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Breathing Life Into The Dead Sea Print E-mail

By Jay Bushinsky
September 7, 2009

The Dead Sea, which is the lowest site on earth, may qualify in 2011 as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, but that will not stop its waters from diminishing, reduce the consequent increase in their salinity or prevent the steady constriction of its shoreline.

From 1998 to 2008, the shoreline receded by an average of 38 inches annually.
Last year alone the decline was measured at 54 inches and this year, the decline already is 44 inches.  This situation, the main cause of which is the sharp decline in the once-plentiful influx from the River Jordan and other incoming streams has prompted the World Bank to consider a plan for a canal or pipeline for seawater from the Gulf of Aqaba 130 miles to the south.

Since Israel began diverting water from the Sea of Galilee 50 years ago, that inland lake's water was stopped from flowing into the lower Jordan River and on to the Dead Sea.  Now estimated at 15 billion dollars, the Red Sea-Dead Sea project is the subject of a feasibility study by World Bank experts in conjunction with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian officials as well as  international experts in engineering and ecology. 

The study is due to be completed within the next two years after which a decision will be made whether to proceed.  Officials estimate the study's cost at 16.5 million dollars.  Although the World Bank is managing the study, the funding has come mainly from the U.S., France, Holland, Japan and Greece.  France is the biggest contributor.

"There really is no problem insofar as the engineering aspect is concerned," said Uri Shani, Israel's national water commissioner.  He believes it will be possible to overcome the fact that the proposed route through the parched Arava Valley would require pumping the seawater two-thirds of a mile upward before it drops nearly a half a mile downward to reach the Dead Sea's southern perimeter.

The Dead Sea is 1,378 below the level of the Mediterranean Sea which is 45 miles to the west and below that of all of the world's other bodies of water.  Nearlya century ago, visionaries here and abroad proposed the construction of a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea.

Today, this might entail traversing territory within the projected borders of a future Palestinian state, a prospect that deters the Israelis from the political and security standpoints.  Although the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba is nearly three times as far, all of the intervening terrain is within Israeli territory.  It is bereft of potential political friction and offers tempting possibilities for ancillary development.  In both cases, the drop in the conduit's initial elevation would make it possible to generate electricity for a desalination plant.

"The Jordanians are particularly interested in obtaining drinking water for their parched capital, Amman, as well as for their arid-zone agriculture," said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of the Friends of the Earth Middle East, which also has offices in Amman and Bethlehem.  He recalled that the idea was proposed by the Jordanians even before they signed their peace treaty with Israel in 1994.  "They see it primarily as a solution to their critical water shortage," he said.
 
However, Bromberg and his colleagues have serious reservations about the project's prospective environmental impact.  For example, experimental mixing of Dead Sea and Red Sea water resulted in a change in the former's unique chemical composition and changed the color of the Dead Sea's water from blue to reddish brown.  Shani attributed this to augmentation of calcium.  "But this poses no serious difficulty because the calcium sinks to the bottom of the sea," he said.  On the other hand, Shani conceded that the "light water" remaining would facilitate the spread of algae on the surface.

A report by Jordan's Royal Scientific Society also attributed the steady decline of the Dead Sea to "diversion of the Jordan River and other springs that naturally flow into the Dead Sea for agricultural, industrial and municipal services in Israel and Jordan."

It cites three solutions -- joint management of the Dead Sea basin and distribution of the surrounding water resources "equally assuring that considerable amount of fresh water flows back to the Dead Sea."  The report notes that this "will be much easier, more feasible and with very low impact on the environment compared with other solutions;"-- connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea and thereby creating an influx of 528 billion gallons of water ...for 20 years during its filling up period and afterwards a reduced influx of 265 billion gallons of water per year to compensate for losses due to evaporation; -- a Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit (RDC) project.

One of the most colorful, but highly controversial bi-products of the official Israeli concept of Red Sea-Dead Sea linkage would be the creation of of a "Peace Corridor" advocated by Israel's government two years ago.  This would entail the creation of several artificial lakes in the Arava Valley along with what Friends of the Earth Middle East calls "Las Vegas type facilities. 

The main backer is Yitzhak T'shuva, a leading Israeli businessman with major investments in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.  The Friends of the Earth Middle East contends that T'shuva, whose scheme is backed by President Shimon Peres, would build 200,000 hotel rooms between the Red and Dead Seas and populate the intervening area with three million people.  It believes that the environmental and social implications would be "irreversible."
 
Another of its concerns is the negative effect the Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit might have on the Gulf of Aqaba's coral reefs.  "Changing the flow could alter the gulf's water temperature, adversely affecting the sub-tropical body of water's unique ecosystem, Bromberg said.  He noted that the reefs and marine life are "the basis of tourism to Eilat and Aqaba,"(adjacent Israeli and Jordanian cities respectively located at the gulf's northern tip).
 
Bromberg also referred to the danger that there might be significant leakage of seawater pumped northward through a pipeline from the gulf, a situation that would be detrimental to the Arava Valley's aquifers.  "That would be bad for the valley's kibbutz agriculture," he said, noting that the
valley also is an earthquake zone and that the pipeline could be endangered by tremors.

Whether the Dead Sea-Red Sea project is launched or not, the governments of Israel and Jordan will have to deal with the relatively enormous loss of water caused by their respective mineral extraction plants on the Dead Sea's coast.  Israel's Dead Sea Works and Jordan's Arab Potash Company are responsible for 40 per cent of the Dead Sea's decline.

This is due to their method of mining magnesium, potash and bromides and other valuable substances from its water by creating artificial ponds which are allowed to evaporate in the desert sun and from which the desired minerals are scooped up from the dry residue.
 
    

 

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