have to be built to accommodate the tourists, helping revitalize a region that is home to 350,000 people.

Rehabilitating the river would not require restoring its historical flow of 1.3 billion cubic meters per year. We can make do with just a quarter of that, 350 million.

To do so, however, we have to stop drawing so much water out of the Jordan’s tributaries, including Lake Kinneret.

How? Studies show that Israel could reduce domestic water consumption by 30 percent by promoting a combination of policy directives, from education for water conservation to pricing reforms. Rainwater harvesting, waterless toilets and low-water-use appliances need to be supported by legislation and grants. Domestic water measures would save some 200 million cubic meters of water per year.

The balance would have to come from reforms in the agriculture sector, which consumes about 500 million cubic meters of fresh water per year. Water authorities and environmentalists already agree that Israeli agriculture should be based solely on recycling treated sewage water. But while the water authorities want the savings to go toward satisfying increased urban demand for water, environmentalists want to see the saved water returned to nature, including the Jordan River.

The vision of Friends of the Earth Middle East is to decouple population and economic growth from increased freshwater demand. Our region, not Europe, should be the model for ingenuity in water conservation.

As for the Dead Sea, we believe the sea’s water level should be stabilized, not restored to its historical levels, last seen around 1930. Some 850 million cubic meters of water would be needed per year for stabilization.

If the aforementioned water reforms are applied in Israel and Jordan, a revived Jordan River could supply 500 million cubic meters of that, solving 60 percent of the problem. The 350 million balance must come from the mineral extraction companies at the Dead Sea, which are responsible for 40 percent of the water that leaves the Dead Sea every year.

It’s time that the Israeli and Jordanian publics demand that the enormous profits being earned by these companies — Dead Sea Works in Israel and the Arab Potash Company in Jordan — be invested in new technology to extract minerals without evaporating so much Dead Sea water.

The demise of the Dead Sea is man-made. Environmentalists should not be condemned for insisting on looking at the causes of the demise: upstream water diversion and mineral extraction.

Our vision is based on water sharing, water conservation technologies, sustainable agriculture and sustainable tourism. The Peres-Tshuva-World Bank vision may lead to ecological disaster.

(Gidon Bromberg is the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, www.foeme.org, a regional environmental organization that brings Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to work together in a common effort in search of peace and sustainability.)

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