Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

World Bank's Red Sea-Dead Sea Feasibility Study Ignores the Source of the Problem

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

World Bank's Red Sea-Dead Sea Feasibility Study Ignores the Source of the Problem

Article excerpt

AN EARLY December meeting among representatives of the Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli governments culminated in the launching of a World Bank-sponsored feasibility study of a "Red Sea-Dead-Sea "canal" (see August 2006 Washington Report, p. 33). The project is designed to funnel water from the Red Sea to the rapidly disappearing Dead Sea, the world's largest body of salt water. But despite the fact that the region is facing a massive water crisis, environmentalists have urged caution in greeting this project with open arms.

Although over 95 percent of Israel's access to the Jordan River-the source of Dead Sea waters-crosses through the West Bank, Palestinians today have no access to the river, or to the saltwater lake into which it flows. While Palestinian Authority representatives participated in the Amman meeting, in reality Palestinians have no control over the water resources around them which hold the key to a sustainable future. So much for "power-sharing."

Since prehistoric times the Dead Sea-a unique eco-system providing valuable minerals-has attracted settlers and visitors. The novelty of floating on the surface of its saltwater at the lowest point on Earth never fails to impress the tourist at modern Jordanian and Israeli hotels, and no doubt has been a source of wonder since ancient times.

Yet generations gone by would not have been floating at the same water's edge as we do today. This is because water levels are dropping by an average of a meter per year. Owing to severe over-pumping of the Jordan River, a sea whose levels remained stable for thousands of years has shrunk by a third. The fact that hotels built in recent years already are located a significant distance from the water's edge indicates just how fast this ecological disaster is progressing.

Indeed, as far back as the end of the 19th century, Zionist strategists considering the looming Dead Sea crisis suggested pumping waters from the Mediterranean coast. In the 1980s several new versions were put forward, but the plan as it currently stands was promoted in the 1990s, during the Oslo peace talks, by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

If the Red Sea-Dead Sea scheme is implemented, the multi-billion-dollar canal would replenish the waters of the Dead Sea with those of the Red Sea, several hundred kilometers further south.

As currently being considered by the newly launched study, the canal would function by utilizing the 600-meter difference in elevation between the heights of Faran in Jordan and the low point of the Dead Sea. Originating in the Israeli-held Gulf of Eilat, the channel of water would cross the border to the high point in Jordan, then flow down to the Dead Sea.

The broader project also includes the building of a desalination plant and a hydroelectric power station, providing essential resources for Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. If built, the desalination facility at the foot of the Dead Sea would be the world's largest, producing 800 million cubic liters a year, with excess water pumped directly into the sea.

The World Bank-sponsored study of the so-called "Peace Conduit" is expected to take two years, and the majority of the money for the study already has been raised from the U.S., Japan, France and the Netherlands, with talks ongoing with Sweden, Spain, Britain and Germany.

Words of warning, however, have emerged from various quarters, from scientists to environmental groups-notably Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), leading campaigners on the regional water crisis. …

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