A new project that will connect the Red Sea and the Dead Sea could help to alleviate the region’s water shortage and have a farther-reaching effect on Middle East relations.
Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority reached an agreement in July to build a 220-kilometer pipeline to carry water from the Red Sea, a seawater inlet between Asia and Africa, to the Dead Sea in Israel. The $10 billion project would transfer potable water to one of the Middle East’s driest regions.
Idea originated in the 19th century
The idea of connecting the Red Sea and the Dead Sea has been discussed since the 19th century, when planners wondered how they could use the Jordan River to irrigate and add water to the Dead Sea. However, the project had not gotten off the ground until now, as the Dead Sea has seen a dramatic reduction in its water level. The pipeline would begin refilling the Dead Sea and would replenish water supplies that have been drained by the many pipes and dams that divert water from the Jordan River for other communities. The pipeline would originate in Aqaba, a port in Jordan, where a large desalination plant would be built. It would then run through Jordan before dropping several hundred yards below sea level and end in the Dead Sea.
Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority have arranged a water swap that would incorporate this new source of fresh water. Jordan would buy water from Israel that comes from the Sea of Galilee. The pipeline would serve Israel’s southern Arava region, and the Palestinian Authority would buy water from an Israeli desalination plant. Following are some ways in which the project will help.
Water level has dropped
The Dead Sea’s water level has dropped by almost two-thirds. A hotel built in the early 20th century along the sea’s coast is now a kilometer from the shoreline.
Environmentalists say that the change is not due to climate change. Instead, companies and farms have channeled water away from the Jordan River, and Israeli and Jordanian mining companies have diverted a large amount of water into evaporation ponds to make brine and potash.
Water surface has shrunk
While environmentalists say the Dead Sea is not in danger of drying up, its water surface has shrunk from 950 square kilometers in the 1960s to about 637 square kilometers today. If the water level continues to drop at its current rate of about 1 kilometer a year, environmentalists estimate the surface could shrink to 300 square kilometers.
Environmentalists also warn that the pipeline will not bring the Dead Sea back to its original water level, which could create new problems. The pipeline will not keep up with the dropping sea level, and environmentalists believe that the only way to truly solve the problem is to significantly reduce the amount of water diverted from the Jordan River.
Water from the Red Sea, which has a different chemical composition than the water in the Dead Sea, could turn the latter’s famous blue water milky and hurt tourism.
Restricted water access
About 98 percent of the Jordan River’s flow is diverted before it reaches the Dead Sea, and the massive pipeline could carry 2 billion cubic meters of water each year through Jordanian territory, which has some of the most restricted water access in the world. Jordan is also one of the poorest countries in the world in regards to water resources, and its people are accustomed to water rationing. The hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have recently entered Jordan have also taxed the country’s water supply.
Jordanian officials see the pipeline as a way to secure a supply of potable water to the country. The desalination plant would produce up to 85 million cubic meters of freshwater a year, according to estimates. Jordan would use about half of that amount, and the rest would be transferred to Israel. Israel would then sell Jordan about 50 million cubic meters of fresh water each year pumped from the Sea of Galilee.
While the project will be built on Jordanian territory, some environmentalists say that it will not do much for the country’s economy, which has been struggling amid the economic downturn. The pipeline is expected to produce about 1,700 jobs, many of them only during peak construction.
One major hurdle for the project is its multibillion-dollar price tag, although the World Bank has estimated that selling desalinated water and electricity generated at a hyrdro-electric plant along the pipeline could offset some of this cost. At a recent conference in Aqaba, an Israeli government leader spoke to potential investors about the project. The World Bank already has committed to helping, and the American government will provide $100 million of the $400 million of the cost of phase one.
Almost 100 bids have come in from other countries to construct the pipeline, including China, France, and Egypt. The first phase is expected to be completed in 2019.