Dead Sea “recovery” project back on track —despite ecologist dissent

A thoroughly uncritical May 6 AP account of the controversial Dead Sea “recovery” program portrays the new progress on the project as a straightforward victory for diplomacy in the interests of ecology. Some excerpts:

GHOR HADITHA, Jordan — Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Arabs are slowly pushing through the tangle of their disputes and suspicions in a race to save a biblical and ecological treasure, the Dead Sea.

The famously salty sea, which lies at Earth’s lowest point, is shrinking. It has receded by some three feet a year for the past 25 years, and Jordan and Israel warn that if the trend continues, it will vanish by 2050 along with its unique ecosystem, defeated by river diversions, mineral extraction and natural reasons, like evaporation.

A crucial project to boost the water level by piping in water from the Red Sea has long been held up by disputes between Israel and its Palestinian and Jordanian neighbors.

“But the ball began to roll a few months ago because of the gravity of the situation and the dangers facing the Dead Sea, which is a unique heritage not only to the countries that border it but to the whole world,” said Mohammed Thafer al-Alem, Jordan’s water minister.


The Dead Sea lies nearly 1,400 feet below sea level… With salinity of about 30 percent—more than eight times that of oceans—it is considered the world’s saltiest body of water. It is bounded by Jordan in the east and Israel and the West Bank in the west.

The Jordan River which flows into the Dead Sea is part of a river network whose overuse and diversions by Jordan, Israel and Syria compound the shrinkage.

After Jordan and Israel signed peace in 1994, they began mulling ideas to save the Dead Sea. One plan, to draw water from the Mediterranean, about 50 miles to the west, was shelved as too costly, so “Med-Dead” shifted to “Red-Dead”—an underground pipeline bringing water from the Red Sea, 125 miles south.

But the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and subsequent violence put the brakes on the project.

The sides agreed in late 2005 to launch a feasibility study for the pipeline, but Israel balked following the landslide January 2006 election victory of the militant Hamas group and its eventual takeover of the Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With renewed Jordanian prodding to resurrect the project, a compromise was reached to include Palestinian moderates on a committee overseeing the project.

The feasibility study finally began this year, with 60 percent of its $15.5 million cost provided by the United States and other Western donors. The pipeline itself will cost $1 billion and take two years to complete, if funding can be found.

There are also plans for a $1.5 billion plant to desalinate Red Sea waters for use by Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians.

“The Red-Dead project is very significant to Israel because the surrounding area is water-poor and in 10 or 15 years, there will be no water there,” except whatever is piped in for drinking water, said Israeli Foreign Ministry official Jacob Keidar, referring to
groundwater wells in the nearby Jordan Valley area. He spoke in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

Al-Alem, the Jordanian water minister, said the shrinkage was “more catastrophic” than that of the Aral Sea in Central Asia.

Once the world’s fourth largest inland water body, the Aral, which lies between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, has lost three quarters of its surface area in less than half a century because of Soviet-era diversion of rivers to promote farming.

“The Dead Sea is a worse disaster than the Aral because it’s shrinking quicker and the catastrophe it poses is greater to the surrounding ecosystem, the economy from its minerals and the site as a world cultural and religious heritage,” al-Alem said.

Amazingly, this account includes not one syllable about dissent from ecologists who fear the impacts of pumping ocean water into the Dead Sea. As we wrote in September 2002, when the project was first announced:

Gideon Bromberg, director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, said feasibility studies should have been undertaken before making public announcements. “They are jumping the gun,” said Bromberg. “They said they are going ahead with planning the project even though they haven’t completed the tests. We are saying they should complete the tests first.” Bromberg said altered current flows in the Gulf of Akaba could damage coral reefs, that salt water could seep into the groundwater aquifers, and that the environmental balance of the Dead Sea may be upset by the introduction of seawater.

See our last posts on Israel/Palestine and regional struggles for control of water.

  1. Deal signed for Dead Sea ‘recovery’ project
    Ma’an News Agency reports Dec. 9 that representatives of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority are to meet at the World Bank in Washington today to sign a “historic” agreement to link the Red Sea with the shrinking Dead Sea. Some of the water diverted from the Gulf of Aqaba will be desalinated and distributed to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, while the rest will be transferred in four pipes to the parched Dead Sea, which would otherwise dry out by 2050. The World Bank in 2012 published a feasibility study report on the plan, dubbed the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project.

    But in October, a coalition of Palestinian NGOs called on the PA to withdraw from the project, claiming that the initiative forces the “Palestinian population to consent to their own dispossession and to compromise on their own rights.”

    “Any lack of a clear position by the Palestinian leadership on this outrageous project, any stand of ambiguity or positive criticism towards it, contributes to the impunity that for far too long has allowed Israel to appropriate Palestinian water and deny Palestinians their rights,” the coalition said.

    Friends of the Earth Middle East and other environmental groups warned that a large influx of Red Sea water could radically change the Dead Sea’s fragile ecosystem, forming gypsum crystals and introducing red algae blooms.