Are We Killing the Dead Sea?

Stories from Moment.
Sept. 17 2013 5:20 AM

The Dead Sea Is Dying

Sinkholes. Habitat destruction. 
Perilously low water levels.
 Can a dying sea be saved?

(Continued from Page 2)
A view of a new desalination plant is seen in the city of Hadera, Israel, Sunday, May 16, 2010.
A view of a new desalination plant is seen in the city of Hadera, Israel, Sunday, May 16, 2010.

Photo by Ariel Schalit/AP Photo

It would seem to be a win-win-win scenario, but environmentalists warn that the Red-Dead, rather than healing the Dead Sea, just might serve as its death knell. They are ringing an array of alarm bells: One is that mixing the waters could result in an algae bloom that might give the Dead Sea a reddish hue. Another is that a coat of white gypsum would form on the top. Although the ecological effects of these chemical changes are still unclear, they would likely diminish the sea’s tourist appeal. A third concern is the high frequency of earthquakes in the region between the Red and Dead Seas: Seismic activity could cause salt water to leak into underground fresh water aquifers.

“Why not simply introduce water conservation, rather than a multibillion dollar pipeline project that will cause irreversible damage?” demands Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli head of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a joint Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian environmental group. But he acknowledges that this is easier said than done. Changing public behavior is a long-term process—and of little interest to most politicians. “They would much rather be seen cutting a ribbon over a grandiose plant than over a toilet that uses grey water,” he says cynically.

Eli Raz doesn’t like the plan either. He’d prefer to see the Dead Sea’s problems solved by rehabilitating the Jordan River and utilizing desalination to supply a larger percentage of water to Israel’s densely populated Mediterranean coast. But this would require a systemic, cooperative regional approach to water sharing—which is about as scarce as water in this part of the world.

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The Israeli and Jordanian governments both officially support the Red-Dead. The Jordanians are so gung ho that they announced in August that they are pressing ahead with parts of the project on their own. The Palestinians, however, insist that they are being ignored and deprived of their rights. Water has been a source of ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, since Israel controls the major renewable water resources throughout the West Bank. Although the Oslo Accords of 1995 provided for Palestinian access to water sources, the arrangements were never implemented by either side.

While the Palestinian Authority supports the Red-Dead in principle, it will not move forward unless a water desalination plant is constructed at Ein Feshkha, allowing the West Bank partial independence from Israel’s water supply, according to an individual close to the Palestinian Water Authority, speaking on condition of anonymity,

The Palestinian demands are “not something that we are discussing,” says Maya Eldar, an advisor to Israel’s Regional Cooperation Minister Silvan Shalom. In fact, the Israelis can’t even agree among themselves. Shalom is a fervent supporter of the Red-Dead, while Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz just as fervently opposes it.

But even if environmental issues and diplomatic squabbles could be overcome, the cost of the Red-Dead—an estimated $15 billion to 17 billion—is prohibitive. According to the World Bank feasibility study, the economic viability of the project is dependent on international grants totaling $5 billion, and Jordan must raise an additional $2.5 billion in loans to pay for bringing the desalinated water 124 miles to Amman, which is 3,280 feet higher than the Dead Sea. Only then will the private sector kick in the remaining $2.6 billion. And after all that, the cost of the desalinated water in Jordan could be so high that it would have to be subsidized by the government.

Given the current world financial constraints, such funding is doubtful. Jordan’s financial resources are strained by the thousands of refugees from the Syrian civil war fleeing into the country. In its current state, the Palestinian Authority is unlikely to receive grants or loans like this, and Israel certainly cannot pick up the tab—or even the loans—on its own.

Salt crystals surround trees and other plants in the shallow waters. The water’s 33.7 percent salinity can’t support life other than microbes.
Salt crystals surround trees and other plants in the shallow waters. The water’s 33.7 percent salinity can’t support life other than microbes.

Photos by Heidi Hansen/Moment Magazine

Earlier this year, the World Bank actively touted the plan and held several raucous public meetings at various locations in Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank to promote it. But now it seems to be pulling back, at least publicly. In a telephone conversation, Alex McPhail, project study manager for the World Bank, said that “the World Bank has decided not to comment on this project at this time.”

Whether it is the Red-Dead or some other solution, something has to be done. Surveying the deserted landscape, Eli Raz sighs, “Water should not be a reason for conflict—there isn’t enough to argue about, certainly not in the Dead Sea basin. Water should be the reason for smart, regional cooperation. There’s an expression from the army: ‘If we can’t hang onto each other, we’ll be hung next to each other.’ But no one seems to get it.”

This article originally appeared in Moment magazine’s September/October issue. Moment magazine is an independent bimonthly of politics, culture, and religion, co-founded by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel. For more go to momentmag.com.

Correction, Sept. 18, 2013: Due to a Moment production error, this article originally misstated the date of Masada. It was 73 C.E., not B.C.E.

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